Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recounts Mark’s Gospel account of when the Lord made the disciples get into a boat while he went “up on the mountain” to pray. He writes, “They are threatened by the power of the waves and the storm. The Lord seems to be far away in prayer on his mountain. But because he is with the Father, he sees them.”
We know that Jesus came and rescued the disciples, and Benedict draws an insight which applies to our little “boat” at Ave Maria University. He writes, “Often it looks as if (the boat) is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. ‘I go away, and I will come to you’ that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.”
From the founding of the university, there have been moments when it might have seemed that Ave Maria was bound to sink. The bursting of the housing bubble; the rising construction costs; the crushing terms of debt covenants; the enrollment struggle; and more, made our nine-year journey a harrowing one.
But I am happy to report that the university has reached a “safe harbor” when Standard & Poor’s Rating Services reviewed our finances, pronounced a “stable outlook,” and awarded us an “investment grade” rating of BBB-.
This rating confirms that Ave Maria is no longer a “startup” but is, in fact, operating as a going concern without dependence upon our generous founder, Tom Monaghan.
This validation by Standard & Poor’s will have an immediate, positive financial impact. The university is likely to be able to refund its bonds and take advantage of the historically low interest rates now available in the credit markets, and thereby save millions of dollars. The outlook and rating also mean those who have been watching Ave Maria from its infancy now have independent verification of what we who work here already know: Ave Maria is alive and well — and positioned for greatness.
The news came during a week when a donor made a $1 million gift to the university, and also when definitive steps were taken to transfer our Latin American Campus, which has helped thousands of Nicaraguan students since 2000 but amassed over $7 million in losses, to Keiser University later this year. These major developments were crowned last week with campus visits by Florida’s senior U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, and our governor, Rick Scott, as well as by Saturday’s triumphant commencement for the Class of 2013.
My reaction to this amazing sequence of good news was an echo of Barnabas’ response to the early beginnings of the church in Antioch, as captured in Acts 11:23: “He rejoiced to see the evidence of God’s favor.” Indeed, God has favored us in countless ways, beginning with our distinguished faculty and the high quality of education the university offers. Our value and values are attracting national attention — and legions of students.
Here are other accomplishments of this past year. There surely are many others worth citing, but these come quickly to mind:
Record enrollment last fall, with the largest entering class ever.
Improved retention — more than 600 returning students registered for this coming fall (also a record).
Creation of the Honors Program and the new majors in education and accounting.
Revision of the Faculty Handbook and expansion of online education.
Transition to a new health-care plan in Florida, averting a catastrophic spike in premiums.
Increase in service-learning participation in Immokalee by Ave Maria students.
Major information technology upgrades, a change in the phone system and campuswide availability of cable television.
Success in fundraising with more than $10 million expected to be raised by June 30 (including $3 million from our indefatigable founder).
Seamless executive leadership transition of four new vice presidents (Bill Kirk, Kevin Joyce, Maureen Joyce and Dr. Michael Dauphinais) and six new trustees (including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston).
Of course, we cannot rest in our “safe harbor” but must “go in haste” as our patroness instructs us. The Honors Program we established last fall was a success and we will expand it in September. The university has lined up eight new professors (evenly split between replacement hires and new full-time positions) to accommodate the growth in enrollment and majors. And we hope to have more than 1,000 full-time undergraduate students enrolled by Labor Day.
And on a personal note, let me take this opportunity to inform you that the Board of Trustees graciously extended the term of my employment as president through June 2016. Mary and I love it here and are grateful for this opportunity to join you in doing what Mother Teresa of Calcutta surely would describe as “something beautiful for God.”