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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

MEMO From Professor Charles E. Rice to Board of Governors


TO: Members of the Board of Governors of Ave Maria School of Law

FROM: Professor Emeritus Charles E. Rice

DATE: August 2, 2007

SUBJ: A proposed solution to the present difficulties

This memo is addressed to all the members of the Board of Governors (BOG), including the Chairman (Tom Monaghan), Dean Dobranski and those Governors who have announced their resignations since the Board voted to move Ave Maria School of Law (AMSL) to Florida. The AMSL Bylaws, as amended, provide that members serve "until...their successors are appointed by the Board." Those resignations appear to be ineffective unless the Bylaws have since been changed.

I do not have a current contact list for the BOG. Therefore I send this memo to Tom Monaghan and Bernie Dobranski with the request that they send it on to all present and past members of the BOG. Past members have potential legal liability, as well as moral responsibility, for their actions and inactions on the BOG.

Please understand that I write this memo in a cooperative spirit to offer what I believe is a constructive solution. I offer no disparagement of anyone’s motives. Nor do I question the commitment of all involved to what they genuinely see as the best interests of AMSL. At the same time, however, I take the liberty, and assume your consent, to express my views candidly and without reservation. AMSL in Ann Arbor can survive the present crisis. But that crisis has reached a point where we have a duty to speak urgently and bluntly.

The AMSL story was one of remarkable success until Tom, in 2002, dropped the bombshell of his decision to move AMSL to Florida. I refrain from reciting the numerous elements of the destabilization of AMSL that followed. That unilateral edict derived its impact from the implicit threat that if AMSL did not move to Florida Tom would terminate the commitment he had made to provide funding to AMSL in Ann Arbor. The BOG is fully aware of the events manifesting that destabilization because they were brought to the attention of the Board. In general, AMSL came to be managed as a sole proprietorship with Tom in absolute control and Bernie acting, in effect, as Tom’s resident agent. When, on numerous occasions, authentic grievances were presented to the BOG by alumni, faculty or students, the routine response of the BOG was an apparently robotic endorsement of the Dean and of whatever action of his had triggered the grievance. Or it was silence. In my opinion, as I repeatedly stated to the BOG before I was, as I see it, promoted to the rank of Gubernator Ejectus, the BOG has been and continues to be in violation of its fiduciary duty to the AMSL community by recklessly subordinating the interests of AMSL to another agenda, i.e., Tom’s Florida vision.

This memo is immediately prompted by Bernie’s letter of suspension sent to Professor Safranek on July 27th. I had thought that the AMSL chronicle of mismanagement and oppression had gotten about as bad as it could get. But this brought that record to a new and appalling low.

I have known Steve Safranek well since he enrolled at Notre Dame Law School. He is a generous, kind person of vibrant Catholic faith and total integrity, with full commitment to AMSL and especially to its students. I am familiar with the facts relating to the allegations Bernie has made against Steve to justify his suspension. In my opinion, Bernie's alleged justifications for his action are embarrassingly lacking in any foundation. The unjustifiability of the action was compounded by the hostile, petty and mean-spirited tone of Bernie's letter of July 27th.

The suspension of Steve Safranek obviously causes present and potential harm to him. I must tell you, however, that I am most disgusted by the harm inflicted on Steve’s wife, Mary, and their children, Luke, Mark, Teresa, Anne, Paul, Lucy and John. There is no justification for imposing hardship on them as an incident of such a degrading and unwarranted attack on their husband and father. The BOG itself has reached a new low of futility, in my opinion, by its failure to condemn and reverse this outrageous action.

I obviously do not agree with the policies Bernie has followed in recent years. While I emphasize that I believe that he, like the Board of Governors members, is acting in what he sees as the best interests of AMSL, the time is long past for him to resign. He has forfeited, and explicitly lost, the confidence of all his prime constituencies—students, faculty and alumni. He must go.

Which brings me to the point of this memo. It is time, not only for Bernie to go, but for all of you Governors, including the Chairman, to go. In the founding of AMSL, you set forth on a vital mission. And I insist that you mean well. But you have all made a total mess out of this project. AMSL can still survive in Ann Arbor, whether under that name or another. Tom, I presume, will abide by his binding commitment to the ABA to provide funds for AMSL through 2009. The Falvey Report, prepared by Professor Joseph L. Falvey, spelled out the budget economies and funding initiatives that would make survival a realistic prospect. Even beyond that, and beyond Tom's legal commitment, the Ave Maria Foundation, which is effectively controlled by Tom, has a moral and financial obligation to the literally thousands of people, including families, who have changed their lives in reliance on the expectations generated by Tom and the BOG as to the future of the school. There is also potential support from other sources for the continuation of Catholic legal education in Ann Arbor.

AMSL still has a future in Ann Arbor. But I have to say, without any personal disparagement of anyone, that you all have to step aside if that future is to be realized. The members of the BOG, in my opinion, have failed to perform their fiduciary duty. You all have a duty to rectify that failure. Those members who have tried to resign in the past few days or weeks can escape neither their legal nor their moral responsibility to fix the mess you have all created by your negligent acquiescence in harmful policies and decisions.

I have no illusions that you will initially regard this memo in a friendly light. Nevertheless, I pay you the compliment of candor in the hope that you will consider favorably the following suggestions:

1. Immediately dismiss Bernie from the Deanship.
2. Reverse completely Bernie’s suspension of Steve Safranek and apologize to Steve and to his family.
3. Make whatever Bylaws amendments may be necessary to enable you to appoint Judge James L. Ryan as Chairman of the BOG with authority to constitute a new BOG.
4. Appoint Judge Ryan as stated.
5. You all, including Tom and Bernie, resign from the BOG.

You all have two choices here. You can continue along the course of irrationality until the inevitable crash. After that crash, each and every one of you will carry the public repute and personal burden of responsibility for that crash and the resulting harm to so many people who trusted you. Or you can do the prudent, fair, and indeed noble, thing. You can get out of the way and let those most directly concerned make the effort, which can succeed, to bring AMSL to its full potential despite the turmoil caused by the destabilization to which your actions or acquiescence contributed. If you take this second course, you will have shown the integrity and courage to keep the mission foremost and to step aside when necessary for the sake of that mission.

I hope and pray that you will take this second course. There is no room here for recriminations or personal disparagement. Rather, we all have to focus on the mission for the good of the Church and of all the people involved.

Thank you for considering this proposal.