Foreclosing on a Faculty Critic

Ave Maria University and its president, James Towey, call the loan of a former professor who sued the university, possibly forcing him, his wife and their nine children from their home.

January 22, 2019
 
Michael and Caitlin Raiger's house in Ave Maria, Fla.

As an early faculty member at Ave Maria University, the Roman Catholic institution established by the Domino's founder Tom Monaghan, Michael Raiger was also the first professor to move into Ave Maria, Fla., the planned community Monaghan opened near the university in 2007.

To encourage professors to live close to the campus, for their benefit and that of their students, university administrators offered employees like Raiger and his wife loans of $150,000 to make homes more affordable. With their loan from Ave Maria, the Raigers bought their home for $353,000.

"We were basically the pioneers," Raiger says.

This month, Ave Maria sought and won a court order to sell the house out from under Raiger, his wife, Caitlin, and their nine children who call it home.

The stated reason is that the Raigers did not repay Ave Maria when the university and its president, H. James Towey, notified them last spring that it was calling the mortgage loan.

The real reason, Michael Raiger asserts, is because he and his wife are suing Ave Maria, and Towey and other administrators want the couple, and their lawsuit, to go away.

"It's another form of retaliation," he says. "They know we don’t have the kind of money to fight this, and that if they take away our house, there’s no way we’re going to be able to fight this lawsuit."

Ricardo A. Reyes, whose Tobin & Reyes law firm represents Ave Maria, roundly rejected the assertion that the university is trying to punish the Raigers. "He borrowed the money and had to repay it, and they haven't repaid it," Reyes said in an interview. "There's nothing retaliatory about it."

A History of Conflict

Jim Towey's name may be familiar to those who follow national headlines for his defense last spring of Pope Francis against Vatican whistle-blowers who criticized the pope for allegedly covering up sex abuse by a former cardinal.

Closer to home, longtime readers of Inside Higher Ed may remember Towey for his treatment of one of the few faculty members willing to criticize him publicly when he was president of Saint Vincent College, in Pennsylvania.

Mark Gruber, at the time a priest and professor of anthropology at Saint Vincent, was among the only university employees identified by name in a 2008 Inside Higher Ed article about allegedly autocratic management practices there. A year later, the university barred him from the campus and reported him to local police after saying its officials had found child pornography on a computer in a common area outside his office.

The charges were dropped after police concluded that no images on the computer had been of men under the age of 18, and that the computer was in a common area and many people had access to it. (Another Saint Vincent employee later came forward and took responsibility for having downloaded the images.)

Saint Vincent and Towey didn't stop there, though, pushing the Vatican to oust Gruber as a priest, which its leaders did in 2012.

Towey, whose diverse professional history included stints working for Mother Teresa and in President George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, left Saint Vincent in 2010, a year before his contract expired, and became president of Ave Maria in 2011.

Ave Maria, founded with a $250 million donation from Monaghan, the pizza magnate and philanthropist for Catholic causes, has sought to carve out a niche as a "fresh, faithful voice" -- part of a new wave of Catholic institutions whose mission was to "explicate the truths of the faith, and measure against them the evolving societal propositions or practices in politics, the arts, the economy, etc." In the past, those practices included slavery and Nazism, the history tab on the university's webpage states; today they are "abortion, fetal research … same-sex ‘marriage’ … and world terrorism."

The university has the stamp of approval of the Cardinal Newman Society, which urges universities to closely adhere to traditional Catholic teachings, and during Towey's time there, its enrollment has grown to about 1,100 students and its finances have solidified.

As at Saint Vincent, though, Towey has alienated many faculty and staff members at Ave Maria, on several occasions accused of forcing out those with whom he disagreed. Michael Raiger was among them.

Raiger's allegations, contained in a lawsuit he filed in state court last spring, are that he ran afoul of Towey by reporting "seriously disruptive, scandalous and disreputable behavior" by another professor to numerous administrators at Ave Maria. Raiger asserted that he had a duty under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law barring sex discrimination, to report the alleged wrongdoing, which involved among other things the other professor's purported spreading of false accusations of homosexual activity involving professors and students. (Inside Higher Ed has chosen not to identify the other people named in the lawsuits, given their distant relevance to the dispute between Raiger and Ave Maria.)

Raiger's lawsuit alleged that Towey and Ave Maria not only covered up the alleged misbehavior but also retaliated against Raiger for raising the issues. Specifically, in Raiger's telling, Ave Maria violated its own policies on renewing or extending one-year and three-year faculty contracts, among other things, leading to his separation from the university in May 2017. He filed the lawsuit on April 30, 2018.

The next day, May 1, Ave Maria alerted the Raigers of "its election to accelerate" the loan and demand payment of the principal amount of $150,000 plus interest.

In a court hearing this month, the Raigers' lawyer, Herbert S. Zischkau, described the university's decision to call the mortgage and foreclose as punishment for "being irritable to the president of the university." Raiger himself calls it "draconian" and notes that the university itself stands to lose money from selling the house now because the real estate market has declined in value. (Real estate websites currently value the property at between $185,000 and $320,000.)

Reyes, the lawyer for Ave Maria, said Florida law compels the university to counter any lawsuit brought against it (such as Raiger's) with a claim of its own for anything Raiger might owe Ave Maria in return.

"Raiger picked this fight" by suing the university, Reyes said. "When he sued, in defending the action, the university has to assert any claims it has related to the action. This is not retaliation. This was a claim that had to be brought."

Reyes said that Ave Maria's board "has approved or mandated that these loans be pursued" when employees leave. But in response to a reporter's question about whether Raiger was being singled out, Reyes said he "couldn't tell you how many loans there were, or how they were resolved."

An Ave Maria spokesman, asked a set of questions about the status of the university's mortgage loans to former employees and whether it had collected on them, did not respond.

The Larger Case

A judge this month dismissed three of the five claims in Michael Raiger's lawsuit, allowing the other two to continue. (The same judge initially dismissed the entire lawsuit last summer, but permitted the former professor to refile.)

Reyes expresses confidence that the lawsuit's claims are "unfounded" and that "that will be the ultimate conclusion" of the courts.

Raiger says he will press on with the suit and notes with some irony that, soon after approving Ave Maria's foreclosure request this month, the judge in the case urged the parties to seek mediation to try to resolve their dispute.

"Not exactly the best way to make you feel good about mediation," he said. "It's hard to see what they're trying to accomplish here, except to put pressure on me to drop the lawsuit."

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