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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Matthew A. Rarey | author
Sep 01, 2011
Filed under Featured

From ‘czar’ to president and CEO

Jim Towey comes to Ave Maria University via the George W. Bush administration . . .

Steeped in the Catholic faith, Ave Maria University’s new president and CEO Jim Towey has a deep and varied background in public service and private education — from state politics (running a 40,000-employee agency in his native Florida) to the national scene (“faith czar” in George W. Bush’s White House) to most recently serving as president of St. Vincent College.

The last post was his first experience as an academic administrator, a four-year-period he recalls as a superb learning experience for someone unused to the slow and collaborative nature of decision-making in academia versus that of politics. The school also benefited from Towey’s leadership, honed in the halls of power but humanized by his association with Blessed Mother Teresa as her attorney and long-time volunteer. Under Towey, St. Vincent witnessed record enrollments, $36 million in new fundraising pledges (compared to $15 million over the four years before his administration) and ground broken on the largest construction project in its nearly 170-year history.

A member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter, Towey took the helm at Ave Maria on March 17. He spoke to Legatus Magazine about his work ethic and the challenges ahead.

Tell us how you came to be appointed Ave Maria’s president and CEO.

Jim Towey is introduced at the new president of AMU in February 2011

I’m still surprised I’m here, actually. My family had just moved to theWashington,D.C.area last July (2010). We bought a house and transplanted our five children — ages 18, 16, 15, 11 and eight — to new schools. And we weren’t thinking I’d be going back into academia in the immediate future. I’d been consulting with the Papal Foundation and Aging with Dignity and was in the process of building a nice consulting business.

So when I was contacted by [AMU and Legatus founder] Tom Monaghan, I told him I wasn’t interested in exploring this opportunity. But his persistence in communicating his vision for AMU — and then having lunch with Michael Timmis, chairman of the board of trustees, and Michael Novak, also a trustee — led me to accept an invitation to speak on campus in January of this year.

I was familiar with AMU, having spoken at its law school back when it was in Michigan, and I’d known Tom since my White House days. But this was my first visit to AMU in Florida. In short, I was deeply moved by what’s going on here and the tremendous potential this school offers. I was impressed by the students, and the faculty here is one of the unpublicized wonders of higher education: professors who graduated from places such as Harvard, Boston College, Notre Dame — PhDs, of course — who came here to teach without having to compromise their identity as Catholics.

Ave Maria University President Jim Towey addresses Legates at the annual pro-life conference in April 2011

How did your wife and family respond to your enthusiasm?

Well, I told my wife that she had to come down here and see it for herself. She came unannounced the next week, and she agreed that this is an authentic work of the Church. It seemed against all odds, but she readily agreed to the move. It all happened very fast after that. On Feb. 8 the board of trustees chose me. On St. Patrick’s Day I was installed. There wasn’t even a search. I’m draped in Tom’s kindness and indebted to his trust.

How did your background prepare you for a college presidency?

My background in law and accounting helps me with the business side of operating a university. And working as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives convinced me of the privileged role that faith-based organizations play in shaping society.

My work with college students during my time at the White House — visiting campuses across the country and working with White House interns — really aroused in me an interest in working with college-age students. Then there was my work with Mother Teresa, who showed me the intersection between faith and service — and the splendor of truth which she celebrated through her vocation. And she certainly had a devotion to the Blessed Mother, which is why she wore a blue and white sari. It’s nice for me to come to work every day at an institution which seeks to honor her and her Son.

What lessons can you apply to AMU that you learned the first time around as a college president?

I learned a lot about the pace of decision making in academia — a much more collaborative environment than I was accustomed to at the White House or in Florida state government. I also learned that a president has to immerse himself in the lives of the students. And I learned how the hiring and retention of good people in the administration and faculty are essential, not only to academic excellence, but to building an authentic Catholic institution of higher education.

What are your goals at AMU for the next few years?

First, to maintain the proud Catholic identity of the institution while transitioning it from a start-up to a stand-on-its-own university. Tom founded this university and has funded it with hundreds of millions of his own dollars. Well, Tom said he wanted to die a poor man, and this university is busy helping him to do it. The reality, however, is that we won’t be taken seriously in academia if we’re perceived as dependent on Tom’s wallet.

So my goal is to have a balanced budget before the board of trustees for the 2014-15 academic year, and to do that we’ll need to double our enrollment to about 1,200 undergrads. We’re in an enviable position to do so. The student housing is ready and waiting, we have state-of-the-art facilities that require little maintenance, a majestic oratory and all the land you could want to construct more facilities.

It won’t be a hard sell. I think people are very interested in forming young men and women in the truth and will invest in institutions that provide not only academic excellence, but a moral climate on campus and a proud faith life.

Ave Maria University embraces Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Church’s constitution on Catholic higher education, but many colleges and universities calling themselves Catholic do not. How do you see the future of Catholic higher education in this country?

To me, the future of Catholic higher education will be found in places like AMU where a relationship with the Church and the local bishop isn’t perceived as a burden, but counted as a blessing. And I think, as Jesus said in John, Chapter 15, that if you cut yourself off from the vine, you won’t bear any fruit. Our vine is the Magisterium and the Catholic intellectual tradition, and we exist because of those fonts of grace, wisdom and truth.

What motivates and influences you vocationally?

My most important vocation is that of a married man with five kids. This is at the heart of my life. Then there’s Mother Teresa. I was given the signal grace of friendship with Mother Teresa for 12 years, so I’ll always be trying to pay back some of that debt. The Lord has blessed me with many great relationships that have influenced my life — with Sen. Mark Hatfield [R-Ore.] and Lawton Chiles when he was Florida governor, and of course George W. Bush — but also spiritual mentors such as Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and so many devout priests and religious. And most of all, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting Jesus in His disguise of the poor.

I believe the Lord led my wife Mary and me to these sacred grounds that used to be tomato fields. I remember Mother Teresa telling me to pray that I don’t spoil God’s work in my life. I find myself praying that a lot these days.

Why should business leaders, many of whom do not have a liberal arts background, want to support a Catholic liberal arts education steeped in the classics?

Schools are failing young people if they prepare them for a trade but don’t teach them how to think and write, let alone develop a moral and ethical orientation toward the good. If we don’t invest in young men and women, grounding them in a classical liberal arts education that gives them a broad and wholesome perspective on the big questions of life, we’ll have continued problems issuing from the abandonment of ethics and moral relativism that’s destroying our country.

Maybe even 30 years ago, AMU wouldn’t attract the interest it now attracts. But the culture wars, Wall Street corruption and the 2008 market collapse are compelling arguments that we need to go back to the basics: thinking, writing and embracing the transcendent morality rooted in faith traditions. These serve to educate people to think, create, ponder and produce — qualities respected by successful CEOs, who themselves are entrepreneurs and creators.

So what if undergraduates will have to get another degree later — one that’s strictly professional? The BA isn’t the end of the road. However, a liberal arts education, expressed in the context of a Catholic intellectual tradition that is faithful to the Magisterium, will give them something worth a couple extra years in school: a powerful foundation for successful lives, personal as well as professional.

Your unofficial title in the White House was “faith czar.” What do you see as the immediate prospects for religious freedom in America, particularly as they pertain to the current administration?

Very powerful forces are at work in our country seeking to promote intolerance of religion — especially in public life. So we have to be aware of the environment we live in. From that awareness, we have the responsibility not to flee a fallen culture, but to seek to uplift it through active engagement. For example, I’m one of the few college presidents who signed the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience.” It’s a simple declaration that promoting the sanctity of life, the institution of marriage and religious liberty are fundamental things worth fighting for. You’d think that agreeing with this proposition wouldn’t be controversial. But nowadays, sadly, it is.

Matthew A. Rarey is Legatus Magazine’s editorial assistant. An abridged version of this article appeared in the September issue of Legatus Magazine.


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