Politics & Policy

Hail Mary, Full of Grace…

America's newest Catholic School of Law divided.

Ave Maria School of Law is one of the newest law schools in America, and yet already it has produced some of the highest bar passage rates in Michigan in the last four years. It is widely regarded as a successful attempt to fuse the vocation to law with the broader vocation of a Christian under the auspices of training for the legal profession. Recently, however, I came across a link (one to a Professor Bainbridge) that accused the dean of Ave Maria School of Law (AMSL) of “bad faith” in turning down two (out of five) tenure petitions and dismissing a tenured professor “for cause.” Some “Catholic and other Christian” law professors (of whom Bainbridge is one), in particular members of the “Mirror of Justice” website, signed an open letter in support of allegations against the dean — even though many noted that they did not know all the facts.

I am not at the School of Law, and not on its board of governors. But I am on the board of trustees of Ave Maria University in Florida — which is now building one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation. The university board is hoping that by the fall of 2009, pending approval by the American Bar Association, the school of law in Michigan will move to a place of honor at the university’s 5,000-acre campus. The two independent institutions, each under its own separate board, have not yet decided upon the exact nature of their affiliation. Speaking for myself, I will be delighted to have such a high-achieving school of law nearby, whatever the final affiliation. The Naples bar is also said to be delighted by the school’s decision.

Some of the professors at the temporary campus of the law school in Michigan are looking forward to the law school’s move to Florida. Others, however, may not want to move. In fact, three or more have indicated that they might under no conditions heed the decision of their board of governors.

The two who have been denied tenure (a normal event in a law school) have been given a year’s leave of absence on full pay. “Mirror Of Justice” calls this a “suspension,” but it seems to me a generous offer by their Board, which will carry them from now until the late summer of 2008, better even than a sabbatical year.

I do not know the “cause” behind the dismissal of the third professor mentioned in the complaint. But it seems natural to ask myself, in the present heated climate: Apart from any specific charges of misconduct, what if this professor had decided not to move, and was in addition doing everything possible to obstruct the Board of Governors’ announced decision, as well as undermining Dean Dobranski’s authority? Of course, I don’t know all of the facts, but this seems a question worth asking.

The Mirror of Justice accusations don’t seem to measure up. For one thing, I don’t understand how those who signed the public letter denouncing Ave Maria School of Law fail to consider — or even to present for others — the relevant background on both sides of this unfortunate dispute. Their statement has a prosecutorial ring, and yet it appears to be based on little evidence. Making such accusations, particularly against a school with a Board constituted by two Roman Catholic Cardinals of vast practical experience (Maida of Detroit — and now the Vatican — and Egan of New York), eight other distinguished persons, of varying professions (mainly the law), plus two de jure members, suggests a need for disclosure. Instead, Mirror of Justice has failed to disclose the facts (or has insufficient evidence), and nonetheless proceeds as though in a prosecutorial manner. In fact, it has been publicly reported that one of the signers of the Mirror of Justice statement has been retained to help make a case against AMSL before the American Bar Association.

On the other hand, — — the law professors who claim to be defending due process, should in all fairness, I think, report the reasons behind the decision made by the Board. Without knowing a lot more, how can outsiders form a just opinion? I certainly cannot.

Among the information that seems necessary for a just opinion to be formed, on the part of the Board, the MOJ webpage, and outsiders, is the following:

1.) What is the underlying issue at AMSL that divides some disaffected faculty from the Board of Governors and the Dean? Underneath everything else, is it the fact that the Law School is moving from Michigan to Florida? Admittedly this must be a difficult upheaval for faculty members with families.

2.) What is the actual position of the Dean and the Board of Governors on this decision? What are their reasons for so deciding?

3.) Does MOJ want the legally taken decision of the Board of Governors to be rescinded? This is an important question. Law professors have competence in academic matters, including tenure procedures, but do not have competence in the fiduciary responsibilities and due diligence of the Board.

4.) Is it false — or true — that one or more faculty members pledge to break away from the present law school if the Board of Governors does not rescind its decision? If they do that, what is their case for the school’s survival?

5.) In such a fight, is the Board not hindered in its own self-defense by its rules of confidentiality, as compared with plaintiffs seeking to create such public havoc that the Board will sue for peace? It is important to note that Board members are permitted to say very little. Administrators are quite limited in what they may say publicly about personnel decisions.

* * *

A propos of the bitterness of the Civil War, the grandpa of an old philosopher-friend of mine from West Virginia once explained to his grandson, “Ain’t no hate, son, like Christian hate.” It has been my experience, alas, that the two groups of people who turn quickest to sheer burning hatred are passionate political extremists, when they have just been rejected, and passionate pious men of stern “principle,” when an important decision has gone against them.

In both cases, utter certainty about their own virtue allows the aggrieved ones to find no other explanation for their defeat except the imagined perfidy of the other side.

On the whole, I have found it best to steer clear of such hornets’ nests. Sometimes, though, a violation of fairness seems so flagrant that one feels a duty to ask all contenders to step back, slowly examine the evidence on all sides, hear the best arguments from each, and then try to go forward in fairness and justice. Law professors, above all, should wish to hear both sides of a case. So should we all.

Some very good people have gone public in this dispute. It seems important for all to listen more systematically to those on the side opposite to their own.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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