"Human-potential" guru under scrutiny

The Sunday Gazette/November 9, 2003
By Pam Allen

Halfmoon -- Nexus to the Next Millenium is struggling with an image problem.

Potential neighbors started looking into the Colonie-based organization, which goes by the name NXIVM (pronounced nexium), when the owner applied in May to build a 68,000-square-foot building off Woodin Road.

The "human potential" school also offers business-driven courses under the name Executive Success Programs, or ESP, and has operated from offices on New Karner Road in Colonie since it opened in 1998.

The company held an unauthorized groundbreaking at the Woodin Road site in July, which attracted the attention of area residents. They collected 100 signatures from people opposed to the center.

At the same time NXIVM was under scrutiny on the Internet. A recognized cult expert and two prominent behavioral specialists posted information claiming the group's ESP program had some characteristics indicative of cult activities, and had caused serious problems for some former students. [See the reports of John Hochman, MD and Paul Martin Ph.D., and analysis of ESP and comparative study regarding thought reform techniques].

Despite NXIVM's ability to attract high-powered CEOs and billionaires to its executive coaching sessions [see cover story featured in Forbes], company officials say the negative publicity is costing them thousands of dollars a day in revenues, and the support of several well-known corporations.

"I don't think the damage that's been done will be easily undone for quite some time," said Keith Raniere, who developed ESP.

Raniere and company president Nancy Salzman both live in Halfmoon, one reason they hope to build their $15 million teaching center on seven acres in a mainly rural part of the community. The building would be financed through private investors.

The architecturally futuristic building - a tribute to civilization that would start with a stone foundation and progress to steel and glass - would house offices, classrooms, a gym, physical therapy areas and other health-related services. Initial plans called for a pool and sleeping rooms, but those amenities were later scratched.

Similar facilities are planned for Mexico and Australia, Raniere said.

About 4,000 students have taken courses since the program's inception. Some of ESP's more well-known clients include Antonia Novello, the state's health commissioner and former U.S. surgeon general: Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; and Stephen Cooper acting chief executive on Enron.

The operation took in a little less than $5 million last year, according to Raniere, who said he does not share in the profits.

Instead, he plans to reap the financial benefits of several patents that are pending on the 800 hours of instruction he developed for the program.

The company advertises through word of mouth; attendees receive free classes in exchange for signing up others.

According to the Web site, www.nxivm.com, the program's objective is to improve communication skills and decision-making by ridding people of "negative" behaviors. Raniere calls the practice a form of "rational inquiry," which he says optimizes the way the mind interprets data.

Once a day, students recite a 12-point mission statement in which they pledge to rid themselves of parasites (negative people) and envy-based behavior, and stop looking at themselves as "victims." The pledges also include statements on the integrity, honesty and the importance of "ethical" people accumulating the world's wealth. Participants also pledge to recruit others.

About 400 coaches and mentors work at varying levels of the program. Participants don't wear shoes during the sessions and wear different-colored scarves to signify their ranks.

Students call Raniere "Vanguard," a title assigned to someone who leads a movement. Salzman goes by the title "prefect," which describes someone who is head of a school. Students bow to Raniere and Salzman and the two return the bows, a ritual that Raniere patterned after those in martial arts disciplines.

All participants are required to sign a confidentiality statement agreeing never to discuss what they learned in the classes or to pass on the materials.

Talking to the leader

During a two-hour interview at a local Starbucks coffee shop, Raniere, 43, described himself as a "person who likes to fiddle with problems."

The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as have a 240 IQ [Guinness does not currently list Raniere, though he was once listed in its European edition. The publisher later dropped both his name and the category he was listed within] -- one of the highest in the world - and Raniere claims he taught himself high school math when he was 12. He graduated from Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in 1982, where he received separate bachelor's degrees in physics, biology and math. He also minored in philosophy and psychology.

The soft-spoken Raniere looks about a decade younger than his 43 years. He does not drive, walks a lot and often spends late nights at a local gym, a lifestyle evidenced by his muscular physique.

Prior to the interview Salzman plopped a small tape recorder on the table. She said the recordings are used to protect themselves from misrepresentation.

Salzman 49, who calls herself an "information junkie," said she spent 22 years trying to figure out what motivated people to reach their potential. After careers as a registered nurse, group social worker and corporate social worker and corporate trainer, she met Raniere and was fascinated by his nontraditional methods.

Unlike Salzman, it took former student Bob Bogin a while to appreciate the program's teachings.

"I rejected it totally in the beginning," said Bogin 61, who three years ago agreed to attend an ESP course at the urging of a friend.

Bogin, an attorney with the state Department of Health and a former prosecutor and criminal court judge said it took time to get past the rituals and focus on the program.

"Now, I find them to be the most rewarding courses I've ever been in," said Bogin of Waterford. He took one ESP course a week for three years and participated in a weekend intensive.

Bogin said since ESP he is better able to communicate and listen, which improved his legal skills. Before he took ESP courses, most of his cases went to trial. Now he resolves many of them before they hit the courtroom, he said.

He said courses usually involves a single topic, with groups leaders often directing the discussions back to the individual. "It gives you insight into yourself. People who are insecure could find that threatening. If people are so malleable that they believe it's a cult, they are having problems with themselves vis-à-vis the program," Bogin said.

Denying cult

Dee Dee Mitzen found the program so vital that she became a trainer. She and her husband, Ed, who owns Palio Communications in Saratoga Springs, found the courses life-changing, she said. She discounts any talk that labels ESP as a cult, or something that separates people form their families.

"I am the example of none of that being true. My husband and I are happily married, we have three kids and we're both successful in our jobs," said Mitzen, who taught seventh and eighth grade, then was a stay-at-home mom.

She touts ESP as a "school of ethics and critical thinking," and says the program has helped her get the most out of her life.

Most importantly, she said, she has stopped giving her children patronizing answers, and started asking questions that help them explore things for themselves.

"Say I'm at the playground with my son and he tells me Joey hit him. Instead of telling him, 'Joey didn't mean it,' Ill ask him, 'Why do you think Joey hit you,'" Mitzen said.

In addition to Colonie and Saratoga Springs, NXIVM now holds classes in Boston, Manhattan, Seattle as well as Anchorage, Alaska and Mexico, and is looking to expand to Germany and England, Salzman said.

Level one or "Origins" courses, cost $250 for four two-hour sessions. Level two, or "Intensives," run $7,500 for the 16-day. A more advanced intensive session costs $6,2500 a week.

In some cases, a student is not a good candidate for the more advanced sessions, Raniere said.

Training for higher-level business executives costs $10,000 for five days, and highly handled" sessions that are held in remote areas can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million Raniere said.

Application denied

In August, the Saratoga County Planning Board denied NXIVM's application for the Halfmoon facility, saying the commercial site was not zoned for educational use.

In order to supersede the county board's decision the Halfmoon Planning Board would have to approve the application with a super-majority vote. Stephen Watts, chairman of the town planning board said it is waiting for a completed traffic study before making a decision.

If the board rejects the application, NXIVM could apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance.

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