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?

"Most liberal-arts colleges are founded on a religion," says Harder, a Lutheran. "This university, from Day One, has been open to everyone. If you wanna study Buddhism, you gotta go somewhere else."

Akiko Tomita, 22, a senior studying international relations, agrees. "The [religious] aspect is not emphasized on the education side," she says, sitting in a campus corridor. "It's big only if you're part of it. A lot of my friends here are atheist or Christian."

As for the percentage of SGI members on campus, Harder shrugs. "You know, we don't ask. On applications, we don't ask about religion, disabilities, one's ability to pay. Our first student body president was a Catholic from the Philippines.

John Gilhooley

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Soka University of America

1 University Drive
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656

Category: Schools

Region: Aliso Viejo

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"Soka University was founded upon the principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life," she reemphasizes. "Those happen to be my values, too."

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For many academics, it was the allure of being a founding member of a new university that drew them to Soka. Anne Houtman moved from Illinois to join the school's biology department. In 2001, she told The New York Times, "You don't get to start up new liberal-arts colleges. It just isn't done. The idea of being able to start from scratch and say, 'What is it that a global citizen should know about science?' was just incredible.''

But some faculty members quickly became suspicious. Students, they say, would always talk about their "life mentor," referring to Ikeda. They'd spend their days reading his speeches and chanting the Lotus Sutra in the lounge areas. The campus museum featured an exhibit titled "Gandhi, King, and Ikeda." Administrators started calling the university a "hybrid" institution.

One professor who asked to remain anonymous alleges that in the school's first year of operation, students told him of a sexual assault that had happened on campus. The victim went to administrators, who urged her not to say anything. "The excuses they gave were medieval," the professor states. "They said they were going to protect her reputation. It was horrifying to me."

Several Soka staffers walked out or were dismissed in the first few years of the school's opening. When McGinniss (whose next book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, comes out this year) was told his contract would not be renewed for a second year, he claimed it was due to his non-Buddhist beliefs. About 20 student supporters camped out on a lawn in protest.

One of those students was Murphy McMahon, who left the school after the incident. Now 29 and working as a translator in Brazil, he wrote via e-mail, "The university was handled like a prerogative of its parent organization, as if the purpose of its existence was the aggrandizement of Daisaku Ikeda. That was manifest constantly everywhere: the reading lists, the special events, the student clubs and activities, the buildings, the museum exhibits, and then in faculty politics and hiring, where not loving Ikeda enough proved an occupational hazard."

Houtman left not long after becoming the assistant dean of faculty. She declined to comment, but she told Australia's Radio National Network in 2003 that she became concerned when the faculty—"really fantastic faculty, lots of experience, really collegial people"—would spend "days and days making decisions" that eventually "would be overturned by an administration that had no experience in academic administration at all."

In 2002—just a year after Soka's opening—Linda Southwell, a terminated fine-arts professor, sued the school for $25 million, alleging religious discrimination, wrongful termination and fraud, among other charges. A complaint filed claimed, "The curriculum is intended to reflect cult beliefs and perspectives." While the university discounted the charges, she came to a settlement, which included a confidentiality clause.

In 2005, Holly Ogren, a professor of Japanese language and culture, also sued Soka in Orange County Superior Court for religious discrimination, alleging she was "severely mistreated, degraded and berated" and "ultimately terminated for being a Hare Krishna, an alternative Buddhist sect." (Contrary to what was stated in that court document, the Hare Krishna movement is actually Hindu.) The case was dismissed in 2006.

One anonymous professor wrote in an e-mail that many faculty members are afraid to come forward with their stories because SGI is "extraordinarily vigilant and nasty regarding any perceived threats to their reputation. They have armies of lawyers and PR people, and they use them. One fellow ex-faculty member was actually tracked down in Mexico by a Soka Gakkai member and asked if he had been accurately quoted in an article; he said yes."

Soka University denies all charges of religious favoritism. "We give absolutely no preferential treatment based on religion," says Edward Feasel, the current dean of faculty. Feasel was also involved in a recent, bizarre episode that had Soka filing a restraining order against one of its own.

In May 2010, political-science professor Orin Kirshner was teaching from Hannah Arendt's Eichmann In Jerusalem in a unit on the Holocaust when he noticed that one of his students continually brought an SS Nazi soldier action figure to class. This particular student, he says, had the doll for years and was known to carry it around campus.

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