Ave Maria Institute Joins Growing Group of Small Catholic Colleges

There is a new institute of higher learning in the bustling college town of Ypsilanti, Mich. Nestled in the shadow of Eastern Michigan University are a couple of old public school buildings that will open their doors in September as Ave Maria Institute, a new Catholic liberal arts college.

“We will try to fulfill the vision that John Henry Cardinal Newman had in the last century of a very serious, academically rigorous, but wonderfully exciting liberal arts curriculum,” said the institute's provost, Dr. Ronald Muller. “When it's done in the right way, a liberal arts college is the most exciting place to be. It is a dynamic place for ideas to come alive. There is a real adventure about learning.”

Muller, 51, has plenty of experience to back up his enthusiasm. He received his doctorate of philosophy and literature from the University of Dallas and later worked there as dean of students and director of the Rome program. Muller was one of the principal founders of St. Thomas More College in Fort Worth, Texas in 1981 (see “A Tiny World of Big Ideas in Texas,” June 14-20) which he helped develop into a fully accredited four-year liberal arts college. Three years ago he and his wife, Lucy, moved with their seven children to Michigan where he served at St. Mary's College in Orchard Lake as academic dean and chairman of the philosophy department. Muller also has a comprehensive background in Latin, Italian, and Spanish and has directed foreign study programs in Oxford, Rome, Greece, and Spain.

There will initially be a four-semester core curriculum offered at Ave Maria that, with additional training, will qualify students as administrative assistants for offices and schools. Plans are to offer a four-year accredited baccalaureate program. The accreditation process requires three years to complete, but, Muller said, “even if the institution isn't yet fully accredited, the courses are.”

Theology, philosophy, literature, Latin, Greek, and humanities will be among the course requirements. The humanities seminar will include some math and science. Muller pointed out that a liberal arts curriculum also provides a good background for other careers like business, governmental positions, law, and teaching.

He added that the things students will study “have the character of forming imagination, mind, and insight.”

He said reading and discussing ancient literary works and ideas are still relevant to today's world.

“There are recurrent or abiding themes that come up through the generations,” he said. “Human nature is a constant and ideas are perennially relevant.”

Muller said Ave Maria's curriculum and method of instruction will be much like that of other Catholic liberal arts colleges across the country.

“What we are aspiring to be is part of a group of small colleges that were begun about 20 years ago that have seen the importance of drawing Catholic studies and Catholic thought back to the Newman idea of the role of theology in curriculum,” said Muller.

He said colleges such as St. Thomas More (Fort Worth, Texas), Thomas Aquinas (Ojai, Calif.), Christendom College (Front Royal, Va.), Magdalen College, (Warner, N.H.), and St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, N.H.) were all started with the same inspiration.

“It is a kind of renaissance in Catholic learning,” he noted.

“Those are the things, the core curriculum, that the liberal arts institute argues at some time all of us need to spend a little time pondering,” explained Muller. “And if you do that when you are 18 or 19 or 20, you will fill your heart and your mind and your intellect with those great ideas and images that then serve you well for the rest of your life.”

Dominic Perrotta, 27, a former student at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in California, wholeheartedly attests to that.

‘I only spent a year there, but I think it was a very crucial year in my development as a Catholic and as an adult.’

“I would say it is the best education you can get in this country, to be intellectually well-formed really for anything — whatever you want to go into,” he stressed.

Now a third-year medical student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Perrotta and his wife, Heidi, are the parents of five children.

“I only spent a year there, but I think it was a very crucial year in my development as a Catholic and as an adult,” he said. “Probably one of the greatest regrets of my life was that I wasn't able to finish school there,” he added.

One concern of students at the small liberal arts colleges is the transferability of credits to other private or public colleges and universities. Steps are being taken at Ave Maria to ensure that credits will transfer to nearby Catholic colleges.

Ave Maria was the brainchild of Domino's Pizza founder and CEO Tom Monaghan. He had been named to the board of Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) last year to help franchise the university's curriculum and philosophy and to foster the development of colleges and institutions of higher learning like Franciscan all over the world.

Franciscan set up the Christus Magister (Christ the Teacher) Foundation to mentor new colleges that wanted to be in association with them.

“I had always planned on starting a college, so now seemed to be the right time. Ave Maria will be the first school to emerge from the Christus Magister program,” said Monaghan, who is financing Ave Maria through his own Mater Christi (Mother of Christ) Foundation.

According to Nicholas Healy Jr., vice president for university relations at Franciscan, an agreement was entered into “whereby we would recognize their credits and guarantee their transferability to Steubenville.”

Negotiations for credit transferability are also ongoing with nearby Madonna University in Livonia, Mich.

At Magdalen College, in Warner, N.H., plans are being made for a silver anniversary celebration which will be marked Aug. 22 this year. There are now 87 students on a new campus built on 135 acres in 1991. The college will accommodate 120 students and offers a two-year associate or four-year bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies. President of Magdalen College, Jeffrey Karls, said Magdalen was empowered to grant the degrees through the New Hampshire Post Secondary Commission since the school's founding 25 years ago. He added that the school began the accreditation process this spring and will embark upon the evaluation process in the fall.

Karls recommended that those wishing to transfer to another college “look ahead” and have a couple different college options available. He said even theology credits can sometimes be transferable.

“It might come under a different name or title in one of the secular programs but they'll usually work with the student.”

Karls highly recommended that a transferring student send the new college a course description from the liberal arts college and, most important, he said, “Get a personal interview with someone from the admission's office of the school being applied to.”

That's just what Perrotta did when he applied to the University of Michigan after a two-year hiatus from college.

“I think they are a little more stringent about transferring credits than most places,” said Perrotta of the U of M. “But it wasn't a big problem.” He said he gave an admissions counselor a course guide from Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) and explained what courses he had taken. “She went through the U of M course guide and correlated it with courses that are offered at the U of M. They looked at the number of hours and gave credit on that basis,” he said.

“As it was, the course load at TAC was so heavy that I got credit for a full year's worth of classes,” recounted Perrotta. “You take a very heavy credit load at TAC. They figure there is an awful lot that you need to learn to qualify to be a fundamentally educated person and they don't waste any time while you are there.”

And Provost Muller plans to waste no time at Ave Maria where they will eventually be able to accommodate some 200 students. In addition to the core curriculum, he will offer some evening classes for older and non-traditional students.

“Ave Maria is a place for everyone to come,” he said. “The Church has always been a wonderful patron of learning.

By making ourselves better, then we return to God the marvelous potential that he has given to us.

“There ought to be more Ave Maria colleges all around the country — in every little town,” Muller said.

For more information about Ave Maria Institute, call 734-482-4519.

Diane Hanson writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.