Magnate's Decisions Stir Controversy
Ave Maria University's Beginning Is Marked by Tension of Provost's Firing

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."

Not quite 24 hours later, the university issued another brief statement. Expressing esteem for Fessio's "great gifts and abilities," it announced that he "has agreed to continue a relationship with us" and would become theologian-in-residence.

Fessio said by telephone that he would no longer have any administrative responsibilities and agreed to stay on "for the sake of these wonderful students." The outpouring of support -- which he said included donors threatening to stop giving and parents inquiring about pulling their children out of the university -- "was very gratifying," he said. "It had all the advantages of dying without being dead."

It happens that Fessio owes his celebrity in part to a previous demotion. In 2002, his superiors transferred him from a teaching post at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco to an assistant chaplain's job at a 40-bed hospital. More than 150 prominent Catholics sent a letter of protest to the Vatican, alleging that the transfer was a reprisal for Fessio's efforts to start a small college in San Francisco that would be more faithful to Catholic doctrine.

Since then, Fessio's reputation has been further enhanced by his relationship to Benedict, who supervised his doctoral dissertation at Germany's Regensburg University in the early 1970s, when the future pope was known as the Rev. Joseph Ratzinger.

Raised in an orphanage, Monaghan built Domino's from a single pizza parlor to a chain of 5,000 stores before selling it for about $1 billion in 1998. Announcing that he intended to die broke, he devoted himself to Catholic philanthropy.

He founded Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2000, and it was an immediate success, gaining accreditation in record time. But in recent months, many of its faculty and 370 students have been up in arms over his intention to move the law school to the new Florida campus in 2009.

Monaghan also caused a storm last year with comments about his plans to develop a town around the university in which there would be no pornography on television and no contraceptives for sale in drugstores. After an outcry and threats of lawsuits, Monaghan backpedaled.

An Ave Maria official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal if identified, likened the firing of Fessio to Monaghan's dismissal of Bo Schembechler as president of the Detroit Tigers shortly before Monaghan sold the baseball team in 1992. "He's very loyal to the people who work for him, but if he loses confidence in you for any reason, then it's like a light going off," the official said. "Sometimes he's his own worst enemy."

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