Ave Maria School of Law, which opened five years ago with the mission of incorporating Roman Catholicism fully and fundamentally into legal teachings and has been closely watched as a result, is poised to earn the ultimate stamp of approval from its peers: full accreditation from the American Bar Association.
The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar voted last month to grant full accreditation to Ave Maria, as well as to the law school at the University of the District of Columbia, which has been recovering from years of declining bar passage rates and threats to its accreditation. Both decisions by the council are subject to approval by the ABA's main policy making body, the House of Delegates, which meets next month, but the delegates rarely overturn the council's decisions.
Ave Maria was founded in 1999 by Tom Monaghan, the former owner of Domino's Pizza, who envisioned the school as a way to deal with the "moral crisis" in law and society at large. That kind of language, combined with Monaghan's conservative political views, ensured that Ave Maria would be closely watched by law school experts and faculty groups for how it protected academic freedom and wove religious and legal themes in the classroom. (Monaghan has since founded Ave Maria College and Ave Maria University, two four-year institutions.)
The ABA's approval of the school -- though it remains one step from finality -- suggests that the school has overcome those concerns. A spokesman for the ABA said its officials typically decline comment on the accreditation of specific institutions, especially before the House of Delegates has acted.
Bernard Dobranski, the dean who helped found Ave Maria after a long career at Catholic University of America, said the law school welcomed the prospect of the ABA's affirmation that the school had met its standards for quality.
"When we founded this place we didn't want to be just a Catholic law school," said Dobranski. "We wanted to be one of the best law schools in the country, and if we were going to do that, we knew that we had to set out to meet those standards, and exceed them, as quickly as possible. We took them as givens, and I think that message came through as they reviewed us."
Dobranski said he believed the pending accreditation suggested that Ave Maria had dealt successfully with the early scrutiny of its academic freedom and other policies. "We knew from the beginning that for any institution that defines itself as we do, there will be curiosity about how academic freedom is protected and how material is presented in classroom," he said. "I understand why people ask these questions, though I wish they didn't because I don't think they're justified.
"If we're doing our job properly, there needs to be academic freedom here because of our mission," Dobranski added. "We stand for certain principles, and we just can't take these principles and say to students, 'These are the principles, believe them, accept them.' While we're a religious institution, we don't intend to be one that's insular and narrow and self-absorbed. We need to be able to defend our own positions and challenge other people's positions. I think we have as much intellectual diversity here as you'll find anywhere."