Ave Maria Is Finding Its Groove
Through controversy and struggle, the university is discovering some balance in its faith, diversity and community issues as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Jim Towey has led Ave Maria University out of its fledgling stage and into a stable growing period.
Jim Towey likes four words to appear in the same sentence: “normal” and “Ave Maria University.”
He’s the president of what many outsiders might con- sider an utterly abnormal place: a university located in a remote corner of eastern Collier County, founded by a former billionaire, carved out of tomato fields, anchored by a 104-foot-high oratory, and surrounded by a custom-built town, designed to attract families who share the university’s traditional Catholicism (or at the least lead a family-focused, values-based, Leave It to Beaver kind of lifestyle).
Ave Maria University marks its 10th anniversary this academic year. As it enters its second decade, its president doesn’t want to bring the place entirely mainstream—that would counter its entire reason for being—but he does want to normalize it. Since arriving in 2011, Towey has worked to stabilize the university’s finances, encourage its public involvement, retain more students and grow its academics beyond the early focus on theology and philosophy and into a full spectrum of majors.
“You can be faithful and have a normal life,” Towey says. With his considerable clout in religious, academic and political circles, Towey stands as good a chance as anyone of solidifying the AMU brand. He served as Mother Teresa’s attorney for 12 years, directed George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, founded the nonprofit Aging with Dignity, held the presidency of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania.
“It had the feeling of being just this very homogenous, orthodox community,” Towey says of his and others’ first impressions. “As if this were the Catholic equivalent of the Hasidic Jews living in a clan in New York. It’s not.”
Towey has a complicated story to tell—a university staunchly committed to the gospel but wishing to welcome all; a place that likes “normal” but was born in controversy; a campus that wants to be part of Southwest Florida’s fabric but lingers on its fringes.
This month, Ave Maria University holds its Scholarship Gala recognizing its milestone year and honoring supporter and Collier arts matron Myra Janco Daniels, who is helping AMU grow its arts program. It’s an apt time to revisit the history of one of Southwest Florida’s most unusual stories and to look at where Towey, his staff and AMU students want to see their institution go.
The creator of Ave Maria University is a slight man, soft-spoken, a little hard of hearing, with a devil-may-care attitude toward what anyone else might think of his decisions or head- line-generating comments.
Tom Monaghan’s mother had turned him and his brother over to the care of the church following the death of his father. He was 6. The orphanage was an austere place, run with military-like precision and long hours devoted to work and prayer. One kind nun made life tolerable and showed Monaghan the beauty of the faith, according to a New Yorker profile.
Monaghan made it through childhood, served a stint in the Marines and for a time dreamed of becoming an architect. Instead, in 1959, he and his brother Jim bought a pizza shop in Ypsilanti, Mich. Jim sold his share soon after, and Monaghan changed the name to “Domino’s,” eventually making a for- tune and living the high life (including the purchase of the Detroit Tigers).
Then he did an about-face.
“I came into the world penniless and as a Catholic Christian, I knew I could not take any of it with me, so it has long been my desire to use the material resources I have been blessed with to help others in the most meaningful ways possible,” Monaghan wrote to Bill and Melinda Gates in signing their “Giving Pledge,” a commitment to donate at least half his fortune. He has given away far more than that.
A university, Monaghan decided, would allow him to do the most good. “By (building) a university, I could bring in people from all over the country and all over the world, and then they could go back to their communities and make a real difference.”
Catholic higher education, Monaghan believes, has lost its faith and academic rigor.
Students say their school preserves both.
“They’re hard,” freshman Libby Welsh says of her classes. Friends from her native Ohio grumble about work- loads at their respective schools, but “I have a hard time believing it’s harder than here,” she says.
“There are a lot of Catholic colleges around the country, but this is one of the few colleges that is not ashamed of its Catholic beliefs and letting everybody know,” says Chris Hahn, a transfer student from Illinois.
Faith teachings are woven into policies and practices: single-sex dorms, lights-on requirements in common rooms (students call them “chastity lights”), daily Mass (encouraged for Catholics, but not required), rules about bathing attire (often broken), lots of theology classes, nightly “Rosary Walks” in which students stroll the campus reciting prayers. Professors don’t limit lectures to Catholic worldviews, students say, but religious references might pop up at any time, like they did in a Shakespeare class one afternoon during which students (un- prompted) drew comparisons between the bard and the Bible.
“Most Catholic schools are so bad from a spiritual standpoint you are al- most better off going to a non-Catholic school than a Catholic school as far as your faith goes,” Monaghan says.
He thinks a lay board, like Ave Maria’s, can cultivate a more religious organization than a religious order can. And he’s not afraid to say so.
“They should be warned,” Monaghan says of parents who expect the Catholic schools they send their children to will be as traditional as the ones they attended. “It’s coming out more and more all the time. I don’t know why I should be worried about alienating them (church leaders).”
Ave Maria, it should be noted, falls in the jurisdiction of Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, who accepted Ave Maria as a Catholic university in 2011 and oversees its spiritual life.
“For potential students and their parents, it is important to know that the university’s fidelity to the Catholic Church is overseen by a Catholic bishop,” Dewane says.
Ave Maria was born in the late 1990s in Michigan as a small liberal arts college and law school. Monaghan planned to stay in Michigan, but the town of Ann Arbor, his intended expansion site, denied his zoning requests. Monaghan did not want to operate a school for a couple of hundred students; his vision was much broader.
Broad, like the undeveloped expanses of eastern Collier County. Monaghan met executives from the Barron Collier Co., who made him an irresistible deal: They’d give him land for the university and make him a partner in their plan to develop a town surrounding it. Monaghan quickly agreed, pledging his share of profits to the university. The faculty in Michigan balked. Lawsuits related to the move followed. Monaghan moved everyone to a temporary campus in North Naples. The law school (which still remains in North Naples) saw its exam scores plummet before a gradual inching up.
On paper, at least, it looked like the nation’s first Catholic university in 40 years would have a most unusual and flush endowment, and a sprawling tableau on which Monaghan could paint his legacy.
That was before the economic crash.
“As far as getting approvals, the county couldn’t have been better,” Monaghan says. “They basically pulled out all the stops and put it on the fast track. The problem was our timing was terrible. By the time we designed the campus and got the estimates and got the bids, the estimates doubled in three years’ time.”
Southwest Florida had just been hit with a spate of hurricanes, affecting codes, insurance costs and the like. Monaghan scaled back his plans.
“I didn’t want to run out of money before we got started,” he says.
Meanwhile, his development partners started building neighborhoods, parks, golf courses, an Italian-inspired town square.
“As soon as we signed the contracts to build the buildings, the housing crash comes,” Monaghan continues. “We had sold a lot of homes in the beginning and then (buyers) couldn’t come up with financing. It was the perfect storm.”
Some faculty members fretted, questioning not only external economic forces but also internal decisions that might have been worsening the situation.
In a 2009 memo, former AMU the- ology professor Dr. Matthew Levering expressed concerns about the university recruiting students when it stood on such financially shaky grounds: “If we fail in due diligence, or if we know now that there is a problem but bring them in anyway, then we are failing not only in financial stewardship but also spiritually as regards to love of neighbor and truth-telling to these young people and their families.”
Then there was the Fessio affair.
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, AMU provost, former student of Pope Benedict, founder of Ignatius Press, was dis- missed in March 2007, rehired after student protests and fired again in 2009, allegedly because he had questioned the university’s financial standing.
In a widely circulated memo, Fessio wrote:
“(Academic Vice President Jack Sites) said that the reason for my dismissal stemmed from a conversation I had in November of 2008 with Jack Donahue, then chairman of the board of AMU.
At that time I felt it an obligation to speak to the board chairman before the upcoming board meeting, to make sure he was aware of the urgency of the university’s financial situation. After I had informed him, using projections based on publicly available documents and statements, he asked me what I thought was the solution. I told him that there were policies being followed that were at the root of the problem, that the present administration was irrevocably wedded to those policies, and that without a change of administration the university was at great risk.”
There may have been even more afoot. Bloggers suggested Fessio had upheld Catholic orthodoxy and that Monaghan and former AMU President Nick Healy had promoted a more charismatic version of the faith. Fessio, in his memo, says the firing was explained only as “irreconcilable administrative differences.”
The actions sparked a firestorm in the press, both mainstream and faith- based, and lit up the blogosphere.
“Dr. Fessio was the glue of campus life,” Roger McCaffrey, former publisher of Latin Mass Magazine and Sursum Corda, told columnist Brian Mershon of Renew America. “He is a zealous and apostolic priest, and partly for that reason, plus his long friendship with Pope Benedict, he was the key to national fundraising and recruitment.”
Monaghan declined to speak about Fessio’s dismissal as it was a personnel matter.
Black-eyed, the university marched on.
A few years post-economic crash and post-Fessio, Jim Towey sits in his office atop the student union, where a picture window overlooks the vast expanse of Ave Maria—the academic building, the oratory, the town square, the undeveloped land that stretches to the horizon.
“As you expect, when you start a university from scratch on this scale, there are some things you will get 100 percent right, some things you will get 80 percent, some things that need tweaking and some things that you need to start over,” Towey says. “There was a mixture of things here. Tom did a good job building the foundation, but the reality is it was operating at a $10 million deficit that Tom was bailing out with annual payments.”
Monaghan’s formal commitment to the university’s budget ends this year, some $400 million later.
Towey’s first act was a CEO’s most dreaded: He cut 30 positions, 10 through attrition, another 20 through pink slips. None were faculty members. He sold off AMU’s Nicaraguan campus, a money-losing venture that Monaghan admits he wishes he’d “never been talked into.”
“We weren’t in a danger of imminent closure, but it would have been breathing down our backs,” Towey says.
Then, the president turned to the university’s debts, held by banks that required annual letters of credit each year. Interest rates were variable, and AMU had no bond rating, limiting its ability to refinance. Towey spent “the better part of my waking hours for a year” shoring up finances and applying to Standard & Poor’s. The final application fills an estimated 100 file folders and stretches the length of two 6-foot folding tables.
“By the hard work of everyone here and by the grace of God, we eked out the BBB-investment-grade bond rating,” Towey says. “I think the banks were the most surprised of all. I don’t think they thought we could do this.”
AMU, for the first time, is operating in the black. Kevin Joyce, a former Illinois state representative who now serves as AMU’s development director, says the university pulled in $12 million in donations last year. Towey, with his sizable Rolodex, is expected to attract even more support. And Monaghan says housing is rebounding, causing new optimism among his development partners, and possibly the source of revenue he’d expected when he conceived the university and town.
“Just in time,” Monaghan says of the financial stability. “I’m pretty well depleted.”
Just as the financial foundation needed shoring up, so too did the official imprimatur from the church to be officially Catholic. During the initial phase of its Florida tenure, the church and the diocese had a tenuous relationship. It wasn’t until Oct. 7, 2011—two days before Towey’s inauguration and seven years after Ave Maria opened in Florida—that De- wane officially recognized it as a Catholic institution.
The bishop waited a year after his installation to take Ave Maria’s oratory into the diocese’s fold, allowing all sacraments to be performed there. Many questions surrounded the oratory’s acceptance: Who’s in charge? Handles finances? Calls the shots? Now the oratory falls under the directorship of diocesan priests.
Dewane offered this about Monaghan and his vision: “Tom Monaghan should be commended for his forthright commitment to Catholic education and his Catholic faith. His leadership and vision brought the monumental undertaking of building a Catholic university to Southwest Florida to where it stands today.”
Ave Maria’s campus is characterized by Monaghan’s beloved Frank Lloyd Wright-style architecture, perfectly manicured lawns, stretches of undeveloped land—and quiet. With an enrollment of 891 undergraduates, there aren’t yet enough people to create the nonstop bustle that defines other schools.
A third of the dorms are vacant, and, until recently, AMU suffered a retention issue. One year, about 100 out of 300 returning students left. For some, AMU was simply a bad fit—a realization that strikes first-year students at any college—but others struggled with the academic requirements, says Towey, who has successfully slowed the exodus. The retention rate is now about 84 percent, he says. A few students, however, quietly worry about standards easing; Ave students, it turns out, have come here to work.
A recruitment effort has pushed enrollment up steadily for the past three years. Towey has cut tuition, emphasized marketing and hopes to eventually grow to 4,000. The university has drawn students from 48 states and 18 countries, a feat considering its youth, its recent accreditation (earned just three years ago)—and its share of unfavorable press.
With some 2 million students in U.S. Catholic schools and another 80,000 to 100,000 studying at home, one has to wonder whether Ave might have grown enrollment more quickly if it weren’t for public relations blunders.
There were Monaghan’s comments about wanting to ban contraceptives and pornography in Ave town, raising the hackles of the American Civil Liberties Union. A prohibition, unsurprisingly, never took place.
The university, with the diocese’s support, is suing the Obama administration over parts of the new health care law requiring birth control be offered free of charge as part of insurance plans. This is the second such lawsuit the school has filed. But some say there have been some mixed messages being sent with regards to the school’s stance on reproductive rights.
There was the case of Catholic reporter and Ave Maria resident Marielena Montesino de Stuart, who was banned from a press conference announcing a donation by philanthropist Tom Golisano. Golisano supports abortion rights, according to Stuart, who went on to lambast the university for accepting the money and for curtailing her journalistic rights. “As citizens of this great nation, we never expected we would be lured into a town where our freedom of movement and our rights could be at risk,” she wrote.
An order of nuns got kicked off cam- pus for alleged “inappropriate behavior” between a sister and a student; an assistant coach got arrested for masturbating in his car off campus.
The Naples Daily News published a three-part series in 2009 shedding light on Barron Collier Co.’s unusual control over the town’s governance and taxation; the Miami New Times in 2011 wrote a highly critical piece featuring Stuart’s “nightmare” and an unflattering photo illustration of a young couple grinning psychotically.
That’s not the reality of AMU, students and staff insist.
“It’s just a great environment to be in every day,” says Shawn Summe, the athletic director, who worked at several other small colleges before joining Ave Maria. “You’ve heard all the rumors and everything about it, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. ... I think people are waiting for you to make a mistake. They’ll jump on it.”
Towey doesn’t shirk the past, but he’s eager to tell the rest of Ave Maria’s story.
“I think there was a fair amount of confusion about what this university was going to be,” Towey says, reflecting on the years prior to his arrival. “And being physically remote, people were unusually susceptible to anecdote. And then there was turbulence at takeoff. You had a provost hired and fired and re-fired, and there was a marrying of stories about the university and the town as if they were un-separable. Well, the town isn’t the university.
“Things are settling down. The community has come out here. They’ve seen the campus is filled with bright, energetic, normal kids. Fifteen percent of our students aren’t Catholic, and we love that. We love diversity here on campus. We just feel if students are surrounded by people who look like them and vote like them and think like them they’re not going to grow a lot.”
As for Monaghan, well, he could not care less what outsiders think of his comments, his college or his vision.
“I didn’t feel any heat. If we upset people, it’s only people who wouldn’t want to come to the school or donate to it,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets there.”
If anyone is going to normalize Ave Maria, it’s the students.
Clustered around a dining hall table one afternoon last semester, a group of them talked about life on campus, including hard-won successes on the athletic Walks. The prayer sessions draw some 10 to 15 people on weeknights and at least fields, compassionate professors and faith-based activities like the nightly Rosary double that on Fridays, prompting the obvious question: Does Rosary Walk replace Happy Hour? The students burst out laughing.
It’s an “Irish Catholic” campus, one explained. The most popular spot in the community is the Queen Mary pub, located in the town square. Students meet up with each other—and their professors—on weekend nights, cultivating a family-like community difficult to find at larger schools.
“That’s one of the things I really like about Ave. You have the Catholic faith in its fullness, but it’s not separated from reality,” explains Mitch Marcello, a junior.
Is it a mind-controlling cult? Hardly, students say.
“They don’t force it on you,” says Jorge Thomas, a sophomore recruited to AMU to play basketball. “I’m Protestant, but we all believe in the same god. They’re not trying to lure you into their religion.”
Is there a dress code? High-collared shirts and shapeless slacks, perhaps?
Senior Annie Clarke, an admissions tour guide, gets that question all the time.
It’s Florida, she tells her guests. Shorts and tanks are the norm. Cover up much more, and you’re going to melt.
The campus has eased up in the last few years, she says. Dorm visitation policies have relaxed. Mealtime prayers, once said in unison in the dining halls, are now uttered outside, in deference to the growing non-Catholic population. Hard-core Catholics don’t like the changes, but Clarke appreciates efforts to balance Catholic values while appealing to a broader base. Diversity is important, she says. “It just makes the school more normal.”
Is campus life perfect? No. Some students wish for a less remote place, some think the administration is still too heavy-handed, some worry about underclassmen having it too easy.
On a sweaty October afternoon, the Ave Maria Gyrenes played their first football game on their own field rather than trekking 10 miles north to Palmetto Ridge High School.
“I saw my microeconomics teacher rush the field when we won,” says football player Edgar Vos. “And the student turnout for that game was amazing. It helps us connect a little closer to student life.”
That’s the picture the Ave Maria community wants the wider world to see: students and staff growing campus traditions and moving into the com- munity in new ways—through sports, the arts and volunteerism.
Towey last October announced the creation of The Mother Teresa Project, a special effort sanctioned by the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta funded with a $500,000 grant to sup- port education and awareness efforts about the late nun’s work; increased volunteerism in Immokalee, Calcutta and Port-au-Prince; and research and advocacy on marriage, family and the sanctity of life, issues of critical importance to Mother Teresa.
“Our students are right on the stoop of a community where we have a lot to learn from them, and they have a lot to learn from us,” Towey says. “We want to build a thoroughfare of service to Immokalee so you don’t graduate from here unless you have spent some time in Immokalee. Mother Teresa really teaches us to put our faith into action.”
Music chairman Tim McDonnell and Shakespeare professor Travis Curtright, meanwhile, use the arts to send the students out into the com- munity—or invite the community to campus. Chorale singers appear at places like Artis—Naples; Curtright hopes to grow his campus productions into regional Shakespeare festivals.
“Ave Maria is a place where you are free to dream, and the best aspect is seeing a lot of those dreams come true,” Curtright says.