Ave Maria University was founded in 1998 as Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In 2007 the campus was moved to Florida, and it added graduate programs, making it a full-fledged university. The school has grown rapidly over the years, and an entire community (Ave Maria, Florida) has developed around it.
Founded by Tom Monaghan – founder of Domino’s Pizza and a prominent Catholic philanthropist – the university inaugurated its fourth president, Mark Middendorf, last year.
Middendorf is a native of Chicago, Illinois, and holds a Master of Business Administration in Finance from DePaul University. After years in various marketing and management positions, he discerned a call to the New Evangelization, he left the corporate world he had come to know and was so experienced in, and founded Lighthouse Catholic Media. LCM produced Catholic audio talks, reaching over 17 million people between its founding in 2005 and its merging with the Augustine Institute in 2015. Readers may be familiar with the kiosks which can be found in many, many parishes throughout the country, featuring Catholic books and CDs.
When LCM and the Augustine Institute merged, Middendorf became the Executive Vice President for Mission Expansion, and helped launch FORMED.org. He is also on the boards of 5 Stones, Ignatius Press, and the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy.
On February 1, 2022, Middendorf began as the fourth president of Ave Maria University. He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his history in the Catholic professional world, the challenges he faced upon coming to Ave Maria University, and his hope for the future.
Catholic World Report: Tell us about your work in the Catholic professional world, prior to coming to Ave Maria University.
Mark Middendorf: I was baptized Catholic, went to Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, started to drift a little bit when I went away to a secular university, and then even when I got my master’s in finance from a Catholic university, it was of no help on the faith side of things. Then one of my friends asked me if I wanted to read the Bible with him. And we read it cover to cover. I had about eight or nine friends that were all close friends from college, and we all decided to do this together. Every month somebody got to ask a question, and you had to be able to prove the answer in the Bible. That went on for about a year. Then one day the question came up about salvation; we stayed with that question for three years, and at the end of that three years every one of us was Catholic.
So it was through that experience that I first felt this calling – it wasn’t an audible voice, but a deep inner voice – to leave the corporate world. God had blessed me immensely in the corporate world, but I felt called to leave it and found Lighthouse Catholic Media. Really I co-founded it with Terry Barber and Dave Durand. Now, I went in full time. Dave was still doing his thing; Terry was still doing his. But they were absolutely critical. And then God blessed it – within a short number of years we were in thousands of parishes, we had 750 account managers, we were making CDs and printing books on four continents. That was really how I got to know Father Fessio [Founder and Editor of Ignatius Press] and Mark Brumley [President of Ignatius Press], because Ignatius Press had these books and we were looking to put some of those books in the Lighthouse kiosks. So then we started these partnerships with Ignatius Press. Fast forward ten years.
On August 15, 2005, I founded Lighthouse Catholic Media and left the corporate world. This was a joint decision with my wife. We had four kids under the age of seven at that time. Right before that time I got a letter from Ignatius Press to support this idea that Tom Monaghan and Father Fessio and others had, to build Ave Maria University. It was just a tomato field at that time. I loved that idea. So I made a donation, and I thought to myself, “Maybe someday one of my kids will go here.” At the time I made that donation (I think it was 2002), my oldest was four years old, and he actually graduated from Ave Maria in 2020. So I loved this concept of this university from the day it was conceived, but I never thought I would be here.
Then in 2015, I was backpacking up in the mountains with Tim Gray [President of the Augustine Institute] and our families, and Fr. Michael Gaitley. On the hike down the mountain, Tim said to me, “Hey Mark, do you think we could reach more souls if we were one apostolate, versus just partnering?” And I had that same interior thing that had happened once in my life, in 2005. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, since things were going so well for Lighthouse at the time, and we had an incredible relationship with Ignatius Press (I served on their board), but I knew God was calling me to donate my life’s work. And the Lighthouse board, of course, approved it.
Tim Gray and I decided to go to dinner after it was all consummated, and Tim asked me what the founding date of Lighthouse Catholic Media was. I told him it was August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. He said, “Oh, that’s our founding date! What year?” and I said, “On that date we were consecrated to our Blessed Mother in 2005,” and Tim said, “That was the same year and same day the Augustine Institute was founded.” And he consecrated the Augustine Institute to her, too! So she had them both, on that day. And I wouldn’t meet Tim for eight years, despite the fact that Tim grew up ten miles from my house in Illinois.
Now, we do the merger, and I think I’m going to be at the Augustine Institute for the rest of my life. I moved to Denver, I never thought I would leave. Fast forward seven years later, basically, I’m in Tim’s office after we had tried to do a merger with Ave Maria University, which had failed because the Augustine Institute board was not unanimous on it. And Tim says, “Mark, I’ve been praying about this. I think you should apply to be president at AMU.” And I knew that would cost Tim a ton, because of what I was doing at Augustine Institute, but Tim was all in it for mission. As he says that to me, I hear that same inner voice again. I ended that conversation, left his office, and left the building. I went home. Went up to my wife (I never come home in the middle of the day) and I explained to her what happened, and she said “Well, I think we have to respond to our Lord and at least pursue this. Maybe this is just a test, but put it in God’s hands.”
So that’s what we did. I wrote 87 cloisters and religious, asking for their prayers – if this is the Lord’s will, help it to happen, and if not, help it to not happen. I began the interview process. I loved Fulton Sheen from the time I first heard him. He talks about making a daily Holy Hour. So I promised our Lord that I would make the daily Holy Hour every day of my life through this interview process, and if I was selected to be the next president of AMU, I would do it every day as president.
The interview process went along. They got down to three candidates. I knew the other candidates, and they were really accomplished individuals, and I just said “Lord, if you really want me to do this, then Holy Spirit you have to show up for the final interview!” The final interview was on a Friday, basically at the hour of mercy – at 3:00 my interview started. That was my prayer to Our Lord. At the end of the interview, I thought about it and gave myself a “D” – there’s no way I got this job, I thought. But I was relieved in a sense; I love the Augustine Institute, I loved what I did, I loved my team, and was glad to go back. Half my team had come from Lighthouse Catholic Media. These were people that had worked for me for well over a decade.
Fr. Gaitley called me after I was back. I went to make my Holy Hour – I had promised the Lord I would do it, and the interview process wasn’t done yet. At the end of the Holy Hour, Fr. Gaitley called me and asked where I was. I told him where I was, and he said “Oh, you got the job.” And he would not know, he would have no clue. I said “Father, there’s no way I got the job.” Right then, as I’m talking to him, the chairman of the board calls me, so I hang up and take Patrick Rainey’s call. He offered me the job, I accepted it on the spot, and called Father back. Father said, “You know, Mark, I think what the Lord really wants to tell you is that your success won’t depend on you; it’ll depend on you working through our Blessed Mother.” And, so that is really what happened, and once I got here, it was clear to me within the first two weeks that God had been preparing me my whole life for this job, when I was in the corporate world, everything I learned starting Lighthouse Catholic Media, and then with the Augustine Institute, all preparing me to come here. It’s been a tremendous blessing since I arrived.
CWR: When you stepped into that role, what kind of challenges was the university facing (and maybe still facing)? What have you done already in the short time you’ve been there, and what are your goals?
Middendorf: One of the first things I did was to figure out what the top three concerns from the students were. What were the top three concerns from the board? And we were very blessed – the prior president, Chris Ice, they had commissioned a strategic planning session that comprised of 175 people: 14 trustees, 59 faculty, a lot of staff, and a lot of alumni. There were six commissions set up, to look at various aspects of the university. Those six commissions went through a ton of work, formulated out 29 goals amongst all the commissions combined, and they developed a great roadmap of things that needed to be addressed, and potential solutions of how to do it. So I had that playbook from day one, because that got finished in November, and I was here in February (2022). So that was a tremendous help.
Plus having been close to this university (my son graduated here in 2020, my daughter goes here now) I’ve been well aware of some of the challenges over time, so this past fall we launched three new programs. One is a first year experience program that our faculty put together; the second is to help with culture and a culture that fully fosters helping to strengthen and build the intellect (the love of truth) and the will (the love of God). And that’s the Thomas S. Monaghan Founder’s Scholarship Program. That program has been a huge blessing in this area. The other is really adhering to our core principles as far as enrollment goes – raising the standards of our enrollment, who’s admitted, and who’s not. So this past fall, if you go back to Fiscal Year 2019, we admitted 81 students that didn’t meet the minimum GPA. This fall, we admitted one.
So our average high school GPA is 3.61, for incoming freshmen. They go through admission interview, as well (we never had an interview process before). It helps the students that are thinking about AMU, and also helps the university to make sure the students that are coming here are the best students for Ave, and that it’s the best for them as well. If you’re not gonna thrive in this kind of environment and culture, then you probably won’t stay here. And we want students that we’re forming for the next four years, and graduating them.
For this fall’s incoming freshman class, we launched a program where each of the Monaghan scholars has a sister or a nun that’s been assigned to them individually that will pray for them for the next four years. Every day. Then we expanded that.
I think one of our important responsibilities when you’re forming the intellect and the will is: what are your unique gifts and talents that God has given you, that nobody else has, for the kingdom, to build up the kingdom? And the four years the students are here, for me, that’s one of the best opportunities to cultivate and understand and discover those truths about you personally, your God-given gifts. And I think one of the best places to do that is in the adoration chapel, with Our Lord. And reading through Scripture, God’s normative way that he speaks to us. So we asked everyone who is committed to making that holy hour (or even 15 minutes? 30? 45?). We’re trying to help them understand what God’s purpose is in their lives. And then also working for them to have a sister or nun assigned to them as well. We have over 200 sisters and nuns that are assigned and praying for our students, individually. And then we have many cloisters praying for the university as a whole.
CWR: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Middendorf: This university is an answer to what St. John Paul II asked all laity in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. ECE says that Catholic universities are essential to the growth of the Church.
Of the 225 Catholic universities in America, only 15 of them adhere to those principles. Of those, only eight are universities (meaning they have a Master’s program or above), and only two of them offer a doctoral program in theology. Ave Maria University is one of these two. The pope says they’re essential. And AMU stands nearly alone.
Ignatius Press published a book called The Poor Old Liberal Arts by Fr. Robert Gannon, SJ. We’ve given out an enormous number of those books, and I think if people read that book, they would understand better what’s happened, as far as Catholic education in the United States.
A lot of people don’t realize that the cost to send a student here is over $10,000 more than what we collect in student fees (tuition and room and board), so we make that up through donations. We launched Annunciation Circle (which is our monthly giving society), which is basically $10, $15, $20 a month, and that helps support our faculty, so we can continue to attract and retain the best faculty. Financially, that creates stability (then we’re not dependent on large gifts). That’s a really important aspect of what we’re trying to develop here.
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CWR has published a lot of great articles over the years, but this is one of the most interesting and inspiring – ever. On the flip side, as the article notes, the state of “Catholic” colleges and universities is a travesty.