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Ave Maria: Michigan town feels 'duped' by college University leaves behind feelings of resentment, lawsuit in Ypsilanti, Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A pair of deteriorated elementary school buildings, displaying boarded windows and a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn, is all that remains of Ave Maria College, in Ypsilanti, Mich.

All traces of students and faculty have vanished from the 9-year-old venture, since relocated to the town of Ave Maria in Collier County. Yet whispers of anger, mistrust and broken promises linger around the Michigan town, and its neighboring city, Ann Arbor.

Several students are all that’s left to explain what became of their vacated alma mater. Faculty and staff members have moved on to try to rebuild their careers.

For those who lost their school and their livelihood, Michigan is little more than a failed experiment, a gamble gone awry. Some professors and students fear a similar fate awaits them when the Ave Maria School of Law follows the college to Southwest Florida in 2009.

“I thought this was a genuine Catholic endeavor, going to change the world,” former Ave Maria College biology professor Andy Messaros said. “We’ve been duped.”

Ave Maria College

Ave Maria College, the brainchild of multimillionaire Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, took up residence inside two Ypsilanti elementary school buildings in 1998. Hopes were high to relocate the school to Monaghan’s 280-acre Ann Arbor property, Domino’s Farms, within a few years.

But the dream was not to be for Monaghan or his students and staff. Plans for a new campus were denied zoning approval by city officials. City leaders weren’t keen on opening another school in the crowded college towns of Ypsilanti and nearby Ann Arbor, which houses the University of Michigan, Cleary University, Concordia University, Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University.

Some people in town believe another obstacle blocked Monaghan’s pleas for approval — a proposed 25-story crucifix. If built, the crucifix would have been about half the height of the Washington Monument.

During Ave Maria College graduate Paul Bower’s freshman year in 2002, students were presented the option to finish their schooling at a temporary campus in Naples, with the promise of a move to a permanent site in eastern Collier County in the next few years.

After hearing from friends who made the move to Ave Maria University’s temporary North Naples campus, Bower decided to stay in Michigan.

“They thought it was decent, but the isolation from the community there put me off,” said Bower, who graduated with a philosophy degree in 2005. “Here, we’re surrounded by a secular community, where we can talk to people with different viewpoints.

“It’s not healthy to be isolated.”

Messaros and former college Public Relations Director Kate Ernsting said they were interested in making the move south.

When he began working in 2003, Messaros said he had a verbal agreement with AMC officials to move to Naples, but was told he wouldn’t need to move for at least three years. Messaros agreed to wait, and made plans to set up his family and biology laboratory in Ypsilanti.

But within days of starting work at AMC, Messaros said he was told he would be sent to Florida within a few weeks. Messaros completed the school year on the Michigan campus, and left to rebuild his career at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

“That was the most dysfunctional academic environment I have ever been a part of,” he said. “I had done everything right up till coming to Ave Maria, and it completely derailed my career.”

Monaghan, like most Ave Maria University officials, blames much of the agitation among law school professors on a reluctance to move.

“It’s hard to uproot, because I hope everyone will come down here,” Monaghan said. “We’re still hoping some of them will change their minds.”

Ernsting is involved in a lawsuit with Ave Maria officials. She contends she was fired for reporting financial aid misdoings to department of education officials.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled this year that employees reporting to the department of education should be protected by the Michigan State Whistleblower’s Act, which states those reporting wrongdoings in their company should be protected from being fired.

Ave Maria attorneys have moved the case to the Michigan State Supreme Court.

Ave Maria School of Law

Ave Maria School of Law opened to students in 2000 in an Ann Arbor building that formerly housed the National Sanitary Headquarters. Like Ave Maria College, officials had hoped to move the law school, and its 300-plus students, to a permanent site in Domino’s Farms.

In 2003, officials commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of relocating the school to Southwest Florida. Failing to get the desired result, Monaghan asked for another study to be commissioned in 2006, which prompted this year’s announcement that the school will move to Ave Maria.

“My initial reaction was skeptical,” said Bernard Dobranski, dean of the Ave Maria School of Law. “We were doing well here, and there’s a natural reluctance to change what’s working.

“But then, I became aware of the (Naples) area and its potential.”

Dobranski and Monaghan wax poetic about all the possibilities awaiting the school in the town of Ave Maria.

“There is no other school in the southeast (United States) that offers our goals: to be relatively small, selective and to be a national Catholic law school,” Dobranski said. “From a personal standpoint, I’m very comfortable and happy (in Michigan), but I have no doubt we will thrive” in Ave Maria, east of Naples.

But law school professors aren’t confident the move will go as smoothly as planned.

The law school received full accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2005. In order to move, the ABA must grant the school an approval known as an “acquiesce.” This states the school will not change enough to fall out of accreditation standards.

“Since the majority of the faculty won’t be relocating, it’ll probably make it a new school,” said Richard Myers, an associate professor. “Maybe (officials) think there will be enough turnover before they go to make it look like it’s the same, but I don’t know if the ABA will buy that.”

Faculty angst may complicate matters, as well.

In 2006, faculty members voted 11-3, with two abstaining, in favor of removing Dobranski from the school. The vote was ignored by law school officials and Monaghan, professors said.

Last year, several professors filed a complaint with the ABA, launching an investigation of the school’s practices. Professors contend they had no place in the management of the school, which violates ABA standards.

If enough violations are cited, and are not corrected, the possibility of acquiring acquiesce would become even more difficult.

“We wanted to keep things in-house, and not hurt the school,” said Phil Pucillo, an associate professor at the law school. “But when no one was listening and nothing was being done, we had to do what was in the best interests of the school and students.”

Dobranski said he has yet to receive a report from ABA investigators.

“Until their investigation is concluded, it will be kept as confidential, as (the ABA) has encouraged,” he said.

Dobranski said any concerns about the move are premature. The school must focus on gaining acquiesce before packing boxes.

“I would absolutely be opposed to moving if we don’t get acquiesce,” Dobranski said. “Nobody wants to start over.”

But Susy Siegle, externship coordinator for the law school and a 2003 graduate, said the school’s reputation already has damaged students’ ability to work in Ann Arbor, as well as their faith in the school.

“Some are interested in transferring. Some just want to get their degree and get out,” she said.

“It’s a difficult issue,” added Dobranski. “A lot of people are emotionally invested in these things, so it’s not surprising they are a bit more vigorous in their opposition than they should be.”

The explanation infuriates some professors at the law school. No one is against moving or the school, they say. It is the manner in which the move is being conducted, and poor leadership, that is driving them away, they say.

“Most of us want to keep an open mind, but no case has been made that this is in the best interest of the school,” Myers said.
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Ave Maria: Michigan town feels 'duped' by college
University leaves behind feelings of resentment, lawsuit in Ypsilanti, Michigan ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A pair of deteriorated elementary school buildings, displaying boarded windows and a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn, is all that remains of Ave Maria College, in Ypsilanti, Mich.