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Beneath the Quiet of AMU Spring Break, Rumblings Are Heard

The Ave Maria University campus is outwardly quiet this week with many students and faculty away for the school's spring break. But despite the outward calm, loud rumblings are being heard in the wake of comments at a board of trustees committee meeting in February that raised questions about AMU's academic quality, marketing, student behavior and Catholic identity.

Board members have received dozens of letters from current and former faculty, staff, students, donors and parents citing specific examples of concerns raised before the board's academic affairs committee as well as other topics including student safety.

Many of the matters were aired by students at a forum held by university President Jim Towey the evening of March 5. The meeting, which lasted more than 90 minutes, was closed to the media but several of those attending made recordings, one of which was made available to The Ave Herald.

Of about two dozen questions asked at the forum, all but a handful dealt with three main topics: 1) A perceived drop in academic quality, with examples such as courses being made easier and less challenging; 2) A diminishing of the school's Catholic character, including more students who were described as having "no respect for the Catholic faith" and; 3) Risky student behavior such as over-use of alcohol, drug use and promiscuity including stories of conspicuous drug use and questions regarding a perceived lack of discipline for those who violate rules. Some other matters raised by students involved a foreign student who said he was misled when he was recruited to play soccer and what many students have seen as mistreatment of popular literature Professor Blanford Parker. And, predictably for a student forum, there was a question about the food service.

Mr. Towey strongly defended AMU's path since he assumed the presidency four years ago, noting how he led the institution out of a financial crisis and contending that he has infused it with a strong Catholic identity which, he acknowledged, is somewhat different than that conveyed before he took office.

"When Tom [founder Tom Monaghan] built six dorms and took on $52 million in debt, the reality is that $4.8 million a year goes to service debt. So when you build capacity of 1,400 beds you need to fill them. So we are not going to be Christendom. We are not going to be Thomas Aquinas College. We will be a very fine Catholic school. We will be different from them. And I think you can have fidelity to the magisterium, a quality education at an affordable price."

Noting that Mr. Monaghan no longer provides the millions of dollars each year he had given to support operations, Mr. Towey said that his support in the earlier years of AMU created an "appearance of excellence" because so many students were heavily subsidized.

He said that the university takes substance abuse seriously and disciplines those who misbehave, although such discipline is not always visible. "When you don't know how our disciplinary process works, you assume students arent' being disciplined. We do discipline, but we do it privately," he said.

Behavior problems of a few students unfortunately overshadow good works students perform, he said.

"We should also cite the ones who are going off to Haiti, or Calcutta, or who take a 23-hour bus ride to the March for Life, and the ones who are in Immokalee, 300 students in the Mother Teresa project," he said.

These actions reflect some of the school's Catholic mission, Mr. Towey said, although he acknowledged comments from many at the meeting as well as others who say the Catholic nature of the school has changed. "You're saying we're losing our Catholic identity and a bunch of different voices have said that, so I'm going to think more about that," he told one student. To another, however, he confirmed that the way the school is marketed has changed, stating his opinion that a 2010 promotional video that has received much attention showed the school "was marketing itself in such a way as to make it look like this was a seminary or a convent." (Click here to see that video in a YouTube post contrasting it with a 2014 marketing video.) A newer video, produced by a student, was posted on AMU's website March 10. Originally shown at the annual Scholarship Dinner Feb. 19, it places more emphasis on the faith aspect of the educational experience at AMU. That video can be seen on YouTube by clicking here.

Many of the issues raised in the student forum have also been mentioned in dozens of letters that trustees have been receiving since the chair of the board's academic affairs committee, Dr. Robert G. Kennedy of St. Thomas University in Minnesota, said that he was taking the matters seriously and that there would be a "fair and impartial" investigation.

In one such letter, a copy of which was sent to The Ave Herald, a professor and department chair writes about how his efforts to prepare students better for class sessions and tests "are undermined by an unwritten understanding that the faculty will assign grades within a certain range so as to maximize retention. This deterioration in standards undermines the self-respect of both students and faculty. Ultimately, it undermines the integrity of the education that we offer and it will encourage the best and brightest to look elsewhere for their undergraduate years."

Another professor credits Mr. Towey with increasing service projects and stabilizing finances but laments that the school's Catholic culture and academic standards have eroded, courses have been "dumbed down" and the "spiritual and intellectual ethos of the campus has suffered irreparable harm." 

In his discussion with students, Mr. Towey said, "We aspire to be the best liberal arts institution in America," but also acknowledged "that's going to take time."

Based on comments in other letters, the scope of any investigation may need to be widened to include allegations of improper actions by the administration toward staff and faculty as well as concerns regarding the safety and security of the campus environment.

In response to a request for an update on the board's investigation, Dr. Kennedy said the board agreed that all statements would be made by Board Chairman Michael Timmis, who did not return a request for comment.

Although a number of the university's 65 full-time faculty members have voiced concerns to the board, many also said they stand in support Mr. Towey, whose contract as AMU President was recently renewed for five years..

"Never before have I been as optimistic about this university's future prospects as I am now," wrote Politics Department Chair Seana Sugrue, who has taught at AMU for 10 years, in a letter to The Ave Herald. "We have the ability to rise to the challenges that come with institutional growth with prayer, good will, and love for our neighbors," she said. "I do not believe most faculty members find this situation demoralizing. In fact, many find our current circumstances to be revitalizing."

Dr. Sugrue, along with about 25 other faculty, signed a "letter of confidence" circulated by two other professors, Michael and Catherine Pakaluk, that commends Mr. Towey for righting the school's financial ship, shepherding its Catholic identity and opening new opportunities for faculty.

The sheer volume of emails to the board, however, suggests that the discussion will not go away anytime soon. Said one long-time observer, "The board has a lot of work to do."

[Note: this article was updated May 28 to reflect new information received regarding the number of faculty who had signed a "letter of confidence" in President Jim Towey's leadership.]

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