Tom Monaghan: Traditionalist bully or Catholic impresario?
Tom Monaghan can’t catch a break in the media and blogosphere. Every writer and blogger of late thinks that the Catholic pizza mogul is little more than an incompetent bully in his efforts to relocate and build an orthodox university and law school in Florida. Actually, they don’t just think that Monaghan is an incompetent bully; they know that he’s an incompetent bully.
After Monaghan fired Fr. Joseph Fessio, a conservative Jesuit priest who held found Ave Maria University, Rod Dreher criticized Monaghan’s “imperious hand” and called him a “thin-skinned tycoon.” Mark Shea accused Monaghan of “hubris.” And most damning of all, editor Mariah Blake of The Washington Monthly laid out a litany of Monaghan’s administrative and entrepreneurial sins. To wit, Monaghan completely disregarded everyone but his hand-picked administrative board in relocating Ave Maria Law School to southwestern Florida:
What started as rumbling discontent burgeoned into full-scale revolt. In mid-2006, the faculty held a vote of no confidence in the dean, and roughly two-thirds voted in favor. Alumni and students followed suit, with their own no-confidence vote and, later, a call for Monaghan’s removal as chairman of the board. But the uproar made little difference. The following February, the board voted overwhelmingly to move the law school to Florida.
Later, Blake reports that Monaghan’s administration resorted to smearing Stephen Safranek, a law professor who helped found the school:
Meanwhile, the administration began cracking down on agitators. “Monaghan wanted no dissent, so the screws began to get turned,” says Safranek. No one was targeted more aggressively than the former University of Detroit Mercy professor. Safranek, who was among the most outspoken in his criticism of the school’s management, was repeatedly disciplined, often for seemingly trumped-up offenses. At one point, he received a letter saying he had been found guilty of “uninvited” touching of “the person of one of the Law School staff employees,” an accusation that smacked of sexual impropriety. What actually happened only became clear much later, when the contents of Safranek’s employee file—including a written statement from the alleged victim—were released as the result of a lawsuit: Safranek had walked by the dean’s secretary while she was shuffling through the trunk of her car in the law school parking lot, tapped her on the arm, and said, “Good morning, Sarah.”
Based on these and other allegations, Safranek had his tenure revoked in July 2007. Since that time, he’s been hunting, without success, for another faculty position.
Perhaps worst of all, the Ave Maria brand has gone down the toilet. The law school is rated as one of the worst in the nation, and the university has been rocked by the high profile dismissal and firing of Fessio as well as arrests and resignations of its top administrators.
I confess to not having known much about Monaghan, although I heard over the last 20 years that he was billed by many conservative and some orthodox American Catholics as a great hope for the faith. So I was persuaded by the accounts of Blake and Dreher that Monaghan was an incompetent bully. But after reading and reflecting on Blake’s story and Dreher’s posts, I realized that their unflattering portrayal of Monaghan was one-sided; Blake, whose article is brilliantly narrated, was denied a request to speak with Monaghan and did not include the voices of his supporters, while Dreher acknowledged that his long post on Monaghan was one-sided. Then I came across a two-year profile of Monaghan in The New Yorker by the distinguished writer Peter Boyer (Click on and sign up here to read the full article). Besides featuring an extensive interview with Monaghan, it detailed the background and context of Monaghan’s Catholic philanthropy. The picture that emerges of Monaghan is entirely different and not surprisingly, more sympathetic to the pizza mogul.
For one thing, Monaghan has been an active Catholic benefactor. His money helped build a new cathedral in Nicaragua, which had been ruined by an earthquake in 1972, and it helped defeat an abortion-rights referendum in Michigan. For another thing, Monaghan seeks to do more than create a good Catholic university; he wants to build a great one that will influence the culture. As Boyer writes of Monaghan’s goals,
A university could train young people who would, in turn, train the next generation of priests, teachers, nuns, and school principals. “You’ve got to create a sort of critical mass,” he said. “If we can get priests who are turned on to the faith, then you have a good congregation. It’s a multiplication. If you have a good principal, you have a good school. If you have a good catechism teacher, you have a good child. So you’re not catechizing one person, you’re catechizing thousands and thousands. And not just in one locality but all over the world. That’s why the university is such an efficient thing–a tool to change the world.”
There are already more than two hundred Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, but, in Monaghan’s view, though some are great universities, none are great Catholic universities. Notre Dame has become the sort of institution that stages “The Vagina Monologues.” The Jesuit-run University of San Francisco offers students a minor in gender and sexuality studies. Some schools, like Manhattanville College and Marist College, have surrendered their Catholic identity. Other Catholic schools, such as Franciscan University, in Steubenville, Ohio (of which Monaghan was the principal benefactor), and Thomas Aquinas College, in Santa Paula, California, were resolutely orthodox but had no ambitions to become first-tier research institutions. Monaghan was looking for a high-level academic institution that was also, as he puts it, “seriously Catholic.”
If you’re a traditional or orthodox Catholic like me, you’ll be impressed by Monaghan’s accomplishments and ambitions for his faith. But there’s a problem. How should we square his successes and goals with his heavy-handed and bullying tactics? The jury, I think, is still out on this question. On the one hand, Monaghan treated those below him – administrators, faculty, alumni, students – more like Larry Ellison or George Steinbrenner than popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI. On the other hand, Monaghan created and built the first Catholic university and law school in America in 50 years.
Monaghan’s legacy is uncertain. It may well depend on whether Ave Maria University and Law School are successes or failures. If they succeed, he will join a long line of brilliant Catholic educators, from the founder of Notre Dame Fr. Sorin to those of the Jesuit and Christian Brothers colleges. If they fail, he will join a list of forgotten Catholic visionaries.