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?

The Jewish Kirshner was very concerned. He e-mailed Feasel claiming anti-Semitism and religious intolerance and demanded something be done about the student.

To Kirshner's surprise, "The dean basically said to me, it's almost summer, the student will be leaving, so it'd be better if I kept my mouth shut." Feasel then told him he was moving the issue to be handled by the department of human resources. The head of the department, Katherine King, responded with an e-mail arranging a meeting about the incident. The letter said this was the first time they had heard of the offending student, a claim, Kirshner says, that was just more stonewalling.

"It was clear that the administration was not going to take this seriously," he says. "They were turning a blind eye to racism, anti-Semitism and various forms of religious intolerance. I'm not saying [the student's actions were] malicious, but nothing was being done about it."

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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Kirshner asked if he could bring a witness to the meeting—either another faculty member or a lawyer—or a tape recorder; administrators denied his request. He began to suspect a cover-up was taking place, and a series of e-mails later, Kirshner told administrators that he was going to take the issue up with the Board of Trustees.

A few days later, he was locked out of his office. A security guard handed him a letter saying he was no longer welcome on the Soka campus and that he had 48 hours to receive psychological counseling. "Everything was in my office, all of my work—I was on the verge of signing a contract for my new book," Kirshner says. "That got destroyed. I was in the process of putting together a conference paper. That got destroyed."

In defiance, he decided to sit outside his office door and go on a hunger strike. When Kirshner refused to see a counselor hand-selected by the university, he was put on administrative leave without pay, meaning he was technically still employed and therefore could not seek unemployment, yet he would collect no income. Later that summer, he received a two-page letter that listed numerous accusations from "colleagues," ranging from threatening the president of the university to vowing harm on staff if he didn't receive tenure to even seeking out drugs.

"My guess is that the administration got very upset that I had said I was going to go to the Board of Trustees, so they then looked for, fished around for any kind of behavior, incident or anything they can construe as bad behavior," Kirshner says.

Soka kept Kirshner on administrative leave from May until October, when he received an e-mail from administrators saying he could either resign or face a disciplinary committee to respond to the bill of particulars. Instead, on Nov. 8, 2010, he sent an e-mail to King, Habuki, Feasel and others promising "VERY serious TROUBLE (and then some)" and warning them to "please remember to lock your doors. You never know when a wild animal might try to paw its way through." Attached was a photo of a graveyard of skulls. He also left King a similarly threatening voice-mail message. All four administrators filed a restraining order against Kirshner; he is to stay 100 yards from their houses and any portion of the Soka University campus until 2013.

"It was definitely over the top," Kirchner admits about his threats. "I was definitely in a space of being hotheaded. Four to five months with no income created quite a lot of angst in me. But it was all tongue-in-cheek. There was no intention, none at all."

Kirshner, who was named Professor of the Year twice in a row, calls Soka "the jewel in the crown of SGI," used to reel in hundreds of millions of dollars from donors. As for his own case, he says, "It was all about isolating, cornering and destroying anyone who might raise a substantive issue that might tarnish the image of the university or SGI. When they saw that I was serious about my claims of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance, they thought the only way they were going to silence me was by doing something like this. There was no flexibility, zero. There was no dialogue for a school that's known for 'dialogue.'"

Asked about Kirshner, Feasal says he "cannot comment on personnel matters."

*     *     *

According to documents filed in Orange County Superior Court, Christoffersen entered into a five-year employment contract with Soka University in 2005 with the promise of speeded-up tenure. She applied for tenure in June 2007 and received the further recommendation of the university's Rank and Tenure Committee in February 2008. The committee noted her many accomplishments, including being a "recognized scholar in her fields of expertise" and "publishing regularly over many years in top-quality peer-refereed journals," as well as pointing out that her scholarship is "of a quality usually associated with an established scholar at a major research university."

Then came the e-mails.

Christoffersen says top administrators sent her weekly invites insisting that she attend an Ikeda reading. A month before a decision was to be made about her tenure, the chairwoman of the committee urged her to attend a Soka Gakkai women's meeting. With the future of her career on the line, she drove to the event, but at the last minute, she decided against going in. The chairwoman later told Christoffersen, according to court files, that she was "disappointed with her lack of participation in Soka Gakkai." Another member of the tenure committee, Anthony Mazeroll, told Christoffersen, "Everyone who works here is a member of Soka Gakkai—every administrative person, every IT person, everybody." The assistant dean, Phat Vu, declared in front of several faculty members his intention to "purify" Soka University of all non-Soka Gakkai so that eventually only Soka Gakkai faculty would teach there, according to the complaint.

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