Buddhist Group Opens University

The Associated Press/August 16, 2001
By Chelsea J. Carter

Aliso Viejo, Calif. -- Ahmir Nezhad was bound for the University of California, Los Angeles when he heard about the brand new liberal arts college with a big dream.

There, he was told, he could participate in a Buddhist-inspired experiment - attending a private university where learning to make money was less important than promoting world peace, students must travel abroad and everyone from the president to the janitor has the same size office.

Nezhad thought it over and enrolled as part of the first freshman class at Soka University of America. The school opens this month.

"A lot of people think I'm taking a risk, sacrificing something," said Nezhad, an 18-year-old from Diamond Bar. "I think I'm actually part of something."

The $220 million campus has inviting architecture, lush landscaping and sweeping views from a hill overlooking this Orange County community 70 miles south of Los Angeles. Administrators hope the school one day will become a standard of higher education.

"The spectacle of a liberal arts college in a private sector with its financial future assured is nothing less than astounding," said Christopher J. Lucas, author of "American Higher Education: A History." "It's a one-time, one-of-a-kind college."

The university is financed by Soka Gakkai International, a controversial Japanese sect that is one of the world's largest lay Buddhist organizations.

Founded more than 70 years ago by philosopher and educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the sect created the Komeito reform political party in the 1960s.

Some compared the religion to a cult because of its aggressive recruiting efforts in the 1950s and 1960s.

Members forced their way into followers' homes to make sure they were adhering to the beliefs, and the sect banned mixing of religions, said Nobutaka Inoue, a religion professor at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo.

It's a characterization Soka Gakkai has long dismissed, attributing the aggressive tactics in its early days to a few zealous followers.

The newly incorporated city of Aliso Viejo isn't troubled by those who criticize Soka Gakkai, embracing the university as one of the city's cultural staples. Its large theater and art gallery, for example, will be open to the public.

With millions of members in Japan and abroad, the sect has accumulated billions of dollars in assets. Much of the money comes from the group's weekly magazines, newspapers and donations.

The university touts a secular curriculum and an initial enrollment of 125 students representing 20 countries.

"People have called this Buddhist U," said Daniel Y. Habuki, the university president. "Yes, there are principles of Buddhism here, but we are not intending to make the students Buddhist.

"The only way we can prove this to people is to provide a great education and let them see the results."

The campus is the second in the United States built by the Soka Gakkai, which has a network in Japan of primary and secondary schools and a university. The first American campus was started in 1987 northwest of Los Angeles, in Calabasas, to teach English to Japanese graduate students. Today, it offers graduate degrees in foreign languages.

About seven years ago, university officials initially hoped to build a small undergraduate campus in Calabasas, but met fierce opposition from neighbors concerned about overdevelopment. When a 103-acre site originally slated for luxury homes became available in Orange County, Soka officials began planning the new university.

Initially, Soka's Orange County campus will offer bachelor's degrees in humanities, international studies and social and behavioral science. As the university's enrollment grows to its projected 1,200 students, Habuki said it will expand its degree programs.

All students will study one of three foreign languages - Japanese, Chinese or Spanish - and spend at least one term of their junior year studying or working abroad, said Archibald E. Asawa, vice president for administrative affairs.

"We want to create global citizens, and global citizens have to have some experience with the world," Asawa said.

Tuition, which includes room and board, is $24,000. Soka Gakkai, which has a $40 million endowment, has made $4 million available for scholarships. Students are required to live on campus, where smoking, drug use and drinking alcohol are prohibited.

Built to resemble California's mission-style architecture, the 18-building campus also provides for the typical needs of a not-so-typical college experience.

There is an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gym, a 225,000-volume library and a student center. The campus also is wired with fiber-optic cables and outdoor ports for laptop computers.

While many of the university's faculty members are Soka members, others say the attraction was the chance to start a new college.

"The idea of being able to start from scratch and say, 'What is it that a global citizen needs to know about science' is very appealing," said Anne Houtman, who gave up a tenured position at Knox College in Illinois to become a biology professor.

For Gail Thomas, a sociology professor, the attraction was matching a college education with Buddhist principles.

"For too long we have focused on the competitive side of education. To have an institution that is focused on the human aspect - what makes a good human being - is a meaningful opportunity for me," she said. "We all take risks. For me, the real risk is not trying to make a difference."

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