Shakeup, sit-in at Soka U.

A dean loses his post, and a popular teacher won't be back.

The Orange County Register/February 8, 2003
By Marla Jo Fisher and Lois Evezich

Aliso Viejo -- Soka University's dean of faculty was removed, its best-known faculty member leveled charges of religious bias and students staged a sit-in Friday in the most turbulent day in the school's short history.

At the center of the controversy: Soka's decision not to renew the contract of popular teacher and best-selling author Joe McGinniss.

McGinniss, author of "Fatal Vision" and "Blind Faith," said he initially had been led to believe his one-year contract to teach writing and journalism would be renewed for a second year, but he was told 10 days ago he should leave by April.

About 20 protesting students who spread blankets and camped on a lawn also said university officials are violating their promises of academic freedom by giving hiring preference to members of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect. The students also complain the school has been hiring part-time faculty instead of full-time professors.

"I was led to believe this was a nonsectarian university," said sophomore Murphy McMahon, who was among those who camped out in front of the cafeteria. "But it's not. It's (Soka Gakkai International.)"

On Friday, university officials vehemently denied the allegations of religious preferences and said most of the faculty and staff do not belong to the Buddhist sect. Soka Gakkai International is an affiliate of the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan, which also has a large U.S. following.

Its members raised nearly half a billion dollars to build the 103-acre campus in Aliso Viejo and provide an endowment, according to published reports.

Earlier attempts to found an American branch of the Japanese university attracted controversy a decade ago when officials sought to expand a small graduate school on a hilltop in Calabasas, triggering lawsuits from neighbors.

Instead, the liberal arts university was built in Aliso Viejo. The campus, designed after a Tuscan village, opened with 100 students in 2001 amid promises of a student-centered institution with a low teacher-student ratio, a dedication to world peace and low-key recognition of its Buddhist founding. The school has about 200 undergraduates, officials said.

University President Daniel Habuki said Friday that he asked for the resignation of Dean Alfred Balitzer.

Balitzer, who could not be reached for comment, was fired because of some "inappropriate correspondence relating to this incident," campus Vice President Arch Asawa said. He declined to comment further, except to say that Balitzer will be asked to stay on to teach political science.

McGinniss, 60, said Balitzer, who also is on the faculty of Claremont McKenna College, had led him to believe that his contract would be renewed. The author said he was paid $77,500 and offered a campus-owned house to live in for his teaching duties this year.

"To be honest, if I were a member of Soka Gakkai, there would be no question of my (not) returning next year," McGinniss said.

Asawa said McGinniss' allegations are "absolutely false," and the university was pleased with his performance and his popularity with students.

"This is strictly a budgetary issue," Asawa said.

Despite the controversy, McGinniss said he would like to stay next year if invited because of the superb caliber of the students he is teaching creative writing and journalism.

"One year is not enough when you are working with writing students," McGinniss said.

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