Ave Maria School of Law, Education / Schools, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Religion, Vicious Infighting

How Do You Solve the Problems of Ave Maria? ATL Interviews Dean Bernard Dobranski (Part 1)

Ave Maria School of Law Abovethelaw Above the Law blog.jpgWe officially declare today to be Ave Maria School of Law Day here at ATL.
This morning, we wrote about a dubious recusal motion, seeking recusal of a judge who hired Ave Maria graduates as law clerks. And now we bring you more detailed discussion about the relatively new, Catholic law school, founded in 2000 by Domino’s Pizza mogul Tom Monaghan.
We’re not the only folks these days who are writing about Ave Maria School of Law, which has been embroiled in controversy for months now. The law school has been the subject of extensive (and generally unflattering) discussion, on such blogs as Fumare, Mirror of Justice, and AveWatch. The story has been picked up by online news sources such as Inside Higher Ed and the WSJ Law Blog.
So what’s the fuss all about? It’s a long and tortured history, but here’s the short version:

(1) the school is scheduled to move in 2009 to the new town of Ave Maria, Florida (the home of Ave Maria University, located outside Naples, FL, and described as “a sort of utopia for devout Catholics and others”);

(2) a number of faculty members vigorously oppose the move; and

(3) things have gotten ugly between these faculty members and the law school’s administration, led by Dean Bernard Dobranski.

In a recent telephone interview with ATL, Dean Dobranski offered his side of the story. You can check out our interview with him after the jump.

Bernard Dobranski Dean President Ave Maria School of Law Above the Law blog.jpgThis is the first part of our write-up of our interview with Dean Dobranski. We spoke by telephone, for about two hours; these are excerpts from our wide-ranging discussion. Our questions appear in boldface type, followed by his responses.
(Also, we are sticking to posting the substance of the interview. We’ll leave commentary on Dean Dobranski’s statements to others, in the comments to this post or on other blogs.)
What was the process for deciding to move the law school to Florida, and how did it go?
It was a fairly detailed and intensive process. If you want to put this on a timeline, you go back to March 2006. At that meeting, the Board of Governors authorized a feasibility study on relocation: what were the pros and the cons. That started in March 2006.
A draft report was presented to us in mid- or late-September 2006. The board decided at that time that it wanted some more information in some areas, and some things [it would investigate on its own]. The board itself would delve into the financial aspects [of a move], through a special subcommittee. The board would also go down to Naples to see the site.
We had another board meeting in December 2006. The meeting was all about relocation. We had a special board meeting in January 2007, and we still thought we needed more information.
On February 17, 2007, the Board voted in favor of the relocation to Naples. And the decision was announced on February 20th.
Who was consulted about the law school’s move?
Throughout this process, the Board asked for and received input from various constituencies, including faculty, students, and alumni. Even though we have a relatively small number of alums, as a young school, we had special alumni meetings in Washington and Ann Arbor. We also had a number of meetings in fall 2006 and early 2007 with students.
The feedback was mixed. There were people strongly in favor of it, and people strongly opposed to it…. We went through a fairly intensive process.
It’s a controversial decision; it’s never easy for any enterprise. Reasonable people can differ on this. We just wanted to get people’s input on what they say as the positives and the negatives. Some people gave constructive comments, and some gave more inflammatory and emotion-driven comments that didn’t help in making a rational decision.
Did faculty complaints about the administration arise before or after the vote to move?
We have a group of dissident faculty members. What’s lost in this picture is that a lot of people are very supportive — supportive of the Board’s process, the Board’s responsibility, and the administration of the law school. That does not mean that they all think [the move] is a good idea. The faculty members who are supportive of the Board and the administration may not necessarily want to go to Florida.
In terms of where we are right now, I think the majority of the faculty are not in the dissident camp. We’ve hired some new people and they are excited about the move. Sometime last year, there might have been a bare majority of people who were opposed to the move.
Opposition [from the faculty] came before the vote to move but after the March board meeting where we announced the feasibility study.
What is driving the “dissident faculty members”?
There’s no question that the relocation to Florida is a catalyst for the discontent. There is a significant group of people who don’t want to go and don’t want the school to go. And they’re doing whatever they can to stop it.
We also have a group of people here who have a very different idea of governance from the Board’s views, my views, and the ABA’s. They think that decisions like this can only be made if they are part of the decisionmaking process, as opposed to giving their input. They wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than sitting down with the board and making the decision about the move.
What is the state of relations between the Ave Maria faculty and the Board of Governors?
Its relationship with much of the faculty is excellent. As to the dissident group, I don’t think the Board has a bad relationship. I think it’s the dissident group having contempt for the Board’s decisionmaking process. [The view of the dissident faculty members] is not the way boards operate. The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interest of the law school.
[O]n the issue of faculty involvement, I made a count [of] how much instances we had of soliciting faculty input. We had at least 14 specific instances of soliciting faculty input since 2002 on the question of the move. They were also invited to present their views to the board [at meetings].
But this isn’t really about input. It’s about who is going to make the decision. And the decision has been made — the Board has made its decision.
Update: The rest of the interview is now available. You can access it by clicking here.
Dean Bernard Dobranski bio [Ave Maria School of Law]
Fumare: Law, Culture, and Catholicism… up in smoke (ongoing coverage) [Fumare]
Statement about Ave Maria developments [Mirror of Justice]
AveWatch: School of Law (ongoing coverage) [AveWatch.org]
‘Reign of terror’ at Ave Maria School of Law? [Renew America]
Purge at Ave Maria Law? [Inside Higher Ed]
The Trials of Ave Maria School of Law [WSJ Law Blog]
Memorandum: The Current Crisis [WSJ Law Blog (PDF)]

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