Christopher Ice has served as the third president of Ave Maria University, a Catholic liberal arts college in Southwest Florida serving 1,100 students, since January 1, 2020. He assumed the position after serving three years as the chief executive officer for Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
A native of Lawrence, Kansas, President Ice played college baseball at and graduated from St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kansas. He earned an MBA at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He worked in commercial insurance for a time before returning to Franciscan to establish a new major gift division and work as an adjunct professor in the business department. In 2017, he took on the CEO role with Catholic Charities, “charged with restoring the Catholic identity in the 138-year-old organization and saving it from numerous financial challenges.”
He is a widowed father of seven children; his wife, Mary, died in 2020 of cancer shortly after he came to Ave Maria University. In a recent interview, he shared about his background and about the school.
CWR: What can you tell us about your upbringing in Kansas?
Christopher Ice: I came from a good Catholic family. My mother still lives in the house we grew up in, which she and my father built. My grandmother was very devout and had a strong influence on me. I started serving daily Mass at age 7 for a good Irish pastor at my church, and at age 15 I decided to go to the high school seminary, St. Henry’s Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois.
I graduated from the high school seminary, and I decided the priesthood was not for me. People say that time period, 1978-82, was a tumultuous time in the Church. But for me, I had some great formative years at that time. I was surrounded by great priests who made the sacraments available to me daily. And, when you take advantage of the sacraments, the Lord provides the grace to clearly see one’s vocational call. It was then I moved on to college and began playing college baseball.
CWR: Why did you switch from the commercial insurance industry to Catholic higher education?
Christopher Ice: It got to the point where our fifth child had arrived, and I was traveling four nights a week covering a five-state area. I was overseeing 70 people and we were bringing in $100 million in annual revenue. But with the demands of the family, I knew I needed to do something different. For a time I owned and operated a couple of hospice programs, and I also worked as an insurance broker for six years. While I was making a nice income, and providing well for my family, my career felt empty and unfulfilling. I wanted to do something more for the Church, so that’s when I switched my corporate and private business career for one in Catholic higher education.
CWR: Your biography states that in becoming Catholic Charities CEO, you were charged with “restoring the Catholic identity in the 138-year-old organization.” Can you explain what this means?
Christopher Ice: When I arrived at Catholic Charities in Kansas City, which is on the Missouri side, it was a great service organization, but there was nothing to distinguish it from other non-profits that helped the poor. So, I began to implement practices that emphasized our Catholic identity, such as putting up crucifixes and pictures of saints throughout the building, and naming rooms after saints. I educated our staff on what it meant to work with a Catholic organization serving the poor using the catechism and papal encyclicals.
When I began that job, only eight of our 70 employees were Catholic. So, I made it a point to interview every person who came through our door looking for a job, and I shared our mission as a Catholic organization. People who supported that mission came to work for us, and those who didn’t looked elsewhere for work. That really helped transform our organization, and brought back our Catholic identity. By the time I left Catholic Charities, half of our staff was Catholic.
CWR: Why did you want to come to work for Ave Maria University?
Christopher Ice: Initially, I had no intention of applying for a job with the university; I wasn’t seeking a new position. I had three different people independently contact me, however, and tell me I should apply for the job. So I looked into it. I didn’t think of myself for the role initially, as I had never been president of a college before, and I did not have a Ph.D., although I did have an MBA and I had taught at Franciscan. I also had a lot going on at home, as my wife had gone through her second bout with breast cancer.
I began thinking I should be open to such a change and prayed for the Lord to show me a clear path. A did the 33-day Marian consecration of St. Louis de Montfort which concluded on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and it became clear that it should be something I should be open to. I was offered the job on October 7, the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary. Praise God, it was clear I should accept the position.
My wife’s cancer had returned, however, and she developed a brain tumor. Within four months of my starting my new joy, she passed away in Naples.
CWR: How have you and your family been affected by this loss?
Christopher Ice: It’s been extremely difficult. Moving the family to Florida had already been a challenge; my four younger children had moved with me. On top of it, my kids lost their mom.
At the same time we had COVID, so the university campus was empty, and activity in the town was slow. It was difficult to meet people, making for a difficult transition.
If I hadn’t discerned this new job with the aid of my Catholic faith and deep prayer, trusting in the Lord’s plan, I might have changed my plans. But the board of trustees was tremendously supportive, and the university community was fantastic, so I continued on. I’m most pleased that I did.
CWR: Tell us a bit about Ave Maria University.
Christopher Ice: We were founded in 2003 by Tom Monaghan, of Domino’s Pizza fame, who ironically himself never finished his college education. He had the idea that we should want to form our young people to be saints, and the place to do that was a liberal arts university, so he founded Ave Maria.
We’re known for our orthodoxy. I myself took the mandatum, or pledge to uphold the teaching of the Catholic faith, as has each member of our faculty. One sad statistic is that 85% of Catholic students who go off to college lose their faith by the time they graduate. We surveyed our graduating class last year to find out how many entered as freshmen who were practicing the faith, and what percent were still practicing their faith upon graduation. We discovered that 90% were still active in the Church.
Our goal is to help our students find their vocation in life. That could be a priest or religious, marriage or the single life, or it could be in a particular secular career. When our graduates leave, we want them to have a clear picture of where they want to go. They’re aided by an active spiritual life on campus, which includes three daily Masses, daily confession, perpetual Eucharistic adoration, praise and worship and rosary nights.
Many people have been attracted by the education we offer, and we’ve grown as an institution. This previous school year we had 1,100 students; this fall, we expect to have 1,200.
CWR: There is also a Catholic town, Ave Maria, which is part of the environment.
Christopher Ice: Yes, it was founded in 2007, and is directly across the street from the university. It is the fastest growing community in Southwest Florida. Five hundred homes were sold there last year, and 300 already this year.
It is a well-integrated Catholic community where you can express your faith. It has a parish which offers Mass three times daily, as well as those Masses we have on campus. On Marian feast days, we gather on the steps of the parish church and then have a procession through the town and campus. The pastor, the local bishop and I work well together. It’s a Catholic dream world.
CWR: Does Tom Monaghan still play an active role with the school?
Christopher Ice: Yes, he’s our chancellor and has served on our board. I work with him frequently. As the founder, I like to pick his brain to see where he’d like things to go. He does defer to me and the board for all decisions, the humble nature of man who he is. In fact, he will not let us name anything on the campus after him.
Tom is a great visionary, and has a passion for the University and the Catholic faith. It’s an honor to work with him.
CWR: How has the pandemic affected the university?
Christopher Ice: It did have its impact. On a Friday in March 2020, I asked our provost Roger Nutt how quickly we could move to online classes. He told me we could do so by Monday.
We did not have any COVID cases among our students, so we allowed them to stay on campus if they wished, but told them if they opted to leave and take online classes, we couldn’t allow them back. Two hundred chose to stay on campus, and we didn’t have any COVID cases through the semester.
In the fall, we offered hybrid learning. The vast majority of students chose to return to campus, where they could have in-person learning. We were one of 59 universities in the country that did so, or 2% of the universities in the nation.
COVID affected some in our Ave Maria community, but we had physicians ready to attend to them. Everyone got through whatever bouts they had, so the effects overall were minimal and minor. Praise God that we have a wonderful governor who allowed us to do what we needed to do as a private institution to handle the situation and to practice our faith.
CWR: Are things back to normal?
Christopher Ice: Yes. Masks are not required. The governor lifted that mandate, but if people want to wear one, that’s fine. But when I walk around on campus, I don’t see any masks.
CWR: You have a Mother Teresa Museum on campus.
Christopher Ice: Yes. My predecessor, Jim Towey, was her personal attorney for 20 years. He contacted the mother superior of the community to ask if the University could establish a museum in her honor, and they said yes. We are the only such museum in the U.S.
We have a first-class relic of Mother Teresa, as well as second- and third-class relics. We also have a replica of her room. The University also has a Mother Teresa service component in conjunction with the museum, in which we work with the Missionaries of Charity to have our students volunteer at missions in Calcutta. Many of our students who have gone on this trip say it was the highlight of their university experience.
CWR: What future plans do you have for the university?
Christopher Ice: We want to continue to grow. We’re nearing our capacity. We want to continue to expand our Catholic identity. We offer 31 majors; I’d like to see our online MBA program grow. We want to continue to improve our sports programs. This past year, nine of our 14 varsity sports programs had their best year ever.
CWR: What kind of student would be a good fit for Ave Maria University?
Christopher Ice: One who is seeking a strong Catholic or Christian faith-based environment who wants a solid Catholic education and is interested in our areas of study. We have a beautiful campus in Southwest Florida, and I’d encourage anyone interested in the school to visit. They’ll find a place where their Catholic faith will be nurtured, not challenged, and they will receive a top level education.
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