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Now It’s Time to Grow 

At the helm: New Ave Maria University President and CEO James Towey plans to expand upon the university’s original vision.

James Towey has certainly been an impact player in major arenas. In politics, he was an assistant to George W. Bush and served as his "Faith Czar" for charitable initiatives. In service to humanity, he worked for years with Mother Teresa as a volunteer and her attorney. In education, he achieved enrollment and fund-raising records as president of St. Vincent College. He thus comes well-prepared to follow in the large footsteps of Tom Monaghan as CEO of Ave Maria University, as well as AMU’s new president. On his very first day on the job, he sat down with us to discuss his plans for the university and what the community and Ave Maria can expect from each other.

Q: Why did you decide to take the job?

Initially I wasn’t interested. They did ask me to come down and speak, and when I came to the campus, I was unprepared for what I saw. Here you have this university that’s built for the glory of God and the good of these students. I just thought, ‘Maybe I should talk more to Michael Timmis [board chairman].’ I’d say the other person besides Tom [Monaghan] who was absolutely pivotal in my discernment was Jack Donahue [board of trustees member]. So adding that all together, and with a lot of prayer, we felt like this was something that we should do.

Q: Can you share any personal insights into Mother Teresa?

I met her the week she turned 75, so I knew her the last 12 years of her life. The beauty of Mother Teresa was her embrace of her humanity. Mother loved poetry, she loved music, she loved to laugh [and] she loved her nuns. Most of my memories are of being with Mother when she was around people and seeing her delight in life.

One morning in Mexico, I was at mass with her. When people knew that she was in Tijuana, there would just be this throng of people outside her convent. When mass was over, I had a list of errands to go run for her. And so, I was going to get in the little blue pick-up truck and take off across the border into the U.S. to get medicines, to get this, to get that. And as I’m pulling out, I see Mother come out the front door, a sister waving at me and, of course, all of this buzz of activity when people saw Mother. So, I thought, ‘What does she want? Did I forget something?’ So, I park the truck and run over there to Mother. She didn’t leave the steps of the house, but she stood right there and she hands me a peanut butter sandwich and a banana. She had this incredible love of God, but this is how she lived it, as a mother.

Q: You were called on by George W. Bush to be his so-called "Faith Czar." What did that entail?

President Bush really believed that so many of the social needs have spiritual roots. His vision of compassionate conservatism appealed to me as a pro-life Democrat. To me, the faith-based initiative was an opportunity to help him with that vision. I had a senior staff meeting every morning in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. The pressure there was if you made a mistake, it was in the Washington Post the next day because they were gunning for the Faith Based Initiative. I was very happy with what we did in four-and-a-half years. I felt like we honored the Constitution, and we advanced the Faith Based Initiative to the point where President Obama continued it. Governors opened up 36 faith-based offices in the United States.

Q: What are your plans to develop Ave Maria’s relationship with its local community?

We have to embrace the good fortune that Ave Maria has to be so close to Naples because there are so many resources here. People often think of financial resources and it’s true, but you’ve got the culture and the arts. You have retired business people in the community who have so much experience and so much that they can contribute. So, we’re going to swing open the doors at Ave Maria and try to
welcome in their expertise and their involvement.

Q: With your influence, what should the community expect from Ave Maria? What do you hope to receive from the community?

They should expect what you would want to see at a university: a vibrant, intellectual and moral dialogue where we are educating students who can go out and make a living for themselves and a difference in the world. I think they should expect us to be a viable business entity and a reliable collaborator within the academic community here. They should expect excellent research from our faculty. This is what universities do.

What we would hope to see is an embrace of the university’s role and importance. We would hope to see them come out to be part of our life, and also, for those individuals who can, help enrich us not only financially but with their own life, history and wisdom.

Q: What are your top three priorities for Ave Maria?

Top priority is to maintain the vision of Tom Monaghan: to have a first-class Catholic liberal arts university. That we don’t lose our bearing, but also that we’re very open to the outside world. If you truly are rooted, then that openness is a deeper adventure in your own faith journey. We don’t want our students just studying in a Catholic bubble, and we want to invite students who maybe aren’t Catholic or far along in their spiritual journey.

My job is to say, ‘OK, the startup is over, buildings are in place, the faculty’s hired. Now, it’s time to develop it and grow,’ so the second piece is just communicating that message. I think there are some misunderstandings about Ave Maria, and part of it is just owed to the natural turbulence at take-off. Marketing [is] very important in how we communicate to the world what is happening today.

Third is the transition from startup to going concern, to really synchronize expenses and revenues. Tom has done his part, but now it’s my job to transition to self-sufficiency. I’d like to do that within three years. We’ll need to raise money, we’ll need to grow the enrollment; we’ll need to right-size the organization. I’m expecting that we’ll be, in this coming budget, cutting millions of dollars in spending and, if necessary, eliminating positions so that we are moving in the direction of self-sufficiency.

—Denise Cobb is the chairperson of Gulfshore Life’s Community Advisory Board.

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