Purge at Ave Maria Law?

Push to fire tenured faculty member -- one of the school's founders -- leaves many professors worried about state of academic freedom.
August 9, 2007

When the Ave Maria School of Law was founded in 2000, it set out to have a Roman Catholic character that would be unique in American higher education. Thomas Monaghan, the Domino's pizza magnate who bankrolled the effort, was critical of other Catholic law schools, not to mention secular law schools, and he had the funds and connections to build a new institution from scratch. Luminaries of the right helped out -- with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia making appearances at the school and Robert Bork, the would-be justice, joining the faculty of the Michigan institution.

The law school was expected to have its share of legal disputes -- taking on conventional thinking on various topics. But in recent years, the fighting at Ave Maria law hasn't been about cutting edge Catholic legal thought, or pitting the law school against secular competitors. Instead, the professors -- many of them people who share the philosophy behind the law school -- have been in revolt over what they see as the dean's efforts to squelch them.

A recent push by the administration to fire a tenured professor at the law school -- one of the professors who created the original proposal to build Ave Maria -- has other professors deeply concerned. Many at the law school are afraid to speak publicly, saying that they believe the professor threatened with dismissal is being punished for objecting to some of the dean's decisions. But privately professors say that they fear the law school has lost its values and a growing number of Catholic legal thinkers are going public calling for radical change at the law school.

An online statement from a majority of faculty members at the law school (only a few of whom felt comfortable enough to sign their names) called the charges being brought against Stephen J. Safranek "painfully thin," and said that the law school's dean -- in a system devoid of basic protections of due process -- was acting as "the sole prosecutor, judge, and jury" in the case. As a result, the law school now lacks "the most basic elements of academic freedom and tenure," the professors wrote, adding that the law school's actions were inconsistent with Catholic teaching.

While tensions aren't new at Ave Maria, calls in recent weeks for the removal of the dean and board of trustees have been growing -- and coming from people with strong credentials in legal education and in Catholic thought.

Charles Rice, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, who has taught at Ave Maria, released a public letter calling for the resignations of the senior leadership of the law school, citing the push to fire Safranek. Rice said in the letter that prior to the move against Safranek, he had thought the "chronicle of mismanagement and oppression had gotten about as bad as it could get. But this brought that record to a new and appalling low."

The dean of the law school, Bernard Dobranski, said he would not talk about the charges against Safranek or the process being used, but he said that generally, criticism he is receiving is because some faculty members object to the board's decision to move the law school to Florida. "We have some people who are not only unhappy with the decision, but have continued that unhappiness in a number of ways. It's one thing to disagree. It's another to try to undermine the board's decision," he said.

In an interview from his home -- he has already been suspended and banned from campus without prior approval, while awaiting a final decision on revocation of tenure -- Safranek said he felt like he was losing his job for charges on par with chewing gum or cracking his knuckles.

One of the main accusations, he said, was that he was present during a discussion with a job candidate where the recent tensions at the law school were discussed and that he either participated in the discussion or didn't do anything to stop it. Another accusation involves Safranek accusing the dean of lying when he said that Monaghan would spend "whatever it takes" to build the law school; the dean has denied lying. (Safranek and other faculty members believe that the spending spree largely preceded the granting of accreditation and has slowed down considerably since then.) All of the accusations followed a period in which Safranek was among those who disagreed in public with the dean about the move, and several relate to his disagreements with the dean, not any type of misconduct one might associate with bringing charges to dismiss a tenured professor.

Safranek and other professors who disagree with the dean acknowledge that they did not favor the move to Florida, but many said that they were responsible in asking questions (to which they never received good answers) about how such a move would improve the academic program. Regardless of their views on moving to Florida, they said that the crisis facing the law school has to do with squelching of dissent and a very narrow view of authority and Catholic thinking. "Tom Monaghan and Dobranski view Catholicism as co-existing with the right wing of the Republican party, which means a 1920s-era, free market capitalism, exploitation of workers and employees, abuse of employees and their families -- all is OK in the name of God, because God approves you if you are rich and powerful," he said.

Safranek said that the law school's leadership has abandoned not only academic freedom, but Catholic teachings about the dignity of individuals and the importance of treating one another with basic respect. "They are the ones who don't believe what the faith has to teach," he said. "We are really the ones trying to maintain the Catholic identity of the institution. They want it to be an offshoot of the Republican Party."

It's not only Safranek who has felt punished for speaking out. Richard Myers, a professor of law who was also among the original faculty members, said that when professors voted no confidence in the dean last year and disagreed on the move to Florida, retribution started quickly. Myers was removed from his committee chairmanships and replaced with non-tenured faculty members, even though the posts had traditionally gone to senior scholars. His salary was frozen.

Myers strongly rejected the dean's contention that this is all sour grapes from professors who want to stay in Michigan. "Sometimes it is portrayed as there are a few faculty members who didn't want to move. It's really more of a debate and disagreement about the nature of the school and the role of the faculty and academic freedom," he said. If faculty members can't disagree without fear of being punished in various ways, up to losing tenure, academic freedom doesn't have much value.

Many faculty members have said that they will not move to Florida and that has prompted much speculation about the motives for going after Safranek and other senior scholars. The American Bar Association will be reviewing the law school when it moves, and considering whether accreditation should follow. If the college loses a lot of its key professors at that time, the ABA might doubt whether the academic quality had been maintained. But several faculty members who asked not to be identified said that if professors are forced out now, and replaced by people who agree to move to Florida, Ave Maria won't have that problem.

Myers said that one question the ABA and others should consider is the role of the faculty -- in whatever state Ave Maria resides. "Is the school a real academic institution where faculty have a role, or is it run on a corporate, sole proprietorship model, where the school is run from top down and faculty are interchangeable employees?"

Dobranski, the dean, said he couldn't comment on whether faculty members who disagree with him have had their salaries frozen or been removed as committee chairs, saying that those were "internal personnel matters" and that "committee chairs change from time to time."

Asked why so many people -- at the college and elsewhere, including many who share the college's founding values -- are so angry, he said that it all must be viewed "through the prism" of the decision to move to Florida. "Some people are unhappy and so they have put a sinister cast on it," he said.

Dobranski acknowledged that there are some people who don't like the leadership of the law school, but said that it was "by no means all" of the people there. He said that the fundamental problem was that faculty members believed that they were entitled to decide where the law school should be located. "This is a group of people who don't want to relocate," he said. "They believe that they as faculty members were entitled to make that decision and not the board. That's fundamentally false."


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