Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Crisis at Ave Maria Law

Many MOJ contributors have had some sense of the evolving crisis at Ave Maria Law school. Below is a statement of the Association of Ave Maria Law Faculty, which group represents all but a tiny portion of that school's faculty, that provides a very full picture of the seriousness of that crisis.    -- Mark

What's going on at Ave Maria School of Law?

We have chosen to reply as a group to repeated inquiries concerning recent events at Ave Maria School of Law (AMSL). We do so to indicate the extent of our agreement concerning the serious nature of the crisis unfolding here, the need for fundamental change if AMSL is to continue to exist and serve its Mission, and to appeal for input from our colleagues in the wider legal academy.

Until now, the majority of the faculty has not made public the outrageous behavior of the Law School's administration. We have remained silent in the hope of minimizing damage to our school, believing that responsible parties would set matters right, and out of fear of escalating acts of retaliation. At this point, however, we believe it is important to allow the larger legal community to know the reality of the way AMSL's administration has abused the power with which it has been entrusted.

Those who have not been closely following events at AMSL, nonetheless, may have heard of a number of events over the last year or so. To summarize: last spring, a substantial majority of the faculty issued a vote of "no confidence" in Dean Bernard Dobranski. The response from the AMSL Board of Governors, led by Board Chairman and AMSL's largest funder, Thomas Monaghan, was a terse restatement of its support for the Dean. This rejection of open discussions, combined with retaliatory actions by the Dean, exclusion of the faculty from governance of the school, and serious violations of academic freedom were subjects of an investigation by an ABAfact-finder earlier this year. In the midst of this ABAprocess, the AMSL Board voted in effect to close AMSL and transfer its assets to a new law school to be located on the campus of Ave Maria University, in southwest Florida.

Disagreement over this proposed move is thus only one aspect of the difficulties at AMSL. Problems at AMSL go much deeper, and are much more structural.  Since the vote of "no confidence" in Dean Dobranski in April 2006 over issues of faculty governance and academic freedom, he has used threats and retaliation to try to silence members of the faculty from voicing concerns about his leadership and that of Mr. Monaghan. A majority of the faculty whom the Dean believes to be disloyal to him have been punished financially and through manipulation of the promotion and tenure system. One tenured faculty member has been repeatedly threatened with termination based upon bizarre allegations. Junior faculty members have been threatened that their careers would be harmed if they associate with disfavored tenured faculty. We have also been informed that Dean Dobranski had instituted a system of monitoring our emails and computers, and student research assistants have been closely questioned about research projects of disfavored faculty members. All tenured faculty members have been removed from the Chairs of faculty committees, and such chairs are now in the control of the few faculty members whom the Dean believes to be loyal to him. Cumulatively, such intimidation and bullying has created an intolerable atmosphere of fear and contempt at our school.

We repost here, as an example of this atmosphere, a portion of an email by AMSL's President and Dean Bernard Dobranski to the faculty sent on Wednesday, March 14 - eight days before the school was visited by an ABA fact-finder investigating complaints regarding the manner in which AMSL is being run.

The full memo is available on a web site established as a repository of documents related to the various educational enterprises run by Mr. Monaghan [html; PDF]. Here is an excerpt:

Ave Maria School of Law resources, including the Law School email, may not be used ... for any ... activities or purposes that are intended to or are reasonably likely to undermine or damage, tangibly or intangibly, the successful operations of our Law School. These limitations do not apply to activities conducted by a faculty member on his or her own time and using his or her own resources. These limitations, however, do not imply any permission to engage in activities injurious to the Law School, which activities, of course, are impermissible for any employee, regardless of the equipment used or location of the activity. Moreover, these limitations do not interfere with a faculty member's legitimate right to interact with the American Bar Association in any way, nor do they interfere with any other legitimate activities of and expressions by faculty members, consistent with the concepts of "The Centrality of the Mission" and "The Definition and Role of Academic Freedom" as set forth in the Faculty Handbook.

If any faculty member is considering using Law School resources in such a way as might be contrary to the limitations described here, he or she should fully advise me or Dean Milhizer in writing of the contemplated use and we will notify the faculty member in writing whether the contemplated use is prohibited.

We find this memo, in the context of current events, to be breathtaking in its audacity. The Dean of a (currently) ABA accredited law school is threatening to fire faculty whom he finds, in his own opinion, to be acting in any way he thinks might possibly cause harm to AMSL. He also appears to be demanding that faculty get prior approval for use of AMSL resources, thereby imposing prior restraint on their speech and conduct. Such threats (which were reiterated in a memo to all system distribution and alumni [html; PDF]) would be chilling in any atmosphere, let alone that at AMSL, which is under ABA investigation, and where the Dean already has had a vote of "no-confidence" registered against him by a substantial majority of the faculty.

In light of this conduct, a substantial majority of the faculty of AMSL has no plans to participate in relocating our beloved school to Ave Maria Town in Southwest Florida. No evidence has been presented that would suggest that the move, which was recently approved by our Board of Governors, is in the best interest of AMSL.  Indeed, it appears that the move is being pursued primarily to benefit Ave Maria University, an institution that is wholly unrelated to the Law School.

Prior to the Board of Governors’ vote to "relocate" the school, a substantial majority of the faculty, having been denied repeated requests for both a written relocation proposal and a meaningful opportunity to comment as a group on the wisdom of this move, sent a resolution to the Board opposing the proposed move and explaining that opposition [PDF]. There are all sorts of reasons why one would find it imprudent to leave a well-populated area, where a law school has made valuable contacts with the profession and for its students over the last seven years, to move 1,300 miles to a new and untested community, isolated from most of the kinds of social networks in which legal communities thrive. The resolution pointed out many of these concerns in a detailed response [PDF] to the administration's feasibility study regarding the move [PDF 5.3MB]. Given the recent track record of the poor governance of AMSL under the current administration, and given that the same governing authority will exercise an even greater range of influence - directly or indirectly - over all of Ave Maria Town, we cannot subject our institution, ourselves, and our families to the whim of that authority over the entire community: university, housing, shops, town, public services, children's schools, and Oratory.

In fact, no more than a handful of faculty members will be moving to Florida.  In combination with other challenges facing Ave Maria University [overview], it is our opinion, based upon the information made available to us and the opinions of knowledgeable persons whom we have consulted, that the ABAwill not acquiesce to the move. If AMSL moves without such acquiescence, it stands to lose its most valuable asset, its ABA accreditation.

The fear is growing that Dean Dobranski and Mr. Monaghan now intend to abandon our school, whether or not a new one eventually will arise in Florida. Indeed, at a recent meeting with AMSL students, the Dean stated that the administration has no contingency plan in the event that the ABA refuses to acquiesce in the move, and that two Board members believe that AMSL is a "failed experiment."

This "spin" on events unfortunately is not unexpected. Mr. Monaghan has already abandoned and destroyed two colleges (Ave Maria College in Michigan  and Orchard Lake Saint Mary's College, also in Michigan). So it is sadly unsurprising that he is behaving in this manner. More disappointing is Dean Dobranski's conduct, refusing even to meet with his own faculty to discuss issues of governance and the move - insisting, in effect, that they are none of the faculty's business. Most disappointing is the conduct of the Board, which has (or had) among its members two cardinals and four prominent Catholic professors.

Acting as if the move to Florida is a fait accompli before acquiescence has been granted, and failing to have a contingency plan should it be denied, is reckless. In view of this failure, faculty members have investigated options for maintaining a program of sound Catholic legal education in Ann Arbor, and have uncovered several promising avenues. We ask for support for these efforts in the near future from our colleagues around the country.

What is more, in our view calling a living community of hundreds of human persons a "failed experiment" reveals a remarkable disregard for basic Christian values. Furthermore, the charge of failure is demonstrably false. On the contrary, as our high bar passage rate and judicial clerkship numbers demonstrate, our school actually is a phenomenal success. The only failure has been the Board's inexcusable failure to provide leadership in the face of the current crisis.

As evidenced by a number of documents available on the internet [link], as well as by some rather angry, though sometimes humorous blogs [link], and by the experience and general mood and convictions of faculty and students, AMSL is engulfed in an atmosphere of fear - fear for one's job, and for one's future should one cross an administration that has shown itself determined to squelch all dissent. Faculty members, both tenured and tenure-track, have been threatened with termination. The Dean has pocketed ballots and stalked out of faculty meetings unilaterally declaring them adjourned.

Although the faculty has maintained confidentiality regarding all the specific reasons for the vote of no-confidence in Dean Dobranski, one thing not confidential is the reaction of the Board of Governors to a detailed list of the Dean's abuses: a bald reiteration of complete confidence in Dean Dobranski, followed by a year long refusal to have any substantive discussions with the faculty regarding issues of academic freedom and faculty governance. The Board also has refused repeated requests for intervention to see that the faculty's views are taken into account in regard to the decision to close down the school and transfer its assets to Florida.

We ask our colleagues at Mirror of Justice and elsewhere whether it is in keeping with Catholic Social Teaching - or even with basic standards of human decency - for a Board of Governors to simply ignore the faculty's detailed allegations of the denial of appropriate faculty governance and academic freedom? Are threats to people's jobs, should they dare speak out against a major change that may (indeed most likely will) bring ruin to the school, acceptable? What do conditions at AMSL tell us about Catholic legal education - especially if, as appears the case, Catholic law faculty from other institutions who serve on our Board of Governors are willing to let the school be destroyed in this manner? Finally, of course, we would ask for prayers and advice on how best to deal with this deplorable situation.

In Christ,

The Association of Ave Maria Faculty


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