August 19, 2006
COMMENTARY: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
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Domino's Illuminatio Mea
By NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
August 19, 2006; Page A10
NEW YORK -- "To get as many people into heaven as possible." That is Tom Monaghan's (arguably immodest) goal. I sat down last week with Mr. Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, to find out how he planned to accomplish it. Since selling his delivery empire in 1998 for an estimated $1 billion, he has given over his life to philanthropy.
A trim man with a soft voice, he explains his "philosophy of giving."
"So how do you get people into heaven?" Mr. Monaghan asks, rhetorically. "Help the Catholic Church. And what's the best way of doing that? Higher education." This kind of talk makes a lot of people -- even a lot of Catholics -- uncomfortable. Whether it's the notion that one person can steer another's ultimate fate, or that temporal education should be used explicitly for such a purpose, Mr. Monaghan's philosophy -- and his giving -- have brought him a lot of attention.
The pizza magnate grew up in an orphanage in Jackson, Mich., and he credits the nuns of the St. Joseph Home for Boys with inspiring his devotion to Catholicism. He even went to seminary briefly before joining the Marine Corps. In 1959, he returned to Michigan,
attending the University of Michigan. He never graduated, but during his time there he and his brother bought a small pizza store called DomiNick's in Ypsilanti. (He eventually gave his brother a VW Beetle in return for his share of the company.)
Over the years, Mr. Monaghan has indulged in his share of vanity projects -- such as purchasing the Detroit Tigers. But he also consistently gave to the church. Well, not directly. Rather than simply supporting existing institutions, he has made a habit of starting his own. He began with two Catholic elementary schools in the Ann Arbor area in the late '90s, and he thinks these schools are very effective at getting people to heaven. "You give kids the faith and they'll keep it for life." But "the problem is you can only build so many grade schools and you're out of money." On the other hand, he continues, "if I can train a principal I can impact a whole school. I can do that at a university. I can train thousands of school administrators, thousands of catechism teachers, provide thousands of vocations to the priesthood and religious life."
* * *
Thus was born the idea for the Ave Maria University. But there are 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S., so why yet another? Even kids from strong Catholic families, Mr. Monaghan argues, tend to lose their faith when they go to college, and Catholic schools may be worse, here, than secular ones. He cites data from a UCLA survey showing that after attending a Catholic college for four years, Catholic students tended to be more approving of abortion, gay marriage and premarital sex and spent less time praying than when they entered.
Mr. Monaghan began his university project with a liberal arts college in Ypsilanti in 1998. There has been a steep learning curve. But he says he's been "reading the Chronicle of Higher Education cover to cover." "Once I realized I was going to be in the pizza business, I learned everything I could learn about the pizza business. I'm a hound for knowledge about the area I'm in."
The idea of the university was "to have a combination of the highest academic standards and the highest spiritual standards in one school." It would, he hoped, "prepare someone not only for this world but the next world." This is the kind of language more generally associated with Protestant fundamentalists.
But Mr. Monaghan is not the first person to start a new Catholic school with this idea in mind. In the past 25 years, a number of more traditional colleges, including Christendom in Virginia and Magdalen in New Hampshire, were founded for similar reasons. And unlike many of the older Catholic schools (e.g., Notre Dame) these are run by laypeople, not by religious orders.
Mr. Monaghan thinks the more nettlesome liberal trends in Catholic theology and behavior have started to turn around, and he credits the revelations about sexual abuse by priests with this development: "It cleaned up the seminaries and some of the hierarchy. I thought the press did a great service to the Catholic Church -- even though that wasn't their intention."
The next phase of Mr. Monaghan's pedagogical crusade began in 2000, when the Ave Maria School of Law opened its doors in Ann Arbor. Big-time conservative Catholics signed up. Clarence Thomas gave a lecture. Robert Bork co-taught a class. Princeton professor Robert George joined the board; so did Henry Hyde and Cardinal O'Connor.
Everyone involved, particularly the students and faculty, was vetted with care. They had to buy into the mission: "a legal education in fidelity to the Catholic Faith as expressed through Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church." Mr. Monaghan estimates that he has put $69 million into the law school and he has seen some outstanding results. The first class had the highest bar passage rate in the state, and the school earned full ABA accreditation in the shortest possible time.
Mr. Monaghan's real dream was to build a whole university on Domino's Farms, the 270 acres of land he owns in Ann Arbor. In 2002, though, the town decided it would not change zoning laws to allow this. From his vocal support of pro-life causes to his proposal to build a 250-foot crucifix right off a major highway in town, Mr. Monaghan has not always been well-received by the Cambridge of the Midwest. So he moved on. In the fall of 2002, he struck a deal to build his 5,000-student university on 900 acres of land in Immokalee, Fla., just east of Naples. With an additional $50 million investment from Mr. Monaghan, there would also be built an entire conurbation -- called Ave Maria Town.
Set to open in the fall of 2007, Ave Maria Town will be unincorporated and governed by county officials. There are 8,000 homes scheduled to be built, and Mr. Monaghan already has one (though he laments that his wife refuses to live there full time).
The town's Web site describes the community as one where "students and faculty of a new, major university will mix with young families and retirees in a real hometown, where they can live, work and play in a beautiful and safe neighborhood." Just how safe remains to be seen. Mr. Monaghan announced in 2004 that "you won't be able to buy a Playboy or Hustler magazine in Ave Maria Town. We're going to control the cable television that comes in the area. There is not going to be any pornographic television in Ave Maria Town. If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won't be able to get that in Ave Maria Town."
The ACLU threatened a lawsuit, and Mr. Monaghan backed down. He tells me he consulted his lawyers and realized "that some of the things I'm talking about we may not be able to prevent. We never ever intended to break the law." (But Mr. Monaghan seems to tailor his message to his audience. In June, he told a Catholic gathering in Denver that "our plan is that no adult material will appear on the town's cable system and the pharmacy will not sell contraceptives.")
Ave Maria University, which will move to its permanent home in the town next year, now has about 400 students. About a third of the 150 men are contemplating priesthood. Ultimately Mr. Monaghan would like the school to produce 10% of the country's clergy -- a very committed 10%, too. "I was in seminary," he says. "I knew what seminarians were like; they were there because of their mother . . . because of the prestige." But Mr. Monaghan admonishes, "That's the wrong reason to become a priest. They ought to be willing to make sacrifices. Just like I'm making sacrifices doing what I'm doing."
Some law school faculty have fought the move away from Ann Arbor, saying that the school is not just a plaything that Mr. Monaghan can move at will. He says he is often accused of being "too much driven by numbers, that I'm a hard-nosed, insensitive, results-oriented person." But he adds that the people who know him tell him, "You're not that way."
The Ave Maria Foundation is responsible for the bulk of the school's revenue and Mr. Monaghan is head of the foundation. "I'm in favor of the law school moving to Florida, and I think it would be a good thing for the university to have a law school on its campus." He adds, as if to counter the charge of capriciousness: "If I vote for the law school to move to Florida, it's because I believe the law school is better off in Florida."
The law school faculty, students and alumni disagree. Most of them are unhappy with the process by which the board has undertaken the decision, such as commissioning a second feasibility study when the first one suggested moving was a bad idea. But mostly the students, faculty and alums just don't want the school to go South. They like Ann Arbor, and being surrounded by people of all stripes. One professor, Stephen Safranek, echoed the sentiments of faculty members: "We have a very robust notion of Catholicism and we're out to show its value not only for Catholics, but society in general.
Having the law school in Ann Arbor captures what we're all about."
Mr. Monaghan decries the "campaign by faculty members to make Ave Maria Town out to be some kind of theocracy." He also says he is "tapped out" financially, and will soon stop giving money to the law school. The only way it would have access to his fortune would be to go to Florida, where it would be entitled to a portion of the profits that the university gets from the sale of the land.
The school's board assured me (as well as the ABA accreditors) that the school could still survive without Mr. Monaghan's contributions ($2 million a year). When I ask him about this, he shrugs, and notes skeptically, "If they feel that they can raise the money elsewhere, I'll take them for their word."
The battles between Mr. Monaghan and the Ave Maria faculties have become vitriolic. Some have even tried to unionize. When I ask if he sees a contradiction in trying to block such a move, even though unionization is supported by the Catholic Church, he says, "I think that [the church] hierarchy doesn't know as much about those things as they do about their theology."
A number of professors have resigned; some have launched lawsuits; the contract of a prominent emeritus professor from Notre Dame was not renewed. Faculty members reported the college's administration to the Department of Education for fraud involving financial aid in 2002. The school denied any wrongdoing but paid back about $300,000. An investigation by the education department's inspector general hasn't been concluded.
Mr. Monaghan takes all this in stride. In Ann Arbor, he played racquetball with some academics and determined they liked to "complain about the most meaningless things." Board members of his schools have rushed to agree with him, suggesting, as theologian Michael Novak did recently, that "if it weren't Monaghan, it would be dissatisfaction with whomever."
Given how carefully the faculty for Ave Maria were chosen, and how fully they had to agree with the Monaghan vision, this seems unfair. Henry Kissinger once said that the battles in academia are so bitter because the stakes are so low. But at religious universities, the stakes are higher. After all, your mission is getting people to heaven.
Still, Mr. Monaghan does not see much difference between this venture and his previous ones: Higher education is "90% like business." To deal with the 10% that is unique to higher education, he has enlisted the help of administrators and board members. "I've always believed in hiring people smarter than I am. I should be the dumbest one in the room." He's not.
Ms. Riley is deputy editor of the Journal's Taste page and the author of "God on the Quad" (St. Martin's Press, 2004).