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,
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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 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
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."