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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

6 of 6 Stories

Soka University
Can a tiny Buddhist college succeed in the competitive world of private higher education?

By Anne C. Roark

Aliso Viejo, California

In the spring of her senior year at Santa Monica High School, Nicole Chu was in an enviable position. Letters of acceptance had arrived from Brown, Swarthmore, Haverford, Wesleyan, three campuses of the University of California (Berkeley, UCLA and Santa Cruz), the University of Southern California, and Soka University of America.

Chu decided to go to Soka, a tiny Buddhist college that opened last fall in a housing development in Orange County, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The decision to attend a virtually unknown, unaccredited institution-located in an area better known as the home of Disneyland and the John Birch Society-could not have been an easy one. But Chu, along with 119 other brave souls, decided to gamble that this new college would provide a rigorous liberal arts education, and one day would be as esteemed as the colleges and universities Chu was turning down.

 
The new university has a $245 million campus, a $300 million endowment and 120 students.  
The college's stated mission is to produce "a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life." To Daniel Habuki, Soka's president who is himself a product of Soka education in Japan, the mission statement means that "the main concern, the sense of commitment of each student, [whether he or she becomes] a businessman or a diplomat or a lawyer, is to serve the community. Students should have a vision to make society better, and not just be concerned with their own personal success. In other words, to become rich is not enough."

In keeping with a Buddhist commitment to world peace, the curriculum focuses on multicultural studies and international relations. Courses tend to be interdisciplinary and encompass both Western and Eastern perspectives, with special focus on the Pacific Rim. Although classes are taught in English, students are required to study at least one language that is not their native tongue-Spanish, Chinese and Japanese will be offered-and spend at least one semester at a university in a country where that language is spoken.

The odds, of course, are against any new educational institution making it in the competitive world of private higher education-even one with lofty goals. Typically, every year in the United States three private colleges open and five close, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Over the decades, California has attracted more than its share of flaky ideas in education and fly-by-night institutions. Yet many educators and policy makers are betting the state's newest entry into the world of higher learning will not fail.

"I give it a better chance of succeeding than anything in the last century," said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"We're here to stay for the next couple hundred years-one thousand years maybe," said Archibald E. Asawa, Soka's vice president for administrative affairs. "You take one look at these buildings and you know we're not going anywhere," Asawa explained, speaking from his office on Soka's new $245 million campus.

Situated on 103 acres overlooking a 4,000-acre wilderness park, the campus was designed by a group of leading architects to resemble an old Tuscany hillside village, with variegated red-tiled roofs, earth-colored stucco, and hand-hewn travertine stone from an ancient family quarry in Italy. An art gallery; an athenaeum; an Olympic-size swimming pool; a 200-million-gallon, one-acre lake; and a 100-foot brass dome all grace the campus. Soka even has its own olive trees and the newest (and perhaps only remaining) orange groves in Orange County.

A telling sign of the university's confidence in its future is that one of the first 18 buildings to be constructed was an alumni center-four years before the college will graduate its first student. Perhaps an even more reliable indicator of the university's potential for success is that, in addition to a stunning campus, Soka boasts a hefty $300 million endowment. Officials had hoped that within two years of opening, the college's returns on its endowment's investments, plus tuition, would cover operating costs. Given current market conditions, that level of financial stability may be delayed, but only by a year or two, Asawa said.

In the meantime, the university is raising a separate $100 million endowment for scholarship funds to assist students who cannot afford the college's $17,000 tuition, plus $7,500 for room and board. Now about 80 percent of the students receive some financial assistance, with 20 percent on "full ride," which is fairly typical of private colleges today, according to the independent college association.

In addition to money and buildings, Soka has its own built-in applicant pool. Its founding institution, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), is a lay affiliate of the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, estimated to have somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 members worldwide. In the U.S., the bulk of members are part of the baby boom generation, many of whose children are now old enough for college. (See sidebar.)

 
  A 200-million-gallon, one-acre lake serves as a background for Soka University President Daniel Habuki (right) and Archibald Asawa, vice president for administrative affairs.
Soka downplays its religious ties. Courses are strictly secular, and there is no chapel or organized religion on campus. Yet a Buddhist sense of egalitarianism pervades the campus. There are no faculty ranks (everyone who teaches at Soka is a professor); there are no departments (only "learning areas"); there are no assigned parking places (with more than 1,600 places, Soka may be the only university in the United States without a parking problem). All offices, from the president's on down, are the same size. And everyone calls each other by first name.

Most high-ranking officials, especially those overseeing the financial operation of the college, are members of SGI, as are about 85 percent of the first year's entering class. Eric Hauber, who is vice president for enrollment services and long-term planning, anticipates the proportion of non-Buddhist students will rise as the college becomes better known.

In contrast to the student body and administration, 80 percent of Soka's 24 full-time faculty members are not Buddhists. That proportion, too, is expected to rise as the faculty grows, said Alfred Balitzer, dean of faculty and professor of political science.

Balitzer, who is Jewish, gave up tenure and a 32-year career at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate School to work at Soka. While he initially took a leave of absence, this spring he decided to make the move permanent. Half the current faculty came on leaves; all but three have decided to stay.

"This is definitely not for everyone," cautioned Anne M. Houtman, assistant dean of faculty and professor of biology. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity...but there is a lot of chaos, a lot of stress" involved in building a new college from the ground up. A specialist in the behavioral ecology of birds, Houtman, like virtually all the faculty at Soka, has impressive academic credentials-an undergraduate degree from Pomona College, a master's from UCLA, a doctorate from Oxford. She left a tenure-track position at Knox College in Illinois to come to Soka.

Nancy J. Hodes, professor of Chinese language and Asian culture and interim director of the language program, came to Soka from Harvard. At the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, she was an associate editor of a multi-volume annotated translation of Mao Zedong's pre-1949 writings. She taught at Boston College and Tufts University and has been associate director of the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, an SGI-sponsored think tank dedicated to peace-related issues.

Although American by birth, Hodes was raised in China and has been an outspoken peace advocate, especially during the Vietnam War, when she was an undergraduate at Radcliffe College. Hodes is also a member of SGI, although she is "the last person you would think, given my family thought religion was the opiate of the masses and all that." The point is, she said, "this institution was made for me and I was made for it."

Ken Saragosa, professor of English, is not a member of SGI, and yet he feels at home at Soka in another way. He has the usual impressive academic credentials-a master's from UC Berkeley, a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, a teaching position at Swarthmore-but his personal background is anything but usual. His mother is Japanese, his father is Mexican, and Saragosa himself grew up in Nebraska.

Having never really felt at home anywhere, he looked around one of his classes one day and realized the people he was teaching were not all that different from himself. There was a Japanese student who grew up in Spain speaking Spanish; a Vietnamese who grew up in America speaking English; a Chinese American who also grew up speaking English but whose Chinese father came from Peru and spoke Spanish and whose Chinese mother came from Japan and spoke Japanese.

With half of its students from countries outside the U.S., Soka sees itself not as a national institution but an international one. It has perhaps the largest percentage of foreign students of any college in the country.

"Just living with students from around the world, learning their customs and way of thinking has been a tremendous advantage," said Pilipino Navarro, who is a Roman Catholic from the Philippines and Soka's first student body president. Navarro, who sees his future in business, diplomacy or international law, said he spoke to people and studied all that was on the Internet about Soka very carefully before coming. "I realized if I went to Soka and were to become a world leader, I'd be ready."

Despite the pride Soka takes in having a multicultural, multilingual student body, there are disadvantages to such diversity. Faculty members complain that while Soka students are very bright and astonishingly motivated, there is a great range in their academic performance, in part because of differences in their grasp of English. The average score on the Test for English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is 573. Depending on the institution, minimum scores run between 500 and 550 for undergraduates and 600 for graduate students, Hauber said.

This winter, the workload at Soka was so demanding on some students that the 24-hour reading room in the library was packed with people pulling all-nighters night after night. "We're all feeling the pressure," said Siobhan Boland, an American student who came to Soka from northern California.

In some cases, classes are easy, too easy; in others, the workload is overwhelming. "In some classes I barely opened a book and got a B. Others were intense, a lot of very dense reading that practically no one could get through," Boland said.

No one has flunked out yet, and at the other end of the spectrum, only one student-the first admitted to Soka-left, wanting more offerings in the hard sciences.

 
The Soka campus, designed to look like a Tuscany village, contains an art gallery, an athenaeum, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a 1,600-space parking lot and a 100-foot brass dome.  
Whatever their feelings about the difficulty of the classes, Navarro, the student body president, echoes the views of many students who feel the pressure to excel simply because they are part of the founding class. As Boland put it, "We know the success of this place depends in part on our work."

In addition to the academic load, students feel the pressure to fulfill the college's mission-that is, to contribute to society, not just when they graduate but now, which is a lot to ask of 18 and 19 year olds who also want to kick back and have fun.

While it is too early to know if Soka will produce the kind of graduates who will change the world, many Soka students already are extending themselves to the local community. Some are volunteering to help in nearby elementary schools; others, with the help of faculty, are hoping to set up research projects involving nearby wetlands which will help the community manage its environmental resources.

With its beaches and parks and outdoor recreational offerings, Orange County may seem an unlikely place for all of this intensity. In fact, it almost didn't happen in Orange County. A decade ago, Soka thought it would be building a campus on property it owned in Calabasas, a suburb north of Los Angeles. Environmentalists protested, saying that no further building should be done in one of the last undeveloped valleys in the Santa Monica Mountains.

While they were unable to seize the property from Soka, the protestors did manage to stop any further building.

Soka's founders tried to take the setback in Calabasas in stride and move forward, using existing buildings on the land. Yet some involved in the dispute are still smarting from the fight, saying that part of the opposition in Calabasas was clearly caused by anti-Asian sentiment and by fears that SGI was a cult with ulterior motives.

If Orange County has had such concerns, it hasn't shown them. A developer for the newly incorporated town of Aliso Viejo was the one who suggested Soka locate there. Since the college opened its doors last August, local citizens have been attending lectures and concerts. And so many residents of nearby Leisure World have heard about the tasty cuisine in the international student-faculty cafeteria that lunch hours are beginning to look like Grandparents' Day.

Its midwestern friendliness and Mediterranean climate notwithstanding, Orange County has not been an easy selling point for the college. From the freeway, there is little to see except endless monotonous clusters of red-tiled roofs. Moreover, the cost of housing in those developments is so high as to be almost prohibitive for college professors, even with competitive salaries and generous benefit packages.

When Jonathan Lee Merzel, professor of mathematics, came to Soka from northern California, he was aghast to read a local survey showing that Denny's had been voted "best breakfast" in Orange County. Michael Hays, professor of humanities and comparative literature, demurs. While he came from Rhode Island (where he lived) and New York (where he taught at Cornell, NYU and Columbia), Hays argued there are many good restaurants in Orange County, although he named only one. Orange County is like Providence, Hays said: Once considered a dreadful place to live, it has become extremely desirable. "I have had good meals and fine wine here, and I look forward to many more such experiences," Hays said confidently.

He and the rest of the faculty may need some pleasant diversions to get through the coming months. Despite its enviable start, Soka has a dizzying number of details to address and some major ideological issues to settle.

Decisions must be made, for example, on how to evaluate students. Letter grades or written evaluations? (Both are being used now.) Agreements have to be reached on what languages to add to the curriculum. French and German, following the path of traditional colleges? Or Vietnamese and Korean, in keeping with the college's Pacific Rim emphasis? Just getting the language program up and running will be an achievement; for the first year Soka did not offer any language courses, but they will begin next year.

In the meantime, Soka has done away with one of the sacred cows of academe: the tenure system. Instead of life-time employment, professors are hired for three-year probationary periods during which time they will be evaluated first on teaching, then on scholarship, and finally on service. Anyone falling short will be counseled through workshops and seminars, but eventually will be let go if they do not measure up.

Critics wonder what would happen if a teacher takes a controversial position on a divisive subject or in some other way falls out of favor. Will his or her job be secure? A representative from a faculty association explained to the Orange County Register that being in a college without tenure is like being on an episode of "Survivor." People can be voted off the island just because they are unpopular.

Soka's governance plan and budgeting process have had a better reception.

The president does not make unilateral decisions. Instead, "user" groups, representative committees of people affected by the decisions, are the first to make policy recommendations. The president, in turn, either accepts the recommendations or brings them back to the committee for further discussion.

Similarly, an "open" budget process means that fiscal decisions are not made behind closed doors by a chancellor or CEO in concert with their golfing buddies, Asawa said. Instead, a budget committee decides where to increase expenditures and where to make cuts. This year, for example, the committee wanted to continue to make student resources a priority, and so, to keep within the budget, reduced the number of days that offices will be cleaned each week. Rather than altering the food service students and faculty alike seem to love, the committee decided to cut travel expenditures for professional meetings.

Whether Soka will be able to maintain such openness and flexibility is a question in many minds. As the administration of the college grows larger and more complex, people naturally will have to become more specialized and compartmentalized. "There simply won't be time for everyone to do everything," said Wendy J. Harder, Soka's director of community relations.

Already, there seems to be too little time to attend to all the details.

Alfred Balitzer continues to interview job candidates-sometimes as many as three a day. "It's been hell on wheels around here," he complained lightheartedly. "Some days I don't know whether I'm talking anthropology to the Spanish teacher or Spanish to the biology teacher."

And President Habuki-Danny, as he is known on campus-continues the Sisyphean task of raising money. Despite what may seem vast resources, Soka is already planning a major capital campaign to complete the second phase of its building project, which will increase the college's current capacity of 500 students to 1,200.

While finding those students may not be as difficult for Soka as it has been for some colleges, it will still be a challenge. This year's founding class had average SAT scores of 1130; 12 to 13 percent were in the top ten percent of their high school graduating classes; 88 percent were in the top 25 percent. As far as Hauber is concerned, the numbers tell only part of the story. "Think about the kind of student who would come to a brand new institution. They're not ordinary students. Add to that a large Asian population, who as a group tend to work hard, and you have a remarkable student body."

 
  Alfred Balitzer left a tenured position at the Claremont Colleges to become dean of the faculty at Soka University.
There are, however, not as many applicants for next year as there were a year ago. In all, Soka received 322 completed applications for the 2001-'02 academic year, only 225 for 2002-'03. So many of last year's applicants were so strong, the college ended up admitting 120 students, rather than 100 as planned. Even though they had to start over as freshmen, about 30 percent of the entering class were transfers from other colleges; three students already had their bachelor's degrees.

This year, however, Soka will limit itself to 100 new freshmen. Though the numbers are down, Hauber insists he is not alarmed, for he is convinced the flurry of applicants last year was partly brought on by the urge of many students to be in the founding class.

It was a factor for Nicole Chu. It was not an easy decision to turn down some of the most prestigious colleges in the country to attend a place few people had even heard of. But Nicole came to Soka in part for the chance to help create something new that she feels is important. "Being part of this-having the chance to help build something like this -that is an opportunity not everyone gets."

"I know I've probably idealized Soka," Chu said, reflecting on her year. "Sometimes I get frustrated, but then I realize that's part of the point of being here, to challenge yourself, to go through the struggles." If she has regrets, she has been too busy to dwell on them. And that's not to mention the "amazing" courses she has gotten to take this year.

So will she come back next year? There is no hint of hesitation in her answer.

"Oh yes."


Anne C. Roark is a former higher education writer for the Los Angeles Times.


Soka Gakkai International
Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism became popular with the counterculture of the 1960s

Soka Gakkai International (SGI), founder of Soka University of America, is a lay Buddhist organization started in Japan in 1930 as an educational reform movement. Its aim was to do away with rote memorization in schools and unthinking loyalty to authority. Imprisoned as "thought criminals," the organization's leaders converted to a form of Buddhism based on the 13th century religious philosophy of Nichiren Daishonin, which emphasized individual enlightenment and achievement as a way to world peace.

Overly zealous in recruiting members in Japan at one time, the group under the current leadership of Daisaku Ikdea has toned down its religious rhetoric, diversified its activities in Japan, and expanded its worldwide membership to between 40,000 and 100,000. SGI now supports arts programs, runs a publishing empire, and operates an elementary-secondary school system focused on critical thinking. In 1971 the organization established Soka University of Japan, and in 2001 opened Soka University of America, a sister institution with its own governing board and administration.

While its involvement in Japanese politics, especially its anti-authoritarian and reformist stance, earned SGI a controversial reputation in Japan, the group has gone largely unnoticed in the United States. The only notable exception to SGI's quiet co-existence alongside other religious and educational organizations has been what University of California's Phillip Hammond calls a "minor and short-lived controversy" over plans to build its university in a suburb north of Los Angeles. Hammond, professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, is a co-author of the book, "Soka Gakkai in America: Accommodation and Conversion" (Oxford, 1999).

SGI probably is not as well known in America as Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, both of which have been the subject of books and Hollywood movies in recent years. While followers of other sects of Buddhism use meditation as a form of prayer and shun the importance of the material world, Nichiren Daishonin Buddhists seek improvements in this present world and in their own personal lives. They do this by studying and by chanting, morning and night, a simple mantra: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. (The words literally translate: devotion-mystic-law-cause & effect and teaching, although the "true meaning," followers say, can only be understood through "a lifetime of practice.")

"Many positive changes, such as better health, a happier family, or an improved financial situation will be seen early on in one's practice of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism," promises a flyer put out by members of SGI's Los Angeles branch.

Despite such claims, SGI members are "sensitive to the appearance of practicing magic," Hammond found in a 1997 survey of the organization. "When Soka Gakkai members chant for a new car, better relationships, or such, the goal is to affect internal changes that allow them to take control of their external circumstances and achieve these goals...Soka Gakkai believe that as individuals become enlightened and improve their own life conditions, the lives of people around them will also be improved."

Originally practiced in America almost exclusively by Japanese woman (the wives of U.S. servicemen), Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism became popular with the counterculture of the 1960s, as "an alternative to psychedelic drugs as a means of consciousness raising," Hammond found. Because followers of Nichiren Daishonin look and behave like everyone else in the United States, the religion did not stir the same kind of controversy that faced other new religions such as ISKCON (Hare Krishna) and the Unification Church (Moonies). While the visibility of those groups has diminished, SGI has grown steadily in size and diversity. Although there are still more women than men, only a tiny minority is Japanese.

Today, Hammond said, most of the members of SGI are professionals or part of the "new class" information society. They tend to be more liberal politically than the general population. They also are far better educated and somewhat older. Many are members of the baby boom generation, and they now have children of an age to be looking at colleges.

-Anne C. Roark

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