Soka University of America Is a School On a Hill

The Aliso Viejo college was founded by a Buddhist sect that preaches peace—so why are so many former professors alleging the opposite?

Soka University of America Is a School On a Hill

* This article was altered on March 12.


Anyone who has ever visited Aliso Viejo knows about gates. Gates separate residential communities from one another. Gates demarcate front yards from back yards and keep pools and tennis courts for the use of those who have the access key. It's a careful study in suburban paranoia, one befitting Orange County's youngest city, and one designed to keep the rest of the world away.

John Gilhooley

Location Info


Soka University of America

1 University Drive
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656

Category: Schools

Region: Aliso Viejo


There are guard gates at the entrance to Soka University of America (SUA), a small liberal-arts school perched on a coastal ridge near Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park. But for visitors who drive up the wide, curving, tract-home-lined roads of the San Joaquin Hills to visit, the gates cannot hold back the gorgeous view behind them: an unexpected oasis, a seeming mirage of serenity and grandeur in a Stepford town. A water fountain jumps high from a vast, shining turquoise lake in front of the administration building, a soaring, Italian Renaissance-inspired structure built with the same type of stone used for the Roman Colosseum because its founder plans to have the university last 2,000 years.

Walking through the ivy-covered colonnades, where handblown, tulip-shaped lamps hang from above, the scene looks more like a Zen meditation retreat than a college campus on a Thursday afternoon. Two students sit cross-legged in a quiet courtyard, their class notes next to the babbling lily ponds. A bronze statue of Gandhi stands with open arms in a patch of orange groves. Tacked to a cork bulletin board are the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

College guidebooks don't have much to say about Soka, and it remains a mystery even in Orange County academic circles. It's not as old as Chapman University, not as teeming with students as Cal State Fullerton or UC Irvine, not as hidden as Concordia, or as visible as Vanguard. But the school—founded 10 years ago "upon the Buddhist principals of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life," according to its glossy pamphlets—boasts an impressive list of offerings: a nine-to-one student-faculty ratio. Free tuition for students whose family income is $60,000 or less. A global outlook—studying abroad is a requirement for graduation. A new $73 million performing-arts center sound-engineered by the acoustician for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. A cafeteria—or, rather, "bistro"—dishing out daily specials such as spicy kimchi pork bowls and chicken cordon bleu. An athenaeum. An art gallery. An Olympic-sized swimming pool. Plus, 3,400 Internet ports.

Gaye Christoffersen, a worldly academic with a pages-long list of works on Asia-Pacific international relations to her name, felt an instant connection with Soka when she interviewed for a teaching position in 2005 after seeing a job posting in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Contracts were signed, and the 65-year-old relocated from Northern California to become a professor of political science at the school.

"Who wouldn't want to be at a university with a Buddhist peace movement?" she asks from outside a coffee shop in Santa Ana, near Orange County Superior Court. "I thought, 'This is a beautiful campus in Orange County, in America.' How could things be so weird and terrible?"

She makes reference to an e-mail sent in 2002 by Alfred Balitzer, then-dean of Soka University, to a colleague, "SUA will always have two faces and two kinds of faculty," he wrote, "and that is why we as SUA top administrators have to carefully care for the Gakkai members as they are being swamped by non-Gakkai faculty."

The document and others are tucked in Christoffersen's court files, submitted as evidence to a judge. The former Soka professor is suing the university for religious discrimination, claiming she was denied tenure because she refused to abandon her Lutheran faith to join the Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect that founded the university.

"It was a constant pressure," Christoffersen says, staring austerely through rectangular, rimless sunglasses while describing the aggressive proselytizing she says was practiced by both faculty members and students in her classes affiliated with Soka Gakkai on campus. "They're constantly after you, constantly trying to get you. You can't escape."

Christoffersen is one in a lengthening chain of faculty members and students who say they were deceived by the university's nonsectarian status and promotion of "free and open dialogue" and left. They're "Soka refugees," as former psychology professor Jeffrey Green puts it.

Many of those who've left—some by choice, others escorted by security—say that university decisions are made behind locked doors by a group of top administrators whose mission isn't the pursuit of academic excellence, but rather to extol Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International, the wealthy religious organization that finances the $300 million institution. A culture of paranoia rules the campus, dissidents claim, with jobs always teetering on the line based on whether professors are Soka Gakkai or not.

"We started asking if this is a religious institution or the institution we were promised," says Green, now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's sort of ironic that they are a group for peace, but essentially, they declare war on anyone who raises a question."

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