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The Roman Catholic World

A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”  G.K. Chesterton–  The Everlasting Man, 1925

August 7, 2009

The following article appeared as the feature story on the front page of The Wanderer, August 13, 2009 issue, which was available online on  August 7, 2009.


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The Aftermath of Part 1
Since the Knights of Columbus, there has probably never been a more ambitious lay initiative than Ave Maria. Yet, the promise, ver­sus the reality, was never more ev­ident than during the events of this last week.
THE WANDERER - August 13th, 2009 Issue - Front Page Featured Article- "AVE MARIA: The Promise, The Reality" (Part II)

THE WANDERER - August 13th, 2009 Issue - Front Page Featured Article- "AVE MARIA: The Promise, The Reality" (Part II)

The aftermath of Part 1 of this article clearly reflected the control and personality- centered commu­nity environment that exists around Tom Monaghan. While this series is not about the writer, it is never­theless important to understand the social environment that exists in Ave Maria.

One only has to visit the Fumare blog to witness firsthand the ad hominem attacks and hatred from many of the respondents to last week’s article — including not a few individuals inside the town of Ave Maria, who are supporters of Tom Monaghan. These individuals took advantage of their anonymi­ty in their attempt to intimidate me, by posting despicable comments that involved not just profanities, but references that included terrible personal violations, and went as far as to detail the whereabouts, activ­ities, and ages of my young chil­dren.

Similar attacks took place for many days after the publication of my Open Letter to the Board of Trustees, published by the Naples Daily News, on February 17, 2009 ( printed in Part 1 of this article). The Naples Daily News also had to remove some readers’ comments, because of the use of profanities, and because of the way in which they detailed our lives.

While there are individuals who have written comments expressing support for me, they have done so anonymously — which is further evidence that they too, are afraid of retaliation.  

Is there unreasonable fear of evil conspiracies, and intolerance of critical inquiry — that lead to injustice? 


Ave Maria

A sound and stable institution and community may have dis­gruntled former employees, or residents that show opposing opinions — but will not vilify them.

Tom Monaghan has referred to professors as “academic terrorists” — when they have voiced their disagreement with his policies and decisions.

John Hittinger, former Dean, AMU St. Mary’s in Michigan, stated in 2003, “ The dark side is the dependence upon Mon­aghan’s arbitrary focus or level of interest and its idiosyncratic definitions of Catholic faith — Mr. Monaghan seems oblivious to Church doctrine on social justice in his treatment of facul­ty and staff. . . .”  

Interaction With The Community

A sound and stable academic institution that identifies itself as being under the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, encour­ages a dialogue and listens to the community that was built in part to support it, particularly when the community shares a liturgi­cal life with the university, through the local church — and it does so without feeling threat­ened.

On the other hand, in Ave Maria, where the vast majority of the residents are Catholics who came attracted by the “ orthodox” Catholic university, and the town with the Catholic identity built partly to support it– residents are not invited to voice their opin­ions on the future of the univer­sity— nor on decisions that af­fect the life shared by the town and the university.

The firing of Fr. Fessio affect­ed the community not just emo­tionally, but in its spiritual con­nection with a priest who cele­brated Mass and administered sacraments, both for the univer­sity community and the residents of the town.  

Is there absolute authoritari­anism without meaningful ac­countability?

A sound and stable institution will willingly disclose informa­tion, such as finances, and gen­erally will tell you more than you want to know. A sound and stable institution shares deci­sion- making and encourages ac­countability and oversight.

On the other hand, the ad­ministration of Ave Maria Uni­versity has been repeatedly questioned (at least four times in the last nine months) as to the financial status of the in­stitution.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, was fired last month as a result of a con­versation he had in November 2008, with the then Chairman of the Board of Trustees, when he discussed information, based on public records, regarding issues that affect institutional stability and fiduciary responsibility.

Why would his objections end in his dismissal?

Vic Melfa, a former member of the Board of Trustees, left the board after having voiced his concerns to the administration involving institutional stability and fiduciary responsibility.

Mr. Melfa’s statements given after his departure indicate that he did not receive satisfactory answers.

Dr. Matthew Levering, a well ­known Professor of Theology and author, who became a strong supporter of Tom Monaghan and Nick Healy during the time Ave Maria College was operating in Michigan, wrote the now famous “ Levering Memo” — which en­tered the public domain in Feb­ruary 2009. In his memo he posed serious questions to Ave Maria University’s administra­tion, involving the finances and the viability of the institution. It is our understanding that Dr. Matthew Levering also ad­dressed the administration in the presence of other faculty mem­bers, where he expressed his con­cerns. Have his memo and ques­tions been answered?

Dr. Levering has joined the faculty of another university, and is scheduled to begin teaching there at the end of this month.

During a conversation with a high- ranking member of the uni­versity, who asked for anonymi­ty, I inquired if the questions posed in the Levering Memo had ever been answered by the admini­stration. This individual respond­ed that “ it is one of the legitimate pending matters.”

Given the importance of the is­sues addressed in the Levering Memo, and the important position that Dr. Levering held as a faculty member at AMU, it would seem to this writer that Dr. Levering’s ques­tions would mean more to the ad­ministration than simply “ future business” — or in the words of the high- ranking member of the uni­versity, a “ pending matter.”

For readers that have not read the contents of the Levering Memo, we present it herewith:

January 30, 2009:

(1) The financial situation is murky, but it appears to be dark indeed.  In an email to AMU faculty written a few weeks ago, I called for further financial data to be provided to the faculty.  We received financial information on a sheet presented at the Retreat.  That financial information, however, did not dispel my concerns. I don’t have the sheet at hand, so my numbers are based solely on memory; but if I recall somewhat correctly, the University’s expenses stood at around $35 million, and the University’s actual revenue from sources other than the Foundation stood at around $10 million.  If I recall correctly, the Foundation shed a lot of money last year, and now is down to a total of $33 million, almost as much as it spent last year.  The natural question, then, is what happens if the Foundation – what with moving the law school to FL plus the regular AMU expenses – is down to $8-10 million by the end of this budget year.  To put it another way and thereby clearly state my first question: How much money can we anticipate the Foundation to have at the end of this budget year?

(2) If I understand correctly, the Board agreed to handle the financial situation in two major ways: first, to sell some of the University’s land assets, and second to increase the number of paying students at the University.  Regarding the University’s land assets, I would like to see an appraisal of what these assets could bring on the market.  If Barron Collier is planning to purchase some of AMU’s land assets at a certain price, that information would help greatly in getting a sense of the financial situation.  My working assumption is that the land assets are at present valuable solely for farming, or at least that if purchased by a real estate investor the land assets would be purchased at a fraction of what AMU paid in 2002.  The second question then is whether the University has gathered data based upon recent sales as regards the value of the University’s land assets.

(3) The University plans to market its product, 4-year undergraduate education, aggressively this Spring.  If I understand correctly, two new admissions personnel have been hired to spearhead an admissions drive and thereby significantly increase the revenue from students.  The question that normally comes up is how much revenue we can actually hope to raise from this source, and whether it will really make much of a dent in our deficit in the next four years.  But I have another concern, namely ensuring that we are being as truthful as possible to the students and families to whom we market our product this Spring.  These students/families will presumably know very little about AMU’s financial status.  Trying to apply the Golden Rule, I assume that we will want to be able to assure these students/families that when we offer them a 4-year education, AMU actually has the financial liquidity to operate on its current campus and with its current majors for at least 4 years.  We have a moral obligation to ensure that this is the case.  If it is not the case, then of course we have a moral obligation to tell the potential students/families of the risk.  This takes me back to (1) and (2).  We need to know what resources the Foundation plausibly will have over the next four years, and we need to have an independent appra isal of the liquidity of the land assets.  The point is that without an audit and a clear 4-year financial plan, we cannot appropriately invite students/families into a 4-year undergraduate program in which students/families will be investing over $20,000 a year.  If we fail in due diligence, or if we know now that there is a problem but bring them in anyway, then we are failing not only in financial stewardship but also spiritually as regards love of neighbor and truth-telling to these young people and their families.  The third question then is whether we can receive an audit and 4-year financial plan that demonstrates sufficient liquidity, and does not presume rosy scenarios regarding revenues.  Without this audit and demonstration of liquid assets, I fear that all of us (to different degrees) are participating in something that we may later deeply regret, namely selling to young people and their families a 4-year educational product that we do not have sufficient reason to believe can be delivered.

(4) The University’s graduate programs are a special case.  I am formally involved in the admissions process for graduate students in the M.A. and Ph.D. programs.  The M.A. program requires a two-year commitment of resources on the part of the University. The Ph.D. program requires a five-year commitment of resources on the part of the University.  In order to recruit students into the M.A. pro gram responsibly, we would need a financial audit clearly showing liquid assets and the financial plan for the next two years of AMU’s existence.  In order to recruit students into the Ph.D. program responsibly and in good conscience, we would need a financial audit clearly showing liquid assets and the financial plan for the next five years of AMU’s existence.  My fourth question then is whether we can receive this information so as to undertake responsibly the labor of graduate admissions.

(5) Particularly for the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs, the issue of cost-cutting is an important one.  Even the rosiest portraits of the increase in student revenue over the next four years may not take away the deficit.  We have reason to believe that the resources of the Foundation may not last much more than one or two years. Therefore year 3 and year 4 are particularly problematic.  As part of the financial plan articulated now, cost-cutting in years 3 and 4 would be necessary.  One imagines that certain programs and certain majors would need to be cut; perhaps salaries would need to be cut.  Even presuming a University of 600 paying students, the various annual costs of the University—45 faculty, a number of staff, financing the debt for the housing subsidies and for the new dorm, operating the facilities, library, sports teams, student services etc—will be large.  After the Foundation’s money has basically been all spent, how long can a small Catholic university go on with 45 faculty?   We need to know now, therefore, what programs the 4-year financial plan envisions being cut.  Certainly the doctoral program, just to name one, would seem to be likely to be cut.  In order to be able to undertake responsibly the labor of advertising for and recruiting students, we need to have a sense of what is going to be cut, according to the present long-term financial plan.  Students want us not to let them down by failing to speak important truths to them.  My fifth question then is what plans do we have, or do we need to develop, regarding cost-cutting.

(6) Regarding the future, many of us are worried about our beloved University.  We also want to be able to assure ourselves and our friends (including those who send their children to us for undergraduate or graduate education) that Ave Maria University has a feasible, clear plan for dealing with the apparent depletion of the Foundation’s liquid assets and for dealing with our huge deficit without an overly optimistic set of scenarios.  What if the reason that we have not been presented with a clear plan is that if we knew the truth, it would leak out and corrode the University’s ability to attract students, thereby destroying our jobs?  This question has given me some pause.  On the one hand, even to preserve our jobs, we would not want to be complicit in fooling anyone about our product and our ability to deliver it. We want to be truthtellers—Veritatis Splendor—and to love others no matter what the personal cost.  On the other hand, it would be a foolish thing to corrode public confidence in our University without sufficient reason for doing so.  I would say this: If we had a clear plan now, and that plan sadly indicated that financial failure was likely within the next four years, then we could do a number of things to make the transition easier.  We could plan a “teach-out” operation, and we could ensure that sufficient resources are available for enabling faculty and staff to find other jobs.  This would be much, much better than a sudden collapse later.  My sixth question then is whether we could agree that whatever the difficulties that a clear plan would reveal, a clear plan would be better than the current murky situation, even as regards the security of the faculty and staff.

(7) We all know that if the Foundation’s funding is truly nearing depletion, and if Ave Maria University will therefore have to sell off land assets quickly, this will become public relatively soon.  Someone, whether it be a Catholic newspaper or a local newspaper, is going to break the story.  It will probably be picked up by the national media.  If the reality at AMU really is bad, then it would be better for the University itself to make the bad news public.  This would show how much the University values truth-telling, as opposed to the secular culture in which businesses and banks are promoted as sound until the day they crash.  The University will be put in a terrible spot if the media begin to probe and the University’s spokesmen have to put on a good front.  Then the media will ask all of us “what did we know and when did we know it,” and the public will probably have trouble accepting our answer that we were totally ignorant.  On the other hand, if the financial reality at AMU in truth is good, then we would be well served by making that truth as clear as possible to the outside world (as well as internally).  In this case, then, it really is the fact that “the truth will set us free.”  My seventh question is whether AMU can be upfront in making its financial situation publicly clear before the media enter into the fray.

(8) Regarding public relations, if AMU is financially in trouble, and if the Foundation is going to be basically depleted soon, then those who love Ave Maria need to ask how new major supporters of the University are going to be found.  The Bishop of Venice clearly will need to be a supporter, if we are to attract further Catholic donors.  ; Other major donors will need to be brought in via a desire to save AMU’s magnificent potential.  My eighth question then regards the formation of a clear plan to inform outside-AMU public opinion, especially that of serious Catholics, about the great potential and value of AMU.

Before we end this installment, I would like to remind readers that the questions presented in my Open Letter  printed last week in Part 1, have yet to be answered, except that His Excellency, Bish­op Frank J. Dewane, was finally invited to join the Board of Trust­ees. He accepted the invitation, as a non- voting ex officio member.

Paradoxically, one of the first experiences we have had in Ave Maria after Bishop Dewane ac­cepted the invitation to join the Board, is having to read the state­ment issued by the spokesperson from the Diocese of Venice, clari­fying that Bishop Dewane had never been consulted about the fir­ing of Fr. Fessio.

AMU President Nick Healy’s at­tempt to a rebuttal of my Open Let­ter in the Naples Daily News re­sulted in no answers. The title of his rebuttal, Ave Maria Embraces Mixture of Faiths — Worship Styles, speaks for itself.

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> “AVE MARIA: The Promise, The Reality”    Part 1,  Part 3 and  Part 4

The Chronicles of Ave Maria©

Marielena Montesino de Stuart

You may also read Marielena Montesino de Stuart’s commentaries through: RenewAmerica, USAToday, The Dallas Morning News, U.S. Politics Today (an EIN Service for Political Professionals-*) Poynter Online, Spero News, Daily Estimate, The New Liturgical Movement-Poland, The Naples Daily News, Les Femmes-The Truth, Culture War Notes,  ProLife Blogs,  The Wanderer, etc.

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Topics for Discussion:  Ave Maria, Ave Maria University, AMU, Ave Maria University Council, Ave Maria University Board of Trustees, Bishop Frank J. Dewane, Father Joseph Fessio SJ, Firing of Priest, Fiduciary Responsibility, Institutional Instability, Tom Monaghan, Nick Healy, Barron Collier,  Naples Daily News, The Wanderer, Open Letter, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Catholic town identity, Personality-Centered Environment

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