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Latest Monaghan university opens in Nicaragua

San Marcos, Nicaragua

Here in the coffee-clad hills of southern Nicaragua, pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan of Ann Arbor, Mich., has acquired a secondhand college as part of his campaign to spread conservative Catholic influence through education.

An extension of Monaghan’s Ave Maria University in Ypsilanti, Mich., Ave Maria College of the Americas is a small place. The school in Nicaragua hopes to attract just 600 students within two years. As the latest in the chain of schools being developed by a man who made millions creating a chain of Domino’s pizza parlors, however, its importance could reach far beyond this sleepy Central American town an hour south of Managua.

Yet the new Ave Maria College must overcome daunting challenges if it is going to turn out dedicated troops of the Catholic right. On one level, the story of the school is another chapter in the conservative Catholic education empire Monaghan is attempting to build. At the same time, it is just as much a story of post-revolution Nicaragua, where the absolute lines of conflict become blurred and where, amid deep poverty, a successful U.S. entrepreneur is trying to implant U.S.-style Catholic higher education with a U.S.-style price tag.

Those running this campus today aren’t the first to mount a religiously inspired college here. Before Monaghan and the Catholics took it over, this was a branch campus of the University of Mobile, a Baptist school sponsored by the Alabama Baptist Convention. University of Mobile officials arrived in Nicaragua after the electoral fall of the leftist Sandinistas and started holding classes in 1993. They awarded an honorary doctorate to Violeta Chamorro, then president of Nicaragua, who reciprocated by giving the school the abandoned buildings of what had once been a teachers’ college for young women.

By the end of the decade, however, the operation was in dire straits. Serious financial mismanagement of the university campus by administrators created a fiscal black hole that Alabama’s Baptists could no longer accept. In early 1999, they pulled out.

A group of wealthy Nicaraguan Catholics saw opportunity where others saw crisis. Led by Humberto Belli, a militantly anti-Sandinista activist who served as minister of education under Chamorro, they went shopping in the United States for an institution to adopt the school. The project got a serious look from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, a Catholic college that proudly displays its conservative credentials (see NCR, Sept. 11, 1998), where Belli had taught sociology for four years. But that association came to naught. Many in San Marcos expected the school to close.

In a last-ditch reprieve, Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, president of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, called Monaghan and told him about the school’s plight. Monaghan, who had earlier funded a cathedral in Nicaragua, readily handed over $1 million to keep the school running, plus $400,000 to pay off some outstanding debts.

It was a short-term solution, but after Monaghan himself came to take a look at the college in May 1999, it got a sponsor. Ave Maria College of the Americas was adopted by Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, which Monaghan had established the previous year.

School officials say a substantial subsidy will be needed from Monaghan for at least three more years.

Belli told NCR that Monaghan will soon provide funds for an additional project in Nicaragua, but he refused to elaborate.

Monaghan is no stranger to funding Catholic projects.

His ventures into Catholic education include a network of Spiritus Sanctus Catholic elementary schools, five so far, including two in Honduras, and a conservative Catholic law school founded in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1999, with $50 million from Monaghan. Deeply concerned about what he describes as a crisis of morality, Monaghan envisions his Ave Maria Law School as a “West Point for Catholicism and the law,” an undisguised slap at what he sees as lax standards at other Catholic law schools. He is founder of Legatus, an organization of Catholics who are chief executives of corporations, and of the Thomas More Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm that handles religious freedom cases and is committed to outlawing abortion. He owns a Catholic radio station and newspaper.

He helped fund Catholic Family Radio, a network of stations that got at least verbal boosts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, Nicholas Healy, former vice president of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and Fessio of the conservative St. Ignatius Press. They are names that show up regularly together on projects, key components of a loose network of institutions, academicians, philanthropists and church leaders known to advance conservative Catholic causes.

Monaghan, further, has been a staunch proponent of the provisions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the church document governing Catholic higher education and containing the highly controversial rule requiring theologians teaching at Catholic colleges to obtain a mandatum, or permission to teach, from the local bishop. At one point during the extended debate over the subject, Monaghan underwrote a project to send to every U.S. bishop copies of talks from a seminar in which speakers advocated the new document.

Domino’s started with a pizzeria

Monaghan started the Domino’s chain from a pizzeria he ran with his brother to help pay for college. Nearly 30 years later, inspired by the C.S. Lewis book Mere Christianity, he took two years off to explore religion. By then, based on the Domino’s promise of fast delivery, the chain had grown to 5,000 stores. Returning in 1991 to find his business in crisis, he rolled up his sleeves, sold some of his expensive toys -- including the Detroit Tigers baseball team -- and got the business back on track. Then, in 1998, he sold Domino’s, reportedly for $1 billion, vowing to devote his money and energy to what he sees as God’s work.

“Nothing is bad except losing your soul,” he said in an interview. Once a great admirer of President John F. Kennedy, Monaghan turned Republican when he realized he was a “free-enterpriser” at heart.

A decade ago Monaghan picked up most of the $3 million tab for a highly controversial Catholic cathedral in Managua, a project criticized both for its design and its cost. Many regarded Monaghan’s contribution as a reward to Managua’s archbishop, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo for his extreme opposition to the Sandinistas.

Nicholas Healy, who now is president of Ave Maria University, which “adopted” the school in Nicaragua, said the facility here “transcends politics.” Officials of the school “have made a very determined and irrevocable commitment not to be involved in Nicaraguan politics. … We are not taking part in any political campaigns, we are not supporting any candidates.

“We want to, more than anything else, help the poor of Nicaragua to receive a first rate education” to prepare students to enter the business world, Healy said in a telephone interview with NCR. “A quality education is the best means to achieve social justice in that society.”

Belli, president of Ave Marie College of the Americas, clearly sees a different purpose for the new school. He expects the college to draw students from all over the region. “We want to be able to say to the rich families of Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras that it is better to send your kids here than to the United States, because they’ll receive a good education here and the Catholic church will remain close to them,” Belli said. He is clearly in line with Monaghan’s take on Catholic higher education when he said that parents in the region are right to be concerned that studying in the United States often means “studying in a secular university where Catholic teaching isn’t present, and where other philosophies can be found that are hostile to the Catholic vision.”

While Belli says “the last word about the campus here belongs to the board of directors of Ave Maria College in Michigan,” he wants the Nicaraguan school to have a strong Latin American flavor. “We want to combine the best of the Hispanic culture of Latin America with the best of U.S. culture,” he said. “We don’t want to create a new gringo university, a sort of U.S. enclave disconnected from the country around us. We want it to be impregnated with Latino flavors and Latino values.”

It might have a strong Latino influence, but one of the key elements separating it from other universities in Managua is language. It is the only English-language institution of higher education in the city, said Healy. The college offers an extensive English-as-a-second-language program for incoming students.

One of the best things U.S. culture will provide is money. Besides Monaghan’s millions, more than one-third of students at the school in Nicaragua are U.S. citizens or legal residents of the United States and thus eligible for Pell grants, work-study jobs and other forms of U.S. financial aid to college students. In most cases, their citizenship or residency was acquired when the students’ families found refuge in the United States during the last two decades of the civil war. Belli is a good example of this; two of his five children were born while he lived in the North during the Sandinista Revolution.

The naming of Belli as president says a lot about what Monaghan wants to accomplish here.

A stalwart defender of what he sees as the true faith, Belli became the moral czar of Chamorro’s government, burning revolutionary-era school texts and substituting a revised version of history that celebrated the role of the United States in the region. The new texts included a variety of traditional Catholic doctrinal statements and pre-Vatican II texts about the Ten Commandments. The books enraged critics and led to a partial withdrawal of financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Belli, once a dedicated Marxist, now one of a handful of Opus Dei militants in Nicaragua, is a master at using religious and cultural values to gain political ground. He was the only Chamorro cabinet minister who stayed on when President Arnoldo Alemán took over in 1997. Alemán proved more amenable to Belli’s antics, allowing his education minister to pressure schools to use a series of “Education in Faith” booklets prepared by the Managua archdiocese. Their anti-Protestant tone prompted Protestant leaders and human rights activists to cry foul. For example, one of the texts blames Protestants for racial tensions worldwide. “Where Protestants are the majority, there have almost always been racial struggles,” the book claims, arguing that Protestants in the United States were responsible for anti-indigenous military campaigns and discrimination against blacks. “This hasn’t happened in other countries ... with a Catholic majority,” the text reads.

The same text warns evangelicals not to mess with the Virgin Mary. “To scorn Mary is an absurdity, something only the devil can incite” the text reads. “Be careful, Protestant brothers. You’re playing with fire. If you want to increase your numbers by misleading unprepared Catholics, don’t mess with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our mother. It’s something serious for which you’ll pay heavily.”

When Alemán later set up a Ministry of the Family to appease antiabortion and anti-feminist church leaders, Cardinal Obando y Bravo requested that Belli be named to run it. Belli accepted, but soon resigned, complaining about lack of funds.

Setting the tone

Belli tried to set a strict religious tone from the beginning of his tenure at Ave Maria College. Yet the dress code he promulgated was first opposed by students, then ignored. Miniskirts abound, cigarette smoke wafts through the hallways, and, according to several students and staff, the dorms are plagued by problems of alcohol and drug abuse. “It’s so noisy in the dorms it’s impossible to study,” said Gisel Salinas, an 18-year-old student from Managua. “With everyone playing different music, I have to go to the library if I want to study.”

The first major remodeling done by the campus’ new authorities was the construction of a $200,000 new chapel, dedicated to “Purisima,” the vibrant local celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Mass is celebrated daily by one of two campus priests.

When Baptists operated the school, worship participation was obligatory for students, except those receiving U.S. government aid. It’s officially voluntary now. “It would be a contradiction of the Catholic faith to require attendance at Mass,” Belli said. “I was interned in a Jesuit high school where I had to go to Mass every day, and when I graduated I said I’d had enough Masses for 20 years. We want youth to love the church, but they don’t respond well to imposition.”

Despite such words, the extremely light turnout at Masses has, in the words of one staff member, “gone over like a lead balloon with Belli.” According to Douglas Schirch, a chemistry professor from the United States, the school is considering “three or four” obligatory religious events per semester during the coming year.

“Belli thought that with Monaghan’s millions he could make a super Catholic university, but the battle is lost already,” said a faculty member who requested anonymity. “They wanted to copy the model of Steubenville, where the Masses are packed everyday. Yet, the Steubenville model won’t work here. The rich Nicaraguan kids who come here aren’t very pious. The pious in Nicaragua are the poor and middle class, especially women, and they can’t afford to come to Ave Maria.”

If Belli has anything going for him besides Monaghan’s beneficence, it’s the faculty he inherited, which includes a handful with doctorates from respectable universities in the United States and Europe. Yet he’s setting about to remake the faculty, which includes many professors he probably wouldn’t have chosen himself. Belli told NCR that he may soon proscribe divorced faculty, for example. Yet a small number of faculty that he described as belonging to “the liberal left” allegedly have nothing to fear.

“It’s good to have a dissident minority, as long as you have a majority with strong Catholic convictions,” he said. “Our mission is not to just be a good university, but a good Catholic university.”

According to Schirch, a Mennonite who first came to Nicaragua as part of the antiwar group Witness for Peace, Belli has been a relatively hands-off administrator. “There is a lot more faculty involvement now,” he said. Schirch, a former academic dean under former administrators, said he had not “found any disagreement with the gist of the school.”

“This isn’t a glorified Sunday school,” he said.

The faculty especially shines when compared to the mostly part-time faculty at the Catholic University of Nicaragua, founded by the Catholic right in the early 1990s. The university, despite appearances to the contrary, is a personal project of Obando y Bravo and has paid a price for that connection. The Pellas family, the richest clan in the country, recently pulled its scholarship support to protest Obando y Bravo’s close relation to Alemán, whose image as a corrupt and drunken despot gets worse every week.

In the mid-1990s, Opus Dei offered to take over the floundering administration of the university but only if Obando would let them take over the curriculum as well. Obando said no, so Opus Dei activists have contented themselves with working in several elite high schools (including the American School and the Lincoln International Academy), along with getting a few teachers into the university.

Better education

The aggressive posture of Opus Dei has helped those on the Catholic left to do a better job of higher education, according to Miguel Vijil, former vice rector of the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua. “They’re the competition, like Coke to Pepsi, and the competition has made the Jesuits work harder,” Vijil told NCR.

The Jesuit university was founded in the 1960s as a conservative bastion, but by the 1980s the Jesuits had changed with the times. Central American University was itself largely in the hands of revolutionaries and, many agree, the quality of education suffered as a result. In the 1990s, Jesuit leaders in Rome took steps to improve academic quality, but many parents were already looking for another place for their impressionable kids. At first the Catholic University of Nicaragua provided an alternative. But recently, as its academic quality has fallen, too, conservative Catholic parents have started looking for yet another place.

So it would seem that Ave Maria College of the Americas comes along at a good time to capture market share. Yet it faces one more obstacle: cost. Whereas the Catholic University of Nicaragua costs about $800 a year, annual tuition alone at Ave Maria is $8,000.

Many wealthy parents here compare that cost with that of a smaller school in the United States, where for roughly the same amount of money they might get better quality. If the student can live with a relative in the United States, a common arrangement, all the better. Parents will weigh those economic factors against Belli’s argument that their kids could be contaminated by unhealthy doctrines in foreign schools.

Despite the many obstacles that Monaghan and Belli face in launching the college, even those of different political persuasions wish them well.

Vijil, a graduate of Catholic University in Washington and housing minister under the Sandinista government, told NCR he wished Ave Maria College of the Americas success.

“The U.S. model of higher education is the best in the world at this point,” Vijil said, “and to have that model here, operating in our midst, would be very helpful for Nicaraguan universities. There is little knowledge of how the U.S. educational system works, since we’ve always followed the continental, almost Napoleonic, European system. There’s a lot that Ave Maria could teach the rest of us.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001