Among the many dangers for traditional conservatives, and Catholics in particular, as the culture becomes increasingly hostile to us and our way of life, is the view that we always must defend “our” people when they come under criticism—and of course never criticize them ourselves. Such has been especially the case with pizza magnate Tom Monaghan and, most especially, his Ave Maria educational enterprises. A blog entry over at The Catholic Thing shows this continuing danger. Austin Ruse, whose wife serves on the board of the Ave Maria School of Law (AMSOL)—where I taught for some years before escaping—has taken a swipe at students and faculty who opposed the draconian methods used by Monaghan and his minions to force a closure of operations in Michigan to facilitate a new operation 45 minutes inland from Naples near the Corkscrew swamp in south Florida.
Why revisit events from several years ago? Perhaps because the Ave enterprises continue to founder even as they claim a new “independence” from the famously dictatorial Monaghan. Sadly, the institutions remain a danger to Catholics, attracting young people who might make something of their lives with education at decent institutions and even giving hope of legal careers to those whose performance in college and on entrance exams show that they should pursue a different line of work. Perhaps coincidentally, I recently wrote a book review in The American Conservative (to be made available online on December 10) that, in reviewing a biography of Monaghan, goes into some of the sordid details of the Ave administration’s conduct leading up to the move. My former colleague, Kevin Lee, has posted a thoughtful open letter to Ruse on the Mirror of Justice blog; scholars from that blog wrote a critical letter on the topic that is also reproduced at mirrorofjustice.blogs.com.
All this is worth mentioning only because it speaks to the excessive deference some Catholic conservatives give, and others demand, for those in positions of power and authority—who, let us remember, are not members of the Church hierarchy, speaking on doctrinal issues. In particular, the idea has been bandied about that universities and law schools are like businesses in that the one who provides the money gets to call the tune. As we strive to maintain and rebuild our culture, we would be well served by putting this myth to rest.
With their roots in ancient Greece, universities grew to prominence during the Middle Ages. They were founded, and continue, as communities dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom (not the same thing), in which teacher/scholars are entrusted with helping form the minds and characters of young people, preparing them for lives of purpose and honor. A university always has been bigger than any one man, be he scholar or donor, and governance has always been by consensus.
In the past, this wise form of governance prevented universities from falling into the trap of striving for “relevance,” instead focusing on permanent goods such as honor, tradition, and wisdom gleaned from the greatest minds mankind has produced. Sadly, a dreadful combination of government research funding and a flood of young, untrained, unreflective radicals swamped this system during the 1960s and 1970s. The result was a disastrous turn to faddish pseudo-intellectualism that still pervades our campuses. Recent decades have seen an attempt to retake at least some institutions of higher learning. This is a noble desire, to be sure, and one in which I sought to help engage at Ave. But that attempt has been crippled from the start by the idea that power at the center of the institution is the only thing capable of putting those “pointy-headed intellectuals” in their place, teaching and not meddling with the difficult and critical matters of administration. The result has been disastrous in every instance. I could go into many examples, but Ave has it all—faculty offices and computers broken into for evidence of “disloyalty,” rampant bullying, retaliation on faculty for simply asking that contractual agreements and standards necessary to maintain the institution’s license to teach (e.g. accreditation from the American Bar Association) be followed, and a massively foolish move to the middle of nowhere in a state with almost a dozen law schools already.
The ABA found the law school was not in compliance with its standards, the school lost qualified faculty and students, and the result is a very sad set of institutions. And during this time members of the Board of Governors did, at best, nothing. They simply deferred to the man who gave the money, despite his having agreed to standards of faculty governance necessary to maintain the school’s accreditation. Criticism of such craven conduct is vital if we as a community are to protect our young people from abuse and provide them with guidance and examples for good character in difficult times.
Ruse makes much of some adolescent carping from Ave law students on a blog—as if “important people” should be given immunity from blog postings when they cooperate with powerful people’s attacks on students and faculty. The notion that “good Catholics” (or “good Protestants,” or “good conservatives”) have a duty to avoid scandal to such an extent that they must not speak out about genuine abuses is highly dangerous, especially during times when people are looking for havens from a hostile world. The last thing we need at this point is a demand for more deference toward people who have built up worldly success, let alone a fake utopia built in the swamplands to take people away from their neighborhoods and extended families to follow the misanthropic dream of a life without conflict. Life will always have conflict, and good Catholics/Protestants/conservatives need to be prepared to make real judgments and decisions on the merits as we face challenges in the world.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.