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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?

In March 2008, Soka denied Christoffersen tenure "due to low student evaluations, which showed a deficiency in teaching ability." Other professors with fewer achievements were granted tenure, she claims. She is also suing for age discrimination, claiming the then-dean of faculty, Michael Hays, said to her, "At your age, five years is enough."

She filed the complaint on May 22, 2008, and on Sept. 29, 2009, the court granted a motion for summary judgment by the defendant, Soka University, as not enough facts had been collected. Christoffersen appealed, and the case has reached a California appellate court. It's in limbo, as she lost her lawyer, Brian Glicker (he was charged with failing to maintain client funds in a trust account, among other things, and deemed ineligible to practice law, according to State Bar of California records). She recently applied to be represented by the ACLU.

In Christoffersen's court files are other campus documents that she believes prove Soka University's hidden motives, including a 2002 e-mail from then-dean Alfred Balitzer. "We must insure that the people we hire understand the mission of our university, and it is especially up to us to make judgments about their potential dedication to it," he wrote. "Let us not indulge language that states we are a non-sectarian institution or that Soka Gakkai is so far in the background that we never think about it or it never comes to mind."

John Gilhooley

Location Info

Map

Soka University of America

1 University Drive
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656

Category: Schools

Region: Aliso Viejo

Details

Another document is notes from Soka's long-term-planning committee meeting, dated Jan. 28, 1998, during the time the university was being established:

If we overtly call ourselves a Buddhist University, we will likely create a poor image for ourselves in the United States, where people have little experience with or knowledge of Buddhism. Consequently, we will be perceived as "not mainstream" or "not a normal place to send my children to." On the other hand, the very clear reality is that we are completely funded by a Buddhist group; most of our staff and faculty will be Buddhist; and we state that we are "founded on the Buddhist principles of . . ." Therefore, an attempt to hide our Buddhist roots will be seen as secretive and cultish. We need to be somewhere in between depending upon the specific questions being answered.

Back then, the resolution of the committee was to declare Soka a Buddhist university in legal documents to permit the school to "selectively hire Soka Gakkai members without risking legal action for discrimination," according to their notes. The university then agreed to give the impression that it was "open, but middle-of-the-road" in public-relations material such as the mission statement and advertisements in efforts to gain students.

Christoffersen, whose contract ended last year, believes that non-Gakkai faculty members such as herself are hired for legal purposes and to raise the academic stature of the institution, and then "picked off one by one."

"I gave them some credibility they didn't have," she says.

Asked to comment on the claims made by Christoffersen, Feasal said, "We do not discuss personnel matters."

Looking back, Christoffersen says, every day, non-Gakkai students and faculty were hit by "shakubuku," a Soka Gakkai precept that means to "shake and subdue." It's what Nichiren Buddhists call the process of proselytizing and converting non-believers. Of allegations of it happening on campus, Feasel says, "I haven't seen it. I don't think it's true, and it's certainly not something we would condone."

Christoffersen believes otherwise. "The cult frenzy is very crazy, very Orwellian," she says. "I wish they would be as attractive on the inside as they are on the outside."

This article appeared in print as "The School On a Hill: Soka University in Aliso Viejo was founded by a Buddhist sect that preaches peace—so why are so many former professors alleging the school practices the opposite?"


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