Ave Maria University: A Catholic project gone wrong

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Monaghan's expensive sports scholarships had only made Ave Maria's financial problems worse. He had a simple but radical answer: Increase enrollment by 50 percent each year. But there was a hangup. The billionaire also demanded that SAT scores keep improving, which would require more scholarships to attract better students.

"He had all these incompatible goals," Fessio says. When Fessio suggested to a board member that it might be time for Monaghan to step down, the billionaire caught wind. And fired him.

Jim Towey is a former assistant to Mother Teresa, but he suddenly goes strangely Amish and squirmy when New Times attempts to take his photo in front of Tom Monaghan's orange-brick quasi-oratory. The Joe Biden look-alike waves his hand and walks in the opposite direction.

"Nah, it would send the wrong message," he says. "That's not what the university is about."

These days, Ave Maria's new president and CEO is having to disavow a lot of his predecessor's accomplishments. Towey was hired in February, relegating Monaghan from CEO to the ceremonial position of chancellor. Formerly an aide to President George W. Bush and head of Florida's health and human services agency, he doesn't hide the fact that he's the clean-up guy sent to fix Ave Maria's mess.

"Everyone expected deficits at the beginning," Towey says, admitting that the university is still losing several million dollars each term. "My job is to end them [within three years]." After less than two months on campus, Towey announced he was firing 17 employees, slashing the overall budget by 10 percent, trimming sports programs, and gradually building enrollment while reducing scholarships.

Yet straightening out Monaghan's experiment might not be so simple. Towey claims to have no clue about the basketball program debacle two years ago. And asked about Marielena Stuart, he turns to an aide and inquires, "Have I met with her?" Then, when he makes the connection, he slams her claims against the university. "I worked for Mother Teresa for 12 years," he says. "No one is going to accuse me of being squishy in my faith."

He uses the word normal like a bullet point: "This is a very normal place, with normal students." But moments later, he admits Ave Maria is anything but ordinary. "This is a very unique arrangement here. It's almost like what you would see in medieval times when a baron would go and build himself a church and monastery."

But there might be no pulling up from Ave Maria University's nosedive. Its law school, which is still in Naples, remains in rapid decline. This summer, only 11 of 23 of its graduates passed the Florida Bar exam. At less than 48 percent, it was the worst result in the state and nearly 20 percentage points behind its closest competitor. The Ave Maria campus, meanwhile, continues to be plagued by high attrition. "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have come here," one shy biology major says with a soft Southern twang. "Moving out here to the middle of nowhere was not the college experience I was looking for."

Towey might be reforming Ave Maria University, but there is little he can do for the town itself. There the real baron is Barron Collier Companies, argues Georgia Hiller. The pretty Republican Collier County commissioner suspects that the company — via its control of the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District — is siphoning money from other parts of the county. This summer she ordered the county clerk to audit the district, but the results aren't in yet. "I was concerned about the accuracy of their numbers," she says. "Ave Maria is supposed to be an independent, self-supporting district. We should not be subsidizing it.

"Ave Maria is self-serving," she adds. "Obviously it's for Barron Collier's benefit, not anyone else's. And they are entitled to do it. If a business wants to make a profit, great. That's the American way. But you can't do it at the expense of the public."

Hiller describes Barron Collier as the county's "800-pound gorilla." She recently squared off with the company when she voted against enticing Maine-based biomedical group the Jackson Laboratory to Ave Maria. Barron Collier proposed giving the organization land for a research center if the state, county, and private donors would contribute a total of $380 million. "In effect, Jackson Labs wanted $380 million in cash for themselves, and Barron Collier would have been the indirect beneficiary," she says. The plan failed.

Blake Gable, the Barron Collier CEO, claims Hiller's audit is politically motivated. "I have a lot more faith in the people who work for us than in her ability to understand a balance sheet or budget," he says, adding that her opposition to the Jackson Laboratory deal was "pretty ignorant."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.