Florida vs. Michigan: Ave Maria law school not a game to them

Students, faculty and board of governors issue biting statements condemning decision to move school 1,400 miles away

When Ave Maria School of Law officials and supporters announced last week at a press conference that the Michigan-based school will relocate to Southwest Florida, it was done with an air of excitement and achievement.

But 1,400 miles away at the current law school, the vibe was different.

Moments before Tuesday’s announcement, one tenured professor submitted a five-page letter of resignation. In the hours that followed, law school professors, alumni and students issued biting statements condemning the move.

Some professors, tired of keeping quiet, announced they were made to feel disposable, and were consistently threatened and intimidated by school officials.

But what troubled the Michigan dissenters the most was that no one seemed to care what they had to say.

“A school is not a pizza parlor,” Ave Maria law professor Stephen Safranek said. “This is a community of scholars first, that attracts students.

“That’s what we have here in Ann Arbor, a community. You can’t just will it to another place.”

Eugene Milhizer, associate dean of Ave Maria School of Law, responded to dissenters’ fury Friday, saying he understands their concerns and desire to stay in Michigan.

“I know some people have been upset, and that’s certainly not surprising,” he said. “This is a major decision, and people have passionate opinions when they care about a school.

“Will some of the staff leave and some not? Sure. Fortunately, we have some time to plan, and to do this in a sensitive way.”

Officials said they hope to open the law school in the developing town of Ave Maria, east of Naples, in 2009.

Although Naples-based Ave Maria University and the law school have no official ties, they do share some common Board of Governors members, including Ave Maria University Chancellor Tom Monaghan.

Law school professor Kevin Lee announced his resignation Tuesday. Lee said the resignation wasn’t directly in response to the planned move, but that the relocation was one of the last straws for him at Ave Maria.

In his five-page resignation letter, Lee said he felt there was an environment of distrust and suspicion among the faculty in Ann Arbor. Lee also said he felt his job would be jeopardized if he refused to support the agenda set forth by the administration.

“We were told that we can be easily replaced,” Lee said. “I think if you want to move the school, the administration knows that jobs at law schools are treasured, and if they tell people their jobs are threatened, they would cooperate.

“My impression is that (administrators) were suspicious that the faculty was trying to take over the law school.”

“There is no regard for tenure for the faculty by Tom Monaghan. For him, tenure is a problem,” Safranek added. “They’re going to be starting over” in Florida.

Lee said the biggest problem developing at Ave Maria is a shift away from its mission of community and academics.

“The center of our meaning was academic,” he said. “But if the center of our meaning shifts to great proclamations from powerful people, then we’re way off.

“So much of the mission will be damaged in the move.”

Lee accepted a position as a law professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., beginning in August. He will honor his existing contract in Ann Arbor until then.

Members of the Ave Maria School of Law Student Bar Association were even more candid about their position against the move and members of the Board of Governors, who decided on the relocation.

Bar Association Vice President Andrew Doran said he is dubious, because of the secrecy of the decision. Doran said students met with administrators recently, and received no answers from the board.

“We asked how board members voted, and who the board members were, and we were told everything was confidential,” Doran said. “We don’t even know who these people are.”

Doran said students overwhelmingly opposed the move to Florida when it was discussed last year. Now, he said, they seem to have accepted it as inevitable.

“There was a large and concerted effort last spring to make our objections known, and, in essence, we received no response,” Doran said. “The only thing standing in the way of Mr. Monaghan getting everything he wants is (American Bar Association) approval.

“But it seems money always wins.”

- - -

By speaking of the move as a done deal, they may be getting ahead of themselves.

The law school received accreditation in 2005. Administrators will need to petition the American Bar Association for a transfer of accreditation.

Lee said officials from the American Bar Association are planning to visit the law school next month to investigate what he would only refer to as “governance issues.” The investigation could postpone or even strike the move, Doran said.

“It’s nice to talk about going to Florida, but if they pick up and go to Florida without accreditation, there will be some serious problems,” Doran said.

The Board of Governors commissioned a feasibility study last March to examine the possibility of a move to Florida. In October, professor Joseph Falvey was asked to give a report outlining the school’s financial situation if funds from the Ave Maria Foundation, consisting mostly of donations made by Monaghan, aren’t available to support the law school.

In a letter to the Ave Maria School of Law community, Monaghan wrote, “It should be noted that most of the input provided (in Falvey’s report) was not responsive to the information requested.

“Further, to the limited extent that the input addressed relevant matters, the Board concluded that many of the proposals and recommendations (for future funding) were based on unrealistic assumptions and were not supportable or persuasive.”

Faculty, students and alumni criticized the letter from Monaghan, saying the Falvey report, as it has come to be known, was never taken seriously.

Likewise, dissenters said, opinions expressed in opposition to the move were largely overlooked or dismissed.

“We were able to sound off about things, but nobody took us seriously,” Doran said. “I get the sense that (the board) was always going to do whatever the chairman (Monaghan) wanted.”

Milhizer, who said he isn’t a member of the Board of Governors and isn’t privy to details of their conversations, disagreed, saying all groups had ample opportunities to voice their opinions about the move.

“I understand there were people dissatisfied with the way the process was done, but there were plenty of opportunities for input,” he said. “I know that their opinions were brought to the board’s attention, and I can’t imagine they made a decision without considering those opinions.”

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The biggest fear expressed by students and faculty is the unknown. The developing town of Ave Maria, scheduled to open to residents and students this fall, may not succeed in attracting residents or students, dissenters said.

“I’ve got nothing against any place in the world, and I’m sure every place has its own charm,” Safranek said. “But I find it difficult to believe that the edge of Corkscrew swamp has that much charm.”

Doran said he worries about the future of the school and its students. The school, he said, will be secluded in many ways from the secular world, giving students a skewed and unrealistic view of the world beyond college.

“We’re very concerned with a Catholic law school being so disengaged with the world,” Doran said. “I don’t want to be part of a utopia.”

Doran also said it may be difficult for students to find work upon graduation.

“There won’t be a public defenders’ office or prosecutors’ officer in Ave Maria, at least not for a while,” he said. “Where will we go to work?

“This is a big concern.”

Milhizer said the Board of Governors felt confident students will thrive in Southwest Florida.

“It was expressed to me that this move will put us in a better place to carry out our vision,” he said. “This will put us in a vibrant, growing Catholic community, and will help us to achieve future growth.”

Doran said the school may be hurt financially if the opinions of alumni aren’t taken into consideration. Alumni who feel they have been ignored aren’t likely to donate to the institution in the future, which would be a crushing blow to the school’s fundraising efforts, he said.

“What if they build this town and nobody comes? There are so many variables with this that haven’t been looked at, that should be considered before this move,” Doran said. “If things were working well here, I don’t know why they felt the need to change that.

“To have people gambling with your future like this is very unsettling for students.”

© 2007 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 6

bbyrone46 writes:

Mr. Monaghan, his board of governors and their administrative staff will be very comfortable in Collier County. This new gang will fit right in. As for the students being able to get work upon graduation, that may present a problem. Attorneys not born here or not invested with long time support of local politicos find it very difficult to succeed in this county. All in all, if the school is dependent upon one benefactor that brings work and money to our county they will receive full support from our government. Strong ruthless self-serving men and women thrive here. Just like they do in most third world countrys. We will also get plenty of new fast food pizza joints for our strip malls.

Your_Name_Here writes:

“I’ve got nothing against any place in the world, and I’m sure every place has its own charm,” Safranek said. “But I find it difficult to believe that the edge of Corkscrew swamp has that much charm.”

Hey, dump on Monaghan all you want, but don't dump on Corkscrew Swamp. By doing so you betray your essential ignorance of one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

naplesregular writes:

bbyrone - you are one cynical dude and I really feel for you and what you call your life. Please spend the rest of your days figuring out how to lead a more fulfilling existence that you can be proud of. Oh yeah, MOVE! You obviously are not happy here in SW Florida. Please do not continue to make yourself so unhappy. Life is much too short.

May I suggest Anchorage?

kysaberinger writes:

What is the combined track record of Tom Monaghan and Fr. Fessio in higher education? - closure of 4 promising colleges in the last 5 years. AMU has been in existence since 2002, with millions spent, and still does not even have full accreditation; they've not even submitted an application to the region's accreditor. I'm told that 30% of AMU's students left the past year. Three department chairs have resigned, along with many other faculty. Bravo to Naples News for *finally* publishing something besides Monaghan PR releases; the community deserves better. Unfortunately, the area will have to find-out about Monaghan the hard way, as the meltdown at AMU is already beginning. See http://www.Avewatch.org for yourself.

JohhnyB writes:

No one asked me if I wanted a new city in the middle of the glades way past any urban boundary populated by a bunch of religious fanatics. Lets back the MI students and profs and start a KEEP AVM IN MICHIGAN PROTEST!

billster0756 writes:

Bizarre anonymous attacks show up on the feedback areas in this paper...they seem disjointed from the actual community...hmm, I wonder where they're coming from[?]

Full accreditation for the very prestigeous law school took five years, and the Wall Street Journal wrote that was unusually quick. The WSJ also noted that the bar pass percentage rate was higher than prestigeous U of Michigan! Smart kids attend the law school, and smart professors (such as Robert Bork) instruct.

AMU is right on track. A 60% increase in enrollment is expected.

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