Ave Maria School of Law emerges from turbulent waters
When Kevin Cieply became dean and president of Ave Maria School of Law a little more than a year ago, he knew he was assuming the helm of a ship that had passed through some rough waters.
But today, the retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) Officer is convinced the school has emerged from the turbulence that followed its move from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Naples, FLA. Cieply believes it’s on the way to becoming an influential, significant law school in southwest Florida as well as the nation.
Despite a successful start following its founding by Tom Monaghan in 1999, Ave Maria Law lost students and faculty with its 2009 move to Naples, and it slipped to the bottom of state bar exam passage rankings.
As a newcomer to the law school, Cieply said he brings “a fresh look at the school and a look that is not necessarily tethered to that experience.”
Indeed, a string of successes followed the new dean’s arrival in Naples, although he credits many others for their work preceding his appointment.
In October, for example, the school won a favorable federal court ruling in its challenge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate. Cieply said the case was underway before he arrived and that his predecessor did a great deal of work on it.
“I came in at the end — right before the decision,” he said, adding that the school is now awaiting a ruling in a case involving EWTN. “Whatever is decided in the 11th Circuit in that case will dictate how our case eventually goes.”
Another indication that things are going well for Ave Maria School of Law is its move in February from the bottom to the top (83%) of Florida’s rankings for first-time passage of the state bar exam. Also, in March, the Diocese of Venice officially recognized the school as a Catholic institute of higher learning. Then, in April, Ave Maria Law announced a $1 million gift and purchase of the North Naples campus it had been renting from Ave Maria University.
A member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter, Cieply said these successes represent work by many people. “There’s no way I would say they’re my accomplishment, but the school’s. You just don’t accomplish those things by yourself.”
Undergirding the school’s success is clarity about its mission, Cieply said.
“We know what our purpose is,” he explained. “We aren’t struggling to find our niche or our relevance. We know we’ve got a clearly defined mission, and I see us as the manifestation of Tom Monaghan’s dream to make Catholic education relevant and a change agent for society.”
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education, said Ave Maria stands apart from other Catholic law schools with its strong emphasis on Catholic identity.
Reilly said he’s been encouraged by Cieply’s confident approach in recruiting students based on that identity. “Even some faithful Catholic institutions tend to downplay their character and he has made it a strong marketing point for the law school.”
Thomas Flickinger, a member of Legatus’ Grand Rapids Chapter, was in the law school’s first graduating class. Flickinger said he thinks the school’s greatest strength is its loyalty to the Church and its ability to train future lawyers to think not only of what can be accomplished legally, but what is ethical and morally permitted.
“Many people today figure ‘if it’s legal, it must be moral,’ but we were also trained to consider the ethics of the situation,” he explained.
Every class he took, Flickinger said, tied into the Catholic faith — whether it was reading encyclicals in property class or studying Thomistic philosopher Germain Grisez in professional liability class.
Besides infusing Church teachings into the curriculum, the school expresses its Catholic identity by opening classes with prayer and providing two Masses a day, a crucifix in every classroom, and a chaplain on campus.
To bolster its Catholic identity, Ave Maria Law has made an effort to recruit students from colleges and universities listed in the Cardinal Newman Society’s Newman Guide, which recommends schools committed to a faithful Catholic education.
Newman Guide schools, Reilly said, not only provide an outstanding liberal arts education that lends itself to a law degree, but have a strong mission fit with Ave Maria.
Last year, he said, with funding from Monaghan, the law school instituted a program offering full scholarships for students graduating from Newman Guide colleges and universities.
Twenty new students are entering the law school this fall on those scholarships. They, along with other students recruited from Newman Guide schools, will boost the Catholic student body, which last year was at 63%.
The school accepts students from all faiths without shying away from the fact that it’s Catholic, Cieply said.
“We pride ourselves on having a special fidelity to the Catholic Church and its teachings as well as the natural law,” he explained.
“We welcome anybody and everybody that will respect our mission.”
Challenges and priorities
In 2014, Ave Maria School of Law was named the best Catholic law school in the U.S. for the devout by National Jurist’s PreLaw Magazine.
To sustain and build on its high bar passage rate, Cieply said the school has hired a director of bar passage and made curriculum changes related to bar exam performance —including the addition of a one-credit course, Legal Case Analysis and Skills Enrichment. The new course, which will be offered for the first time during orientation week this fall, covers critical thinking and reading, how to brief cases, and how to structure answers for law school exams.
Cieply said his greatest challenge at this juncture is to improve the school’s financial position. The purchase of the North Naples campus was a step in that direction — in part because it will provide naming opportunities for buildings, attracting more substantial benefactors.
Among his top priorities is getting Ave Maria Law off a U.S. Department of Education financial watch list, where it has been for the last 11 years. Its presence on the list is unrelated to management of money, he said, but indicates that the school is tuition-dependent and without significant assets, endowments or equity. The school is slowly building a sound financial base, he said, adding he is hopeful that with some additional gifts, it can move off the list.
As Ave Maria approaches its 15th anniversary, Flickinger said he sees the biggest challenge as continuing to build its reputation in the legal community.
“Too many people still don’t know about the school and the many successful attorneys it has trained,” he said. “But the focus cannot simply be on the worldly view of success. The school was inspired by the encyclical Fides et Ratio; both faith and reason must flourish at AMSL for it to be truly successful.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
Learn more: avemarialaw.edu