Soka University Under Fire

Australian Broadcasting Corporation/May 21, 2003


Soka University of America was founded eighteen months ago by Soka Gakkai International, a controversial lay Buddhist organisation. Situated in California, the University is committed to egalitarianism, world peace, and aims to turn its students into "global citizens". But staff are leaving, amid claims of secrecy and sectarian prejudice.

Details or Transcript:

Stephen Crittenden: If you were watching ABC-TV's Compass program around this time last year, you may have seen an episode on the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai. Soka Gakkai originated in Japan as an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism, but today it's a global concern, known as Soka Gakkai International, claiming twelve million followers in 177 countries. Soka Gakkai owns newspapers, TV and radio stations, art museums, schools and universities - and in fact in 2001, it opened a new university in Southern California: a liberal arts college founded on principles of global citizenship, peace and egalitarianism.

But 18 months down the track, things are far from peaceful among the groves of academe at Soka University. David Rutledge reports.

CHANTING: Nam myoho renge kyo

David Rutledge: Soka Gakkai practitioners believe that chanting the lotus sutra will bring them prosperity. And if the vast fortune of Soka Gakkai International is anything to go by, there's been a lot of effective chanting going on over the years. It's hard not to draw comparisons between Soka Gakkai and those Protestant Christian groups who believe that material wealth is a sign of divine favour. And in fact, Soka Gakkai has its own Protestant history. For centuries, Soka Gakkai has been associated with Nichiren Buddhism, which has its traditional hierarchy of priests. But after the Second World War, relations between the Nichiren priesthood and the Soka Gakkai laity deteriorated, and in 1992 the priesthood excommunicated the laity - and Soka Gakkai was born as an independent new religious movement.

Well, a new revolt against a different kind of authority is now brewing at the newly-founded Soka University in Southern California. In March this year, reports began to surface in the local media that faculty and students were leaving, amid claims that the university wasn't living up to its egalitarian principles. One of the faculty members jumping ship was Anne Houtman, Professor of Biology and Assistant Dean of Faculty. For her, the experience of working at Soka University was one of high expectations and rude awakenings.

Anne Houtman: About three-and-a-half years ago, there was a small ad in Science magazine for a biologist to help start a new private liberal arts college in Southern California. They said they were a university based on Buddhist principles, and they were non-sectarian, but they were based on the Buddhist ideas that of course are very attractive to a lot of people.

David Rutledge: And were your first impressions of the place favourable?

Anne Houtman: Absolutely, really neat people. I didn't know - they didn't tell me, and I didn't know at the time - that any of them were Soka Gakkai. I assumed they weren't, because they referred to the Soka Gakkai as sort of the parent organisation, and referred to it as this thing far away - it was giving us the funding, but we were the experts so we were going to design everything. It turns out later that they were all Soka Gakkai, and when I spoke to them about the endowment, besides having a half-billion dollar campus that was already paid for and in the process of being built, they also had a half- billion dollar endowment.

David Rutledge: They weren't just Southern Californian hippies?

Anne Houtman: Yes, they weren't some kind of "oh, wouldn't it be fun to have, like, this idealist liberal arts college where we all, you know, had the same size of office" - that was one of their things, about how they were non-hierarchical, and everyone had the same sized office. But there was funding behind it, so it wasn't going to disappear overnight.

David Rutledge: So when did things start to go wrong for you?

Anne Houtman: Well for me, it took a while. For the early faculty, there were kind of red flags right away, there were really deep concerns by some of the early faculty - all of whom have left now, either by being fired or by choosing to leave - they were really concerned about the relationship between the funding organisation, Soka Gakkai, and Soka University, and they felt that decision-making was happening in a very secretive and hierarchical way, and we weren't being told a lot of what was going on, the faculty.

At the time I thought "well, they're just paranoid", you know, but then when I became Assistant Dean and then Acting Dean of the Faculty, I started seeing things happening that I was very concerned about. And it was clear, I think, that the early faculty who left were right.

David Rutledge: So what sort of evidence did you have that the administration was secretive and hierarchical, what kinds of things were going on there?

Anne Houtman: Well, the one that really started jumping out at us was that the faculty - who were actually really fantastic faculty, lots of experience, really collegial people, really good at their jobs - would after spending days and days making decisions, doing research on what sorts of programs, and then we'd come to consensus on what was the best thing for the curriculum and for the students, then those decisions would be overturned by an administration that had no experience in academic administration at all. That continued to happen, and it was clear that decisions were being made in ways that the faculty weren't aware of.

David Rutledge: Anne Houtman, ex-Dean of Faculty at Soka University.

Arch Asawa is Soka University's Vice-President. And I put it to him that maybe the problem was one of unrealistic expectations: Western ideas of what Buddhism ought to be about, coming up against the reality of Soka Gakkai, which has its own rules and its own ways of running an institution.

Arch Asawa: Well, I think Buddhism in general is probably unfamiliar to many Westerners, and in fact the Soka Gakkai is in fact a very recognised Buddhist organisation in Japan. But I can't speak on behalf of them, I'm primarily a representative of the university.

David Rutledge: You are a Soka Gakkai member yourself?

Arch Asawa: Personally, I am, yes, but that's just my own personal practice; I don't know what bearing it might have in regard to this particular interview. So I'm here as a representative of the university, and I think if you want to get insight on questions about the Soka Gakkai, I would refer those questions to a Soka Gakkai International representative.

David Rutledge: In terms of administration, though, I understand that the university board and senior administration have more business backgrounds, and actually have rather little experience in educational administration; is that correct?

Arch Asawa: I think that's not necessarily true. If you were to look at a large part of our faculty, you'd see that a lot of them are quite experienced. Like our current Acting Dean of Faculty has more than thirty years in academia, our Provost has a very extensive background in academia. So I would not tend to characterise us in that fashion.

David Rutledge: Soka University Vice President, Arch Asawa.

Well Anne Houtman, of course, doesn't agree that the university's administrative staff are sufficiently experienced in their work. But she also has a more serious claim to make.

Anne Houtman: I don't want to talk too much about it, because my lawyer said not to but there's real discrepancies in salary, and in hiring and firing decisions based on whether or not you were a member of the Soka Gakkai. And I saw those salary data as an Acting Dean of Faculty; it was very clear to me that there's a definite bonus attached to being a Soka Gakkai member.

David Rutledge: Anne Houtman, airing claims that Soka University Vice President Arch Asawa rejects.

Arch Asawa: I would say those are really unfounded. In terms of looking at salaries, if one were to take a look at the various types of salaries, one would not see any type of discrimination on that basis. The majority of the faculty and staff are in fact not members of SGI, and I don't see any evidence whatsoever of there being any kind of discrimination being practiced here.

David Rutledge: I also understand that a number of non-Soka Gakkai faculty and students are actually leaving, or thinking of leaving.

Arch Asawa: Actually, I think this may have been more exaggerated than what the truth would be told. If one were to look at the total number of faculty retained since we've opened, actually our retention rate is 86% among the faculty. And then in terms of students, we have a 96% retention ratio after our first year of operation. So I think that those stories that you've heard have been exaggerated to a great degree.

David Rutledge: Ex-Dean of Faculty Anne Houtman, on the other hand, says that many non-Soka Gakkai faculty members and students are looking for the exit - it's just that they're not telling the senior administration.

Anne Houtman: Well you know - I don't want to "out" anyone because it's such an environment for retribution right now, that everyone's kind of fearful - but I would say that most of the faculty who are not Soka Gakkai are looking actively to be somewhere else.

David Rutledge: And what about the students, what has their experience been?

Anne Houtman: Well yes, the students have a lot of concerns. Now, the students are well over 90% Soka Gakkai themselves, but there's a lot of anxiety - especially with the American students, the Japanese students are much more comfortable with a sort of more hierarchical model of decision-making and so forth - but the American students are really deeply concerned. And a lot of them, some of our very best students, have already left, they've transferred to other places, or just left. And a lot of students are leaving at the end of this year, many of whom will not admit to fellow students that they're leaving, but they've told faculty that they're leaving.

David Rutledge: Management says that the university is just experiencing teething problems, and that they're still very much on a learning curve. What's your response to that?

Anne Houtman: Well that's what they would say. I mean, they're up for accreditation right now, they're being looked at very closely. I doubt very much that they would say "yes, in fact we are doing illegal hiring, illegal firing, salary differences based on religion," I don't think they would admit to that. Both because it's illegal, and because it would be very difficult to get accreditation if they did.

Stephen Crittenden: Anne Houtman, former Dean of Faculty at Soka University in Southern California.

Guests on this program:
Anne Houtman
Former Dean of Faculty, Soka University of America

Archibald Asawa
Vice-President, Soka University of America

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