A New-View University

Backed by a Japanese Buddhist group, Soka University in Aliso Viejo emphasizes peace and liberal arts.

Los Angeles Times/August 19, 2001
By Jeff Gottlieb

This weekend, about 120 freshmen are walking onto the campus of the first private liberal arts college built in California in more than 25 years. They're attending an educational experiment, a place where traditional faculty tenure has been tossed out and a global focus means they will spend at least five months abroad and will study a Pacific Rim language.

They will learn in classrooms that hold no more than 12 students in a school that, backed by an extraordinary endowment, seeks a reputation akin to a Swarthmore or the Claremont colleges.

Soka University's Aliso Viejo campus, 103 acres and 18 buildings jutting into the Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, is open for business. The $265-million hilltop campus boasts travertine trim on the buildings, a one-acre lake, a copper-plated map of the world underneath a 100-foot dome and a computer port everywhere you turn, 3,800 of them.

Left over is a $300-million endowment, courtesy of the founding Buddhist group and its members, for a school that doesn't hold its first class for another week, a sum that other schools struggle to match.

It's more than Loyola Marymount University has saved in 136 years, more than Occidental College has raised in 124. "It's unbelievable," said Martha Hammer, president of the Independent Colleges of Southern California. Soka plans on an eventual student population of 1,200.

The initial group of students will major in liberal arts with a choice of concentrations in international studies, social and behavioral science and the humanities. Half the student body is expected to come from foreign countries. And the education will be built on the Buddhist ideals of sanctity of life, peace and human rights.

"I don't think many will come here to be successful businessmen," said Soka President Daniel Habuki. "The goal is to contribute to society." Added Eric Hauber, vice president for enrollment services, "We want students with a sense of commitment to more than themselves."

Soka never would have come to Orange County if it had been allowed to expand its campus in the Santa Monica Mountains, a campus devoted to teaching English as a second language. Environmentalists so far have battled successfully for more than a decade to prevent Soka from growing beyond the 12 acres it occupies onto the oak-filled 576 acres it owns.

Though the university is continuing the battle in Calabasas, school officials ultimately accepted an offer from the Mission Viejo Co. to sell the hilltop site in Orange County for $20 million.

In contrast to the Calabasas controversy, Soka's plans were embraced in Aliso Viejo. In a community of 42,000 that just incorporated this summer and has seen its population grow 400% in the last decade, Soka was, for most, just another construction project.

"The timing was remarkable," said Habuki, 49, who also is president of the Calabasas campus. "If we were built 25 years ago, we probably would not get such a warm reception because we'd disrupt the community. We weren't the only ones generating dust. Everyone was generating dust."

As the buildings were going up, Soka tried to integrate into the new city and agreed to give $10,000 annually for five years to the county branch library. Just 10 days ago, the campus still had the look of a construction site, with the grating sounds of drills and saws scratching the air as workers in hard hats readied the campus for the first students.

Most of the campus was designed by Norman Pfeiffer, architect for the Los Angeles Central Library, who also is in charge of the restoration of the Griffith Park Observatory. Pfeiffer melded the influence of the Spanish missions and the retaining walls and plazas of a hillside Mediterranean village. Backed up against the park, the campus is regularly visited by red-tailed hawks, rattlesnakes and coyotes.

The buildings are beige stucco with red tile roofs, similar to the nearby housing tracts. Windows are bordered with travertine, the same stone used to build the Getty Center and the Roman Colosseum. A one-acre, million-gallon artificial lake with a fountain sculpture of Neptune faces the four pillars in front of Founders Hall. The 3,800 computer ports make it one of the most wired campuses in the world.

Buildings are named for couples. "They all said they couldn't accomplish their work without their spouses," said Hauber, the vice president of admissions.

There is Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Hall, named for the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his wife, and Mohandas and Ktsurbai Gandhi Hall, in honor of the nonviolent fighter for Indian independence. The Daisaku and Kaneko Ikeda Library-"Champions for peace, culture and education"-is named for the founder of the college and his wife.

Ikeda is also the leader of the controversial lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest religious organization, which financed the university. A 12,400-square-foot house on campus is reserved for the use of Ikeda and other dignitaries.

Although nearly unknown in this country, Ikeda has been the subject of sharply divided opinion in Japan. He has been called the power-hungry head of a cult that undermines democracy. Others see his group as fighting for the common man against an oppressive establishment.

Soka Gakkai was founded in the 1930s by a high school principal Tsunesaburo Makguchi, who was jailed after he denounced state Shintoism and opposed Japanese militarism. He died in prison in 1944. The group has grown to 8 million members in Japan and claims 4 million followers in 177 countries.

The group runs schools in Japan, including the original Soka University, founded in 1987. Published reports put Soka Gakkai's assets as high as $100 billion. In the 1960s, Soka Gakkai formed a political party, Komeito, the Clean Government Party, which eventually became part of the government.

The combination of the money, a powerful political party and the aggressive conversion attempts of the post-war years, has put off many. "They proselytized successfully," said David Machacek, a research associate at UC Santa Barbara and co-author of "Soka Gakkai in America: Accommodation and Conversion. "But [they] paid with the stigma. They were seen and labeled as a potentially dangerous cult."

Al Albergate, director of community relations for Soka Gakkai International-U.S.A., said the group says he rarely hears the cult charge any more. In the United States, said Machacek, the group has taken a pass on most politics except for encouraging members to be active in their communities and sending a nuclear disarmament proposal to the United Nations each year.

The group puts its U.S. membership at 300,000, including singer Tina Turner. Machacek estimated membership at 35,000 to 40,000. By starting a college in this country, Soka Gakkai is following an American tradition. Many private colleges in the United States have a religious foundation, not just schools like Notre Dame, with its ties to the Catholic Church, and Brandeis, with its association with Jews, but even USC, which was started by Methodists, or Harvard, started by Puritans.

"When private colleges get created, they tend to come out of a religious denomination," said Russell Garth, executive vice president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, D.C.

Despite its religious backing, Soka has no chapel and no mandatory religious services. "The founder was painfully clear," said Alfred Balitzer, the dean of faculty, on leave from Claremont McKenna College after 30 years as a political science professor. "He wanted faculty and students from all faiths."

Still, the Buddhist influence will abound. The freshman class will be 80% to 85% members of Soka Gakkai, Balitzer said. President Habuki and Vice President Hauber, who came from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, are Soka Gakkai members, as are several administrators and professors. Balitzer is Jewish.

Students hail from 18 states and 17 countries, including one student from Zambia who had to travel 16 hours to a phone for his interview with Soka officials. Students include those who have turned down Brown, Swarthmore and UC Berkeley.

Kimberly Mitchell, 18, of Long Beach, chose Soka over UC Santa Barbara. She is a member of Soka Gakkai but said she would have attended the college without the connection. She wants to study international relations on her way to becoming a United Nations diplomat. "I've met with many of [the professors] and they seemed so interested in helping us reach our dreams."

Tuition plus room and board total $24,000. Two-thirds of the students receive financial aid, made possible through the $40 million in the endowment set aside for it.

The 22 professors were recruited from around the globe, ranging from a Cornell professor to those who just received their doctorates. An economics professor came from China and an art history professor from India.

"For us, diversity is real," Balitzer said. "We want students to experience diversity of cultures intellectually and in terms of associations with students and faculty so it will help them become global citizens."

Faculty talk about breaking down barriers among departments, which aren't called departments, but "learning areas." Many classes will be taught by professors with different specialties. The course on the Pacific Basin will be taught by professors in history, economics and Latin American literature.

Physics professor Phat Vu was teaching at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. "I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "Here at Soka, it's an opportunity to fashion a new model.

Campus committees include not only administrators and professors, but students and staff members, such as a librarian or the director of information technology. Decision-making is to be based on consensus as much as possible.

Tenure-lifetime employment-will be handled differently at Soka. For starters, there are no assistant professors or associate professors. Just professors.

At nearly every college in the country, professors come up for review by a faculty committee and administrators during their sixth year. If their research and teaching pass muster, they are granted a lifetime job. Soka faculty will be hired for a three-year probationary period and evaluated first on teaching, then scholarship, and finally, service.

If a professor is failing in one of the areas at the end of the first year, he or she will be counseled through workshops and seminars. If the professor still fails to measure up, he or she is let go at the end of the three years. Those who meet expectations receive lifetime employment similar to tenure.

Nicole Chu of Culver City turned down Brown, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Wellesley to go to Soka. She is a Soka Gakkai member but said she was motivated by other factors.

"I knew Soka was going to be an amazing experience," said Chu, who was planning to move into her dorm today. "At other schools, the name and the prestige of the schools were given to me. What I wanted to do was . . . create traditions and set history."

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