Soka’s start hasn’t been textbook

Within the campus’ beautiful walls there is roiling about alleged sectarianism and secrecy.
Orange County Register, Feb. 28, 2003
http://www2.ocregister.com/
By SUSAN GILL VARDON, The Orange County Register

ALISO VIEJO – One quarter of Soka University’s original 20 faculty members have left or will leave by June as the university founded by a Buddhist sect struggles to balance its religious legacy with a mission to provide an open, nonsectarian environment.

The 103-acre campus opened in August 2001 and was touted as an innovative liberal-arts university where peace and human rights would be emphasized and professors and students would participate in course development, hiring and budgets.

But those promises haven’t been kept, several professors and students said. Instead, they said, most decisions are made by an administration composed entirely of Soka Gakkai Buddhists. And some non-Soka Gakkai professors and students said they are uncomfortable questioning those decisions.

Biology Professor Anne Houtman, who was also assistant dean of faculty at one point, said her decision to leave was “extremely painful.”

“It was every academic’s dream,” Houtman said. “But this seems almost the opposite of the rhetoric. It’s secretive, hierarchial, coercive and deceitful.”

University administrators attribute the turnover and discontent to high expectations and the growing pains of a 1 1/2-year-old campus.

“I’d say clearly we want to have much stronger means of communication and to involve more people – students and faculty,” Soka Vice President Archibald Asawa said. “That’s something we’ve always tried to do, but sometimes, given the necessity to get things in place for the students, we have to work at a much quicker pace.”

“As we started to make things happen, it didn’t quite fit their expectations,” Asawa said. “But we do have numbers here who have stayed and are wanting to realize the vision as they envision it.”

Still, the fledgling campus is having a rocky start.

More than a dozen students have left, expressing concerns about the tense atmosphere, the academic program and the administration’s decision to trim the budget by hiring about a dozen part-time professors instead of full-time faculty for next school year.

A former art professor and a library director who were fired from Soka have taken legal action, alleging they were subjected to religious discrimination and breach of contract.

Four key employees – Houtman; the director of information; the institutional researcher; and the registrar – have resigned in recent months.

And a flap over the university’s decision not to renew the contract of best-selling author Joe McGinnis as writer- in-residence led to the firing of Dean of Faculty Alfred Balitzer earlier this month.

Those who are leaving – and some who are staying – expressed concerns about Soka’s future. They say an atmosphere in which some professors and students are afraid to speak up does not bode well for academic freedom. And that, they say, could harm the school’s pursuit of accreditation, which would boost its standing and bring in more students.

Benjamin Lin, 22, a sophomore from Singapore, said he’s not worried.

SOKA GAKKAI
The two Soka universities – the one in Aliso Viejo and one in Calabasas that opened in 1987 – are financed by Soka Gakkai International, which was formed in 1975 and is led by Daisaku Ikeda. The schools are founded on Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life. Students are not required to practice any religion.

The Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect was founded more than 70 years ago by philosopher and educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. The sect created the Komeito reform political party in the 1960s although today’s leaders say they are nothing like the ones who waged aggressive recruiting efforts in the 1950s and ’60s

With millions of members in Japan and abroad, the organization is worth billions of dollars. Much of the money comes from donations and the group’s weekly magazines and newspapers.

- Sources: News-service reports, www.soka.edu, www.sgi-usa.org

“We are a really young place,” said Lin, a Soka Gakkai member. “There are bound to be obstacles. Things are not in full rhythm yet.”

Most agree that religion and culture are playing a big part in what Lin describes as the “miscommunication and misunderstanding.”

“Soka is an experiment in terms of merging three different systems: a Japanese university model, a Soka Gakkai humanistic approach to education and a small, liberal-arts American approach,” said Duncan Williams, assistant professor of East Asian Buddhism and Culture at the University of California, Irvine.

About half of Soka’s 200-member student body is from outside the United States – mostly from Japan.

And the university is run by Soka Gakkai International, an affiliate of Japan’s largest Buddhist denomination. Members raised nearly half a billion dollars for the campus and an endowment.

Ken Saragosa, a professor of English literature and a Soka Gakkai member, said he believes the school’s struggles are magnified by its association with a religion largely unknown in the United States.

“People see it as this big, secretive thing,” said Saragosa, one of the founding professors. “I say, just walk behind the curtain. It’s not like that.”

Several American students say they are leaving or have left Soka because they feel uncomfortable with what they describe as the ask-no-questions atmosphere among the mostly Japanese and Soka Gakkai student body.

David Capron-Johnston, 19, said professors champion open discussion in class, but the administration and some Japanese students frown on it.

“If you question the subject matter that is being taught, somehow you are questioning the teachers,” said Capron- Johnston, of San Juan Island, Wash., who left Soka after the winter break.

But Japanese students typically aren’t trained to engage in class discussions with other students or professors, Williams said.

“To put students who are probably shy and unused to speaking in front of other students into an American-style classroom focused on interactive learning is a challenge,” he said. “But probably by their junior or senior years, they’ll be more able to participate.”

Others said Soka’s problems are deeper than cultural and religious misunderstandings.

Linda Southwell, who was fired from her position as art professor before the school opened, is suing the university and its administrators, alleging religious discrimination, wrongful termination and breach of contract.

John Sheridan, former director of the library, filed a petition against Soka demanding arbitration after his October 2001 firing.

Both allege that university administrators promised a nonsectarian and open working environment and failed to follow through. And both allege that they were fired without cause after they questioned the school’s ties to the Soka Gakkai religion and the credentials of administrators, including Dean Balitzer.

Southwell, a member of the school’s fledgling accreditation committee, was fired after seven months on the job.

“They said she was divisive,” said her attorney, Brian Glicker. “She was asking questions that made them uncomfortable. In a university environment, you’re supposed to be able to ask questions.”

Diana Scott, Soka’s attorney on the matter, discounted the charges. Southwell was terminated for “performance problems that manifested themselves almost immediately after she joined us,” Scott said.

Steven Weinstein, Soka’s attorney in the Sheridan case, declined to comment.

Houtman, once one of Soka’s most prominent and enthusiastic faculty members, resigned in January to take a job at Cal State Fullerton.

“This (Soka) is the least powerful faculty I have ever seen in my life,” Houtman said.

Houtman contends that Soka Gakkai professors get preferential treatment. They have been sent on student- recruiting trips that non-Soka Gakkai professors were not told about, she said. Several Soka Gakkai faculty members, including a new social psychology professor, were appointed by Soka President Daniel Habuki, she said, while non Soka-Gakkai faculty were hired after national searches.

University officials would not give a breakdown of the number of Soka Gakkai faculty, saying they aren’t asked to disclose their religions.

And Habuki denied the allegations of discrimination, saying that of 11 full-time faculty members hired last year, one is Soka Gakkai. Presidential appointments are made to bring aboard faculty with unique talents, such as multicultural experience, according to Vice President Asawa.

Soka faces a budget shortfall – of up to $10 million from the $17 million expected from an endowment-fund investment that pays most of the school’s operating costs.

Soka, in a job freeze, will hire up to 18 full-time professors next budget year, he said.

Sophomore Ramsey Demeter is one of several students who say Soka coursework isn’t challenging or innovative.

“The campus is beautiful, the mission is righteous,” said Demeter, a non-Soka Gakkai who is leaving in June. “But beneath the shining surface, there’s not a lot of depth.”

About a month ago, freshman Patrick Noon, 19, was seriously thinking about leaving. But he changed his mind.

“I hear people saying they want to leave,” said Noon, a Soka Gakkai. “But if you’re really dedicated about founding the university, you should stay. Hope made me stay.”

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