Magnate's Decisions Stir Controversy

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan is using a large slice of his fortune to build a Catholic university in southwest Florida, exciting conservative Catholics with his dream of an academically first-class institution that is also solidly orthodox.

But along the way, he has produced lots of controversy -- first over his plan for a surrounding town in which contraceptives would not be available, then over his insistence on transplanting a successful law school from Michigan to the new campus on the edge of Florida's Corkscrew Swamp.

Last week, Monaghan caused consternation even among ardent supporters by summarily firing, then quickly rehiring, a renowned Jesuit priest who is a friend, former student and English-language publisher of Pope Benedict XVI.

The sudden dismissal of the Rev. Joseph Fessio as provost of Ave Maria University sent shock waves through conservative Catholic circles, where he is revered as a defender of orthodoxy. It set off the first-ever student protests at a school that is supposed to be a paragon of obedience to authority.

And it caused backers as well as critics of Monaghan's project to question whether his decision-making style, honed in the business world, is compatible with his self-appointed role as university chancellor.

"Institutional suicide" was the immediate response of Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, a conservative online news service, when he learned Wednesday that Monaghan had summoned Fessio to a meeting that morning and told the priest to clean out his office and leave the campus by the end of the day.

Monaghan could use his millions to try to attract a top-flight replacement, Lawler acknowledged. "But," he said, "if you're a tenured professor at another Catholic university and you see this happening, you say to yourself, 'If it could happen to Father Fessio, it could happen to anyone -- so what's my incentive for going to work at Ave Maria?' "

Ray Flynn, a former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said that even though Ave Maria University is just four years old and still unaccredited, it has enormous cachet among traditional Catholics, "and you have to credit Joe Fessio for that."

The university announced the firing in a terse statement, citing "irreconcilable differences over administrative policies and procedures."

Monaghan and university President Nicholas J. Healy Jr. met privately with students and faculty Wednesday afternoon, but they declined, through a spokesman, to speak to reporters. Fessio, meanwhile, said he was caught completely by surprise.

"Tom Monaghan and I have had our disagreements, but they've been disagreements among friends," he said in a telephone interview. "I asked for a reason, but I was not given one."

About 100 students gathered at an impromptu protest on the temporary campus that opened in 2003 in Naples, Fla. They wept, prayed the rosary and demanded answers. Rebecca Craig, 20, a junior, told the Naples Daily News that the explanation Monaghan gave privately was "meaningless."

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