Growing Pains at Ave Maria University

Under President James Towey’s leadership, the young Catholic university has made solid progress, but some on campus are concerned about an alleged weakening of its Catholic identity.

(photo: Register Files)

AVE MARIA, Fla. — Like most 12-year-olds, Ave Maria University is growing and developing, in a sometimes painful manner.

Founded in 2003 by Catholic philanthropist and Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, this small liberal arts university in southwest Florida enrolled more than 1,000 students this past academic year for the first time in its short history. Under the leadership of President James Towey, Ave Maria University is becoming financially self-sustaining and no longer reliant on Monaghan’s financial support.

With the names of two of St. John Paul II’s key papal documents — Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and Ex Corde Ecclesiae (The Heart of the Church) — prominently written on the school’s crest, the AMU administration says it continues to strengthen the university’s Catholic identity while expanding its mission, by increasing campus spiritual activities such as perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and placing a greater emphasis on service projects and missionary work.

“It would be very hard for somebody to come to our campus and think this is not a Catholic university. The symbols and the practice of Catholicism imbue the entire campus, and proudly so,” said Seanna Sugrue, the interim vice president for academic affairs and the acting dean of faculty.

But a vocal chorus of current and former students, including faculty members, have raised concerns over what they perceive to be a weakening of AMU’s overt and distinct Catholicity, as the university increases enrollment and engages the outside world. They point to the administration’s decisions to allow male and female students to visit each other’s dorms, though strictly regulated, and to no longer require the recitation of the Angelus in the school’s dining halls, a move the administration took to accommodate non-Catholic students.

Echoing complaints from past years, the administration has also been accused of not tolerating dissenting views and firing faculty members who disagree publicly with university policy. Dozens of current and former students have drafted a petition alleging that Timothy McDonnell, the former chairman of the music department, and Rebecca Ostermann, a music professor, were fired because they addressed concerns about the administration’s vision for the music department during a May meeting with the university’s board of trustees.

Another professor, Joseph Burke, who taught economics, will also not be returning this fall, after he told the trustees that the university’s academic standards have slumped and its Catholic identity watered down.

“A lot of alumni don’t have much faith in the administration because we’ve seen this happen so many times, where people disappear with no explanation,” said Michelle Vallery, who graduated from Ave Maria University with a music degree in 2009. Vallery and other petition signers say professors need the protections of tenure and a faculty senate to safely express their opinions about the university.

“I see the growing-pains argument, but even with that, there still needs to be dialogue,” Vallery said. “It’s becoming clear to us alumni that we have to fight for tenure. It’s critical for the university.”

Tess Prater, 20, a music major who is transferring out of AMU, after attending the university for two years, told the Register that other faculty members in the music department have quit in protest of McDonnell’s and Ostermann’s firings.

Prater said she wrote a letter to the board of trustees after McConnell encouraged students to express their thoughts and concerns about the campus’ Catholic identity and the changes the administration was seeking to make in the music department, which Prater and others said include the elimination of foundational skills for any legitimate music program.

“I don’t think they really did much to address our concerns. They just silenced the people who spoke out,” Prater said.


University’s Response

University officials vigorously deny allegations of retribution and have said the music professors were let go because they and the administration had “irreconcilable differences” about the university’s direction. In a campus-wide email, Towey said the music department was in need of revitalization because it struggled with low retention rates and enrollment numbers.

“At the end of the day, they just couldn’t come to an agreement. This is the direction we’re going in. They did not agree, and they decided to part ways,” said Stacy Laffere, a spokeswoman for Ave Maria University.

With respect to complaints about alleged problems on the Ave Maria campus, Laffere told the Register that the board of trustees investigated all complaints and allegations that were raised in 65 letters the board received from students, alumni and faculty in February.

The letters contained complaints about public drunkenness, harassment and sexual immorality on campus. Laffere said several allegations were “blatant exaggerations,” including one accusation of sexual activity in a dorm room that turned out to be a man and woman kissing in a dorm lobby.

“There is constructive criticism and then there is reckless criticism,” said Laffere, who attributed most of the complaints to a “loud minority.”

Said Laffere, “People looking from the outside in see this as crazy. It really is crazy. We really are a strong Catholic university.”

Interim vice president Sugrue said it is unfair to question AMU’s Catholic identity because of disagreements over governance and oversight at the university. “I feel for those in pain who do not like the direction the university is headed in, but I do not believe it’s fair to say our Catholic identity is under threat.”


Catholic-Identity Endorsements

The Cardinal Newman Society recommends Ave Maria University in its Newman Guide to Selecting a Catholic College. The Newman Society selects universities and colleges for their commitment to a faithful Catholic education. Other schools on the list include the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Christendom College, The Catholic University of America and Thomas Aquinas College.

Ave Maria also is one of the 38 colleges listed in the Register's Catholic College Guide 2014, as an institution that is faithfully upholding its Catholic identity. The Register confirmed that it will remain on this list.

Ave Maria University’s board of trustees, in a May 8 statement, expressed its “full confidence in the administration of the university under the leadership of President Towey and the fine team he has assembled.” The trustees also said they believed that the university’s admissions, academic standards and Catholic culture were being respected and strengthened.

Twenty-five AMU professors also signed a March 3 letter of support when the university extended Towey’s contract through 2020. They offered a list of accomplishments — tripling the number of majors offered, raising tens of millions of dollars in donor support and increasing enrollment, among a few — to say that the university has “blossomed” under Towey’s leadership.

Travis Curtright, AMU’s director of humanities and liberal studies, who is also an associate professor of humanities and literature, told the Register that the university’s Catholic identity is strong.

“The real news for Catholic higher education is that Ave Maria sets an example in terms of how many of its young people and their professors and administrators all genuinely prize an education in their faith and a culture of serious learning,” Curtright said.


Tom Monaghan

Monaghan, who is now Ave Maria University’s chancellor, said in a March 23 statement that Towey enjoys his full support and respect. Monaghan also credited Towey for achieving a break-even operating budget, something Monaghan said was “a threshold that I was not able to cross.”

Monaghan also questioned the notion that there was ever a “golden era” at Ave Maria University, saying that he could not “recall that there was ever such a time.”

Said Monaghan, “From the beginning to this very day, the university has been a work in progress, and there always will be areas in need of improvement.”

In his letter, Monaghan acknowledged that Ave Maria University has had more than its “fair share” of challenges. Indeed, controversy has been a frequent presence at AMU since Monaghan moved the now defunct Ave Maria College from Michigan to Naples, Fla., in 2003.

In 2007 — the same year that AMU moved to its permanent campus in Ave Maria, a planned community anchored by a 104-foot-high oratory — the university dismissed Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, who served as AMU provost. The firing sparked campus protests and led Father Fessio to be rehired, though he was fired again two years later, allegedly because he questioned the university’s financial standing.

A Spanish religious group, Home of the Mother, was kicked off AMU’s campus in 2010 after a religious sister was accused of engaging in immoral conduct with a female student. A housing meltdown also crippled the town of Ave Maria’s development. Meanwhile, the university’s operating deficit increased to $10 million, according to published reports.


Towey’s Leadership

Towey, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and former president of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, became Ave Maria University’s president and CEO in 2011. He immediately moved to shore up the university’s finances, cutting several non-faculty positions and closing AMU’s Nicaraguan campus, a money-losing venture.

Under Towey’s leadership, AMU has steadily increased enrollment and student retention. In 2010, the university had 692 degree-seeking undergraduates. That number increased to 1,019 in 2014, and university officials anticipate that enrollment to grow to 1,100 this year.

The university is also shifting from a somewhat insular community into an institution that markets itself to Catholic and non-Catholic students and even instituted a football program. Through it all, the administration says the university’s Catholic identity is intact, noting that 82% of the AMU student body and 92% of the faculty is Catholic.

Ave Maria University has three daily Masses on campus, Bible studies led by Focus missionaries, an evening Rosary walk around campus, the public praying of the Angelus twice daily, opportunities for overseas missionary work and the Mother Teresa Project, a $2-million initiative where students learn about her life and spirituality while engaging in the corporal works of mercy.

“There are challenges that come with seeking to grow your enrollment numbers at the same time that one is maintaining one’s Catholic identity, and I think the university is striking a beautiful balance in doing that,” said Sugrue, who added that AMU was never intended to be a select community of a few faithful perfecting themselves in virtue.

Said Sugrue, “That is a beautiful model, but we live in a world in which we have obligations to a larger community, and ... as Catholics we need to be aware of it and involved in it. That insular model is not one that a university is called to be.”

But opening the university’s doors to the outside world, while arguably necessary for a Catholic institution of higher learning, has resulted in outside influences that some current and former students find distasteful.

“You’re looking around, and most of the students there demonstrate a lack of respect for Catholic values,” said Prater, the AMU sophomore who is leaving the university.

Jacob Mathew, 25, who graduated from AMU in 2014 with a music degree, traces his and others’ concerns about the Catholic identity on campus to the administration’s decision to no longer require the recitation of the Angelus in campus dining halls out of sensitivity to non-Catholic students, though anybody can still say the prayer outside. Mathew and others said a priest who disagreed with the policy was let go from a campus-ministry position.

Said Mathew, “That was one of the first distinct moments that made it very clear that the question of Catholic identity that the administration purported to be supporting and moving forward was really drastically different than perhaps what the average practicing Catholic who knows enough about the tradition would be willing to understand as being an established, rooted Catholic culture.”


‘Understand the Context’

But there are also alumni like Miquel Gonzalez, 23, who say the university is headed in the right direction. Gonzalez, who graduated from AMU in 2014 and is now attending medical school at Florida International University, told the Register that he grew in his Catholic faith during his four years in Ave Maria.

“I think people fail to see the big picture or understand the context of everything,” said Gonzalez, who recalled the university was in “serious financial turmoil” and that many students wondered if it would survive until Towey arrived and began focusing on increasing enrollment, stabilizing finances and marketing the university to a larger audience.

Said Gonzalez: “It’s hard to think that a university won’t change when you have a 50% increase in students over four years. That is the light and context in which all these issues must be thought of.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.