Ave Maria Tabs Jim Towey

The newly named president of the Florida university worked closely with Mother Teresa and President George W. Bush.

Jim Towey is coming home.

The former head of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., has been named president and CEO of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.

Towey holds a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and a Juris Doctor from Florida State University College of Law.

He starts July 1 and will succeed Nicholas Healy. Towey is also assuming the role of CEO, in the place of Ave Maria founder Tom Monaghan, who will continue as just the chancellor.

Towey, who once worked closely with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his office.

When and how did you come to consider the position at Ave Maria?

They approached me in the fall, and I had conversations with chancellor Tom Monaghan, president Nick Healy and chairman of the board Michael Timmis. We recently moved five children back to Washington, D.C., and got them resettled in schools. I didn’t want to move again.

What changed your mind?

What really swung me was the visit to the campus in January to speak there. I was so surprised. It was something I had never seen before. That night when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep because I had to let all of this settle in. There’s an enormous beautiful church, new state-of-the-art facilities, first-class faculty members and students, and all in an area that used to be sod farms and tomato fields. I was unprepared to be so impressed.

While there, one evening I went to a gathering of faculty members who were vetting a peer review of a Latin translation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. I was attracted watching these scholars going through the Latin line by line. I was also attracted by the students when I spoke in January — to see so many bright, shining faces and recognize that this is the future of the Church. It seemed an exciting opportunity for my family to be a part of that.
What came to mind was Las Vegas. I’ve been to Las Vegas. I hate Las Vegas. Las Vegas was built out in the middle of nowhere, raised up for the glory of man. At Ave Maria, I was in these fields where they’ve raised something up for the glory of God and the good of students. That was my strongest impression.

I wasn’t going to go if my wife, Mary, didn’t feel this was God calling her too. After my visit, Mary went down the following week, and, to my surprise, she, too, was thoroughly impressed by what she saw.

Had you been seeking other university presidencies?

The Catholic University of America was one place I explored working. I didn’t know I would be back in academia once we moved back to Washington. After four and a half years at the White House, I was back in D.C., but had control of my life. My years at Saint Vincent’s were wonderful, but extremely action-packed, so it was nice to be back in D.C. I wasn’t prepared to be back in academia.

You weren’t at Saint Vincent for very long — four years. What can you tell me about your time there?

I was hired to be a change agent. That meant that you wouldn’t stay a long time, but you’d make a difference, and I did. By the time I left, we had record enrollment and fundraising, and we also sharpened the Catholic identity and helped renew it in the Benedictine tradition.

A lot of the credit goes to Archabbot Douglas Nowicki. He and I worked closely together, and by the time I left, we had Eucharistic adoration several days a week, the March for Life was an excused absence, and we had service-learning programs where students were putting their faith in action all over the world.

I took students every year to Calcutta, where they worked in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, and elsewhere. We started a Knights of Columbus chapter. I also made sure that in the hiring of every employee that they embraced our Catholic identity and mission. I took to heart what Pope Benedict XVI said: that each and every aspect of university life needs to reflect the life of Christ, not to indoctrinate, but to invite into the fullness of the truth.

Change comes painfully slow to a university, doesn’t it?

Academia, by its nature, is a very deliberative, thoughtful institution. To change is often resisted simply because it is change. The challenge was to convince the college community of why these changes were true to the Benedictine roots of the college and in the best interests of its students. There was definitely opposition to the changes. At times it was a bumpy ride. As the community looks back, there’s been an embrace of them.

So, what makes Ave Maria different?

Ave Maria is a prototype of what Catholic education in the 21st century can be. What I love about it is the vision of this dedicated layman, Tom Monaghan. I’m going there because of his commitment and vision.

I grew up in Jacksonville and attended undergraduate and law school in Florida. Only one of our children was born outside of Florida. I know Florida well, and it’s a prime location. I think Ave Maria is as ripe as the tomatoes that used to be there. I had dinner with [former Florida] Gov. Jeb Bush Saturday night and know many of the elected leadership there. I look forward to putting them at the service of the university.
The facilities are spectacular. They’re built to withstand strong storms. I’ve toured universities all over America and at most, they’ll say, “Come see our new library.”

At Ave Maria, everything is new. What’s exciting is that I’ve had calls from archbishops, cardinals, President Bush and Gov. Bush and many others who know about Ave Maria and are excited about its future. That’s encouraging.

My local bishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, twisted my arm a little bit when I was discerning to take the job. That, to me, is a good sign that so much of America’s Church leadership is excited about Ave Maria.

And yet, it seems Ave Maria has been mired in controversy from its very beginning. How do you hope to move the institution beyond that?

Much of what you’ve heard out of Ave Maria over the last couple of years are the pains of childbirth. But, as Scripture says, once the child is born, the pains move into the past. Those were just birthing pains. It’s hard enough to run a university. I can’t imagine how hard it is to create one.

It’s amazing that they’ve come so far, so quickly. My job will be to get everyone excited about the next stage of Ave Maria’s development.

And what are your plans?

To maintain the faithfulness of the institution, swing open the doors to welcome students from wherever they come and move the university to self-sufficiency. Tom Monaghan is doing his part, and now it’s up to the rest of us to do ours. Tom will continue to be involved, and his commitment was a big part of my decision.

My focus, when I get there, will be to listen to the faculty and students, to get to know my fellow administrative staff and to develop a strategic plan for the next five years that’s focused on quality and growth. I don’t see any immediate need to construct new buildings, but to fill the buildings we have. And we will.

Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.