Tom Monaghan’s first great venture was Domino’s Pizza. With the profits he made from the sale of the company, he’s building the country’s first full-fledged Catholic university in 40 years.
Ave Maria University sits on 1,000 acres adjacent to the community of Ave Maria, located between the enormously wealthy community of Naples and the very impoverished Immokalee, Fla.
The town and university receives approximately 1,000 visitors a week. It currently has more than 800 undergraduate and graduate students and boasts an unswerving fidelity to the Church and the Church’s vision for higher education: Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the campus and sit down with Chancellor Tom Monaghan. I was impressed by his humility, his candor and his desire to give all of his wealth away — and to strive for heaven and take as many with him as he can. He shared with me how the university and the town are progressing. This is an excerpt from a longer interview that will soon be appearing in the Register.
Of all the places in the country to start a Catholic university, why southwestern Florida?
I felt that it would be the easiest place to attract both students and faculty, and I wanted to be close to Latin America. Originally, I was going to buy land closer to Naples, but they wanted a lot of money for the land, and then we got the offer for free land here. The developer wanted to enhance the other 9,900 acres they had, so they offered to donate property for our campus, and then we were able to purchase a 50% share in the surrounding land.
What is it like being in charge of a Catholic university?
It’s very exciting, very fulfilling. I’m working harder than I was when I was at Domino’s and enjoying it more. When I was at Domino’s, I was spending half of my time working on Catholic educational and other projects; now I can do it full time. There is so much potential. I feel I’m doing something that’s so important. I think that Ave Maria University may be the most-watched private school in the country, and there’s an obligation to make it work and do it right.
Tell me about the relationship between the university and the town.
Barron Collier Co. owns a tremendous amount of land in the county, and they are our general partner in the town. There’s a permit for 11,000 homes, and we have engaged Pulte to build 80% of Phase I.
The hope is for our half of the profits to go toward an endowment for the university. There are some who have said that I’m trying to line my own pockets. I actually gave a grant to the university, so it could acquire a 50% ownership interest in the town land. The profits from the sale of this land and from the town’s development will directly benefit the university. Everything is committed to the university. All of my assets are going to the university: It is that important.
Our timing in making the move to Florida couldn’t have been worse because of the economic downturn. Right now, the town is not growing as fast as we had hoped or projected, but I am confident that it will eventually; we’ll just have to wait a bit longer for the economy to come back, but this challenge is not specific to us.
Of the 11,000 homes, approximately 300 have been built. Pulte has invested about $100 million in infrastructure, such as the golf course and water park. They intend to spend about $30 million more on model homes, a community center and club house. Many of our faculty reside in the town and have moved here because of the K-12 school, Donahue Academy.
How is fundraising going?
It’s going miraculously well. Two years ago we had a record year with $10 million. Last year, we raised $12 million. This year we’re at $18 million, and we still have four months to go. This school year we’ve had two $1 million donations, a $5 million donation, a $4 million donation and an annuity for $1 million — and this is all with virtually no alumni. Since we’ve been in Florida, we’ve had about 50,000 donors. We are in many people’s wills; we know of about 60, and from past experience, there are a lot of other people who have put us in their will and we don’t even know about it. We have also received donations from approximately 1,500 priests, which I find gratifying.