Ave Maria Law School Weathers Critics, Moves Forward, Says Dean

July 7, 2008 - 7:23 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., opened its doors in 2000 with a unique vision: to establish a new Catholic law school dedicated to providing students with an outstanding legal education rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Its curricula were shaped, in part, by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and its faculty today includes Judge Robert Bork. Ave Maria's founder, Tom Monaghan -- the former owner of Domino's Pizza -- has invested $50 million in the school. Its graduates continually test in the upper tier on the Michigan bar exam.

However, a February 2007 decision by the school's board of governors to relocate Ave Maria to Naples, Fla., has sparked criticism by several faculty members and students.Bernard Dobranski, dean of the Ave Maria School of Law

They have taken their complaints to the Internet and blogosphere, which, in turn, has led to coverage in the Wall Street Journal and the National Law Journal, among other outlets, raising concerns about whether Ave Maria has strayed from its mission and its principles.

Recently, the American Bar Association, after a fact-finding investigation, sent a letter to the school requesting a report on only one of the various allegations made by critics.

In an exclusive interview with Cybercast News Service, Bernard Dobranski, dean of Ave Maria School of Law and former dean of the Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, discussed the controversy, the ABA's report, the successes of the school's graduates, and the school's plans for further growth once it completes its relocation to Florida in the summer of 2009.

Cybercast News Service: Why was Ave Maria School of Law created?Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich. The school plans to complete its relocation to Naples, Fla., in the summer of 2009.

Dean Bernard Dobranski: The idea for it came from Tom Monaghan. In the fall of 1998, Tom was preparing to sell off his holdings in Domino's Pizza, for which he would get a lot of money, and much of that money would go into his foundation - Ave Maria Foundation - for a variety of projects, including educational efforts. He called me in November 1998 and asked me what I thought about starting a law school. My response was, "We have enough law schools and enough lawyers, but if you're talking about a different kind of law school, that's worth talking about."

So we talked about a different kind of law school, and this is where it is important in terms of vision. There were two twin pillars for the foundation of the law school, and they have remained our foundational principles: One is that we would do it in the context of the Catholic intellectual tradition - that's what would make us different. The second was that we would always pursue academic excellence, we would aspire to be the best law school we could be given the resources we would have so we could compete with the best law schools in the country. We would want our students to walk out of the school with the best technical skills to compete with the best law students in the country - research, write, argue, brief, all those things that lawyers do to make them outstanding lawyers.

Neither Tom nor I were interested in providing just another law school - it was to be the best possible law school that could be.

Cybercast News Service: Has the school progressed well since its start in 2000?

Dean Dobranski: We've done quite well for a brand new law school, especially in terms of employment for our graduates. Our students come from all over the country, and we are placing them in big law firms - and that's the toughest nut to crack, because prestige is so important. But we're making inroads. Another area of success has been in getting federal clerkships for our students. We can do better, but we've gotten off to a good start.

We've also had superb bar exam results. Michigan is a competitive state, and there are six law schools here, and the bar results for each are published. And we finished first for every year but one - and that year we were second. For whatever it's worth, our students are doing well on the bar exams. There is a ranking, and for all the ABA-accredited law schools, it ranked Ave Maria as second only to Stanford University in terms of bar results.

Cybercast News Service: How many students are in the law school now?

Dean Dobranski: It will be somewhere between 370 and 380 - we're in the midst of orientation now. This year, there are 127 new, first-year students. We had projected about 115. The reason we're down a little - from last year's 131 and despite skyrocketing applications - is because we announced the relocation, and this relocation affects the current class - it will spend two years in Michigan and the final year in Naples, Florida. For a lot of people, to switch location in their third year of law school is hard, and that's understandable. We projected the relocation would have a negative impact, but we've done better than we thought.

Cybercast News Service: How big is the faculty at Ave Maria now?

Dean Dobranski: It depends on how you count. It includes full-time, tenured faculty members, tenure-track members, visiting professors, and clinical professors - roughly 21 faculty members. And that excludes someone like Judge Robert Bork, who is on leave this term.

Cybercast News Service: How is the law school funded?

Dean Dobranski: It basically comes from two sources: tuition dollars and a grant from the Ave Maria Foundation, which is the foundation set up by Tom Monaghan for funding various enterprises. We get a grant from them every year. Our total budget is a little over $12 million, and about 36 percent of that is a discount rate, what we will give out in scholarships, about $3.6 million. Also, our donor base is growing. We now have nearly 7,000 donors, and their giving will reach about $600,000 this year.

Cybercast News Service: Tom Monaghan earned about $1 billion when he sold Domino's Pizza, and a large chunk of that went into the Ave Maria Foundation. Is it fair to say that the Ave Maria School of Law and all it provides - jobs for faculty and administration, scholarships for students, and a top-notch law education - would not exist were it not for Tom Monaghan?

Dean Dobranski: Oh, absolutely - first of all, it was his idea. It was his vision. Without the support he's given us, we could not have existed. The reason we got off to a great start - and I say a great start, because we got accreditation in the fastest possible time - is because Tom Monaghan was willing to invest the resources to make that happen. It took us five years to get accreditation - that's about as fast as you can do it based on the accreditation schedule.

Cybercast News Service: How is Ave Maria structured in terms of authority and administration?

Dean Dobranski: It's fairly typical, like many law schools, but what's slightly different is we're an independent law school. Most law schools are affiliated with universities. There are only a few ABA accredited law schools that are independent, not affiliated with a university. What that means is that there is not an intermediary structure - the university - between the law school and its board of governors. But if you look at our governance structure, it is very similar to what you find at most law schools, whether they are part of universities or not. The American Bar Association has standards that cover this, and they have specific standards that cover independent law schools. Among those standards is that the dean and faculty, for example, are charged with the formulation and administration of the educational program - the curricula, the methods of instruction, academic standards, graduation. We've had that from the beginning.

There's also another provision that is significant in the ABA standards. I think it's Standard 207, which specifically says, for independent law schools, the allocation of authority between the dean and the law faculty is a matter for determination of each institution, as long as both the dean and the faculty have a significant role in determining educational policy. That's always been our case. We put these governance procedures together right at the beginning of the law school, and the ABA examined them every year as they went through the process of accreditation.

All these procedures have to be in place, and they are evaluated by the ABA - and there was never any question raised about us in terms of governance. And again, our procedures don't differ much from what you see in most other law schools.

Cybercast News Service: How do the governance procedures apply to the decision to relocate the law school to Florida?

Dean Dobranski: That is a decision for the board of governors, because it is not an educational policy decision, in terms of the governance standards.

Cybercast News Service: Then how does the chain of command work at the law school?

Dean Dobranski:
There is a governing board. And because we are a not-for-profit organization, the governing board, in a sense, 'owns' the institution. And I am the president and the dean, and I have an administrative staff that reports to me, and we have a faculty, and I'm a member of that faculty. The structure is virtually identical to every other law school. The basic hierarchy - absent a university intermediary - is the same: governing board to dean to faculty. And on a fundamental decision such as where the school is to be relocated, that is a decision of the board of governors.

Cybercast News Service: Then what is meant by "shared governance," which some critics of the relocation have raised?

Dean Dobranski: Well, you have to ask those people who throw that around. I can tell you what I think they mean. Their idea of shared governance is that the board cannot make a decision to relocate unless the faculty sits down at the table with them and participates in the decision, in the sense of having the votes as well. In addition, their idea of shared governance is that if they object to the idea of relocation, then it can't happen. That simply is not the structure we have. We have a board of governors responsible for making that decision. And when we're talking about "the faculty," we're not talking about everyone here, by any means - in fact, at this time it is nowhere near a majority.

Cybercast News Service: So, under the governing rules, the faculty has no real say in the relocation decision?

Dean Dobranski:
The dean and faculty have a significant role in determining educational policy. We have a governance structure, typical in most universities, that was put into place from the beginning. It was, in fact, put together by some of the people now objecting to it. They played an important role in the policies they're now complaining about. Their idea of shared governance is one whereby the decision to relocate is fundamentally theirs. And that is simply not the case, and it is not what the American Bar Association is talking about when it talks about governance.

Cybercast News Service:
Who has the ultimate responsibility at the law school, the final say?

Dean Dobranski: The people responsible are on the board of governors. There are 15 people on the board, and I'm on the board. Tom Monaghan is chairman of the board. Our system of governance is similar to that of other law schools, and it was approved by the American Bar Association, and we got full accreditation.

Cybercast News Service:
When did the controversy and the complaints about relocation start?

Dean Dobranski: Well, there were rumblings before the official announcement in February, when it was becoming clear that the board was considering a possible relocation. In March 2006, the board retained consultants to look into the feasibility of relocating. It was after that announcement that the real vocal opposition began. The controversy heated up in the fall of 2006. We had a board meeting in September, then one in December, when we thought we would make a decision on whether to relocate but didn't have enough information. Then we had a board meeting in January 2007 and still didn't think we had enough information. So, we had another one on February 17, 2007, and that's when we made the decision to relocate. It was an 8-to-1 decision in favor of relocation.

Cybercast News Service:
What's the timetable for relocation?

Dean Dobranski:
We have to go through a process of acquiescence with the American Bar Association, which means something 'short of approval' - but it has to be done when something major occurs, such as the relocation of the entire law school. We expect to get full approval and have the school fully relocated and operating in Naples in the summer 2009. It will take that long largely because of all the permitting and the construction. We told the entering class about a possible move to Florida, and we have been telling students and faculty about a possible move for a number of years.

Cybercast News Service:
Were the faculty told, from the beginning, about a possible move to Florida?

Dean Dobranski:
No, because it wasn't on the horizon when we started the school in 2000. But once it became an issue, everybody became aware it was a possibility. At some point, around late 2003-2004, we informed faculty members that if they came to Ave Maria they needed to understand that there was the possibility of relocating. And the incoming students were told as well.

Cybercast News Service:
Do the faculty have any right to claim they should be included in the decision to relocate?

Dean Dobranski:
I think legally the board is entitled to do what it thinks is best for the school and the students. There have been other decisions made by boards of other law schools where the decision were sprung on the faculty and the students after the decisions were made. This board did not think, given the immensity of this decision, that it should be sprung on the faculty by surprise. When we announced the feasibility study, we indicated we would be seeking an awful lot of input from the various constituencies. We had input from students, input from alumni, and the faculty. There were 14 or 15 different instances of opportunity for people to offer their input, their views. Our consultants met with every faculty member individually except for one, who didn't want to meet.

Cybercast News Service:
Why was there opposition - people just didn't want to move?

Dean Dobranski:
I think that's part of it. It's not an easy thing. People establish roots. They have their friends, family, kids in school - the community. So, understandably, some people might be opposed to the idea of relocating. There's nothing unreasonable with that. In my own case, I initially was a bit skeptical of the idea. But, over time, I've seen how the project has developed, and I think it is a wonderful idea. If we don't establish a law school there, someone will. It is the last great untapped metropolitan area without a law school in the country. It's also a repository of a vast amount of Catholic wealth. At the same time, people like stability, and it's difficult to move. I understand that.

Cybercast News Service:
Have the faculty and students been offered relocation packages?

Dean Dobranski:
Yes, and the details are being worked out now. We have transition teams established, and relocation help is going to be offered. At minimum, obviously, we will offer moving expenses. My guess is that will be a very generous offer. Nobody will lose any money because of that. In terms of students, we have told the incoming class that we will give them some modest assistance - not a lot, but something to defray the fact that they will have to move. It will be keyed upon how far the person is away from Naples at the time of the move. And I presume we will do that for the next incoming class as well. Everybody who currently has a job here in Michigan is invited to come to Florida, and they'll have a job there.

Cybercast News Service:
The National Law Journal reported that several faculty members have resigned or taken leaves of absence in protest of the relocation. Can you explain what happened?

Dean Dobranski:
We have two professors who have resigned from our faculty from last spring. One is someone who was a clinical professor, and before she came here, when I interviewed her, I told her there was the possibility of a move to Florida. And she told me that she likely wouldn't be able to do that because of her personal circumstances. She wanted to stay in the Midwest. But she came in anyway, and now she has been given a clinical post at an excellent law school, Notre Dame. Her family is nearby. It was ideal for her. So, yes, she resigned. But she resigned under the best possible circumstances and with my best wishes.

The other one resigned and put out a lengthy letter with all his complaints about us. The interesting thing is that he claimed last year that there were personal reasons for his opposing the move. But now he has released a tirade of criticism, which is not consistent with what he said last August about his personal factors.

And we have two leaves of absence. Judge Bork, for instance, indicated earlier in the summer that for personal reasons he was going to take a leave this year. Judge Bork is a tremendous supporter of the law school, and I fully expect him to come back, and he wants to come back.

We have replaced the people who resigned or have taken leave. In addition, we have two new adjunct faculty, who teach part-time, and they both are tenured, full-time professors at the University of Michigan - they are the most senior members of the law faculty and probably the two best scholars in their disciplines in the United States.

Cybercast News Service:
Has Judge Bork or Supreme Court Justice Scalia criticized the relocation?

Dean Dobranski:
No, not Judge Bork. He is very supportive of the law school. And Justice Scalia has not criticized the relocation, not to my knowledge.

Cybercast News Service:
In terms of faculty leaving law schools, do you know how many faculty left other law schools this year?

Dean Dobranski:
I don't, but it certainly is not uncommon. People come and go.

Cybercast News Service: The National Law Journal also reported that at least 15 students from Ave Maria were leaving the school. What happened?

Dean Dobranski:
Yes, part of that is the transfer problem, which many law schools are concerned about. Some students, for a variety of reasons, decide to transfer to a school that is ranked higher or perceived to be better. Some students leave for personal reasons - they go back to work, or they want to go to night law school, or other personal factors.

But having said all that, there is no question that one of the reasons we are experiencing this difficulty is because many of our students have been led to believe that they are better off transferring because the school is in "trouble," the school has "controversy." And the people who are fanning that are people who are here. That includes some dissident faculty members and some students. As much as I deplore that - and I have called it despicable - I recognize that this has gone on.

Once we were talking about the decision to relocate last year, there was a real serious attempt to harm the law school, in terms of students here - we are experiencing some of that.

Cybercast News Service:
Who is Stephen Safranek, and why was he suspended?

Dean Dobranski:
Stephen Safranek is a faculty member here, and he was suspended for reasons that I won't go into. It's a pending personnel matter, and I don't think it's appropriate for me to talk about it. We have procedures for this, and we are following the procedures. He's free to say what he wants to say, and I'm not.

Cybercast News Service:
What is the status of Ave Maria's accreditation?

Dean Dobranski:
We are fully accredited, and we don't expect that to change. But when you make a major change, accreditation issues can arise, which theoretically could require an entirely new accreditation. But I can't conceive of that occurring. We are the same institution. Whenever there is a major change, the ABA always wants to know how the change affects compliance with the standards - and there's nothing wrong with that.

Cybercast News Service:
Some of the Ave Maria faculty reportedly filed complaints with the ABA. Can you explain what that is about?

Dean Dobranski:
Yes, a group of faculty - we don't know who they are or what the number is - last September, we were notified, filed complaints with the ABA about the law school. They basically boiled down to two concerns: the institutional governance - the "shared governance" issue - and academic freedom. We were amazed when the ABA asked us to respond to that given that less than a year earlier the ABA had given us full accreditation. Nonetheless, they asked us to respond. They appointed a fact-finder to discover if there was anything to all these charges. The fact-finder came in this past March and came out with a report that went before the ABA accreditation committee in late June. Then, earlier this month, we got a response from the ABA.

Now, following the ABA's review of various charges, we have been asked to report back to the ABA in December on one item - the hiring and retention of faculty - which we, of course, will be happy to do.

The ABA's decision letter includes no conclusion that the school's governance fails to comply with standards or that the law school infringed the academic freedom of any faculty member or any other conclusions with regard to any of the other charges made by the complaining faculty.

Cybercast News Service:
So, the ABA has essentially given you a fairly clean bill of health?

Dean Dobranski:
Yes, there's one item - and when you throw enough mud, something likely will stick. And what stuck was this one thing about faculty leaving. I'm very confident we'll be able to respond to this one concern. We will have no trouble convincing them that we are able to recruit new faculty - that's not a difficulty. But what's very interesting is that there's nothing about governance, shared responsibility, or academic freedom, which were the thrust of the complaints.

Cybercast News Service:
Tom Monaghan reportedly views business and academia as about 95 percent the same. How has that played out at the law school?

Dean Dobranski:
Well, only Tom can explain exactly what he means by that. But what I think he essentially means is that universities can benefit - and he means universities, I think, more so than law schools - universities can learn from the business world about how to be more efficient, operate more smoothly. There's a lot to be learned from the business world.

Cybercast News Service:
But the law school itself is a business, no?

Dean Dobranski:
Yes, there's no question about it. We need to bring in enough revenue to cover our expenses, and we need revenue to grow. Yes, it's a business, and we need to provide our services as efficiently as we can at a competitive price. You know, law school admissions are a very competitive thing, and one of the things you compete for is the tuition level. If we don't provide a service at a reasonable price and basis, we'll go out of business. We can't survive.

Getting back to Tom Monaghan and his views about academia and the business world, he certainly doesn't want us to waste money. But he has been extremely generous to us. And contrary to the impression that has been created about Tom, he has not interfered in the operation of the law school. He and I talked about this from the beginning. He understood that he knew nothing at all about the internal operation of a law school, and he's not interested in playing a role in that. He doesn't play a role in admissions or faculty hiring, or any of those things. He is the chairman of our board. His major contribution is to decide how much the Ave Maria Foundation grant will be - and he's always been generous. He's always given us what we've asked for as long as we could show it would make the law school a better place.

Now, he is the chairman of the board. He did put on the table the idea about relocating the school. He wanted the board to consider the idea. There's no question that he thought it was in the best interest of the school. That's not interference. That's a guy who's a visionary, who sees a great opportunity for this school to be better. Did he force it upon us? No. He would have liked a decision in 2003. We made a decision in 2007. That's not cramming it down anyone's throat.

Cybercast News Service:
How much money has Tom Monaghan given to the law school?

Dean Dobranski:
He has given us over $50 million.

Cybercast News Service:
So, despite the millions donated, the jobs created, the students educated - despite all these things - there is a very nasty battle among academics over the relocation of a building?

Dean Dobranski:
The relocation was a catalyst for the complaints. But a major issue is not about Florida - it's about governance. And the critics believe that they run the law school and that the board does not. The most obvious instance of this is when certain critics claim that the decision to relocate could not be made without them making it. They wanted to sit at the table and be the decisive factor. In addition, there was, from the beginning, a sense of ownership by some that the law school was theirs, that it didn't belong to the board. They think it's their law school, and it's not. There's a board, an entity. The board will change over time. But the board is there.

Cybercast News Service:
In other businesses, sometimes the headquarters relocate or various divisions relocate and people pick up and go because that's their job and that's what they have to do - it's the real world. Why should that reality be any different for people who work at a law school that is relocating?

Dean Dobranski:
There is no difference. This is the world. There are always people who resist change or are afraid of change. But the fact is that some things do change.