Soka University Expansion Stirs Calabasas Controversy
Japan-based Soka University moved into a historic mansion in the Santa Monica Mountains three years ago with exceptional fanfare: a 75-member brass band played and squadrons of dancers dressed in togas or top hats and tails.
Since that grand entrance, Calabasas neighbors have caught only sporadic glimpses of the language institute’s clean-cut students, riding around its pristine campus on some of their 100 or so identical neon-colored bicycles or being bused to museums or amusement parks.
“It’s a very benign atmosphere,” said Jim Wrigley, who lives near the campus’ Mulholland Highway entrance. “Sometimes when we take a walk at night we see them playing tennis.”
A visit to the secluded campus unveils a picture-perfect collegiate scene: 80 Japanese exchange students from Soka University in Tokyo wearing preppy clothes purchased in Westwood, participating in English classes in Wisdom Hall and swimming in the mansion’s pool, which a sign calls the Happy Pool.
“This is ESL paradise,” said instructor Michelle Buehring “I’ve been teaching for 15 years, all over the country, and I’ve never found students so non-judgmental, so willing to take it all in.”
But quiet, unassuming Soka University recently revealed expansion plans that surprised and, in some cases, alarmed its neighbors--as well as dampened the dreams of parks officials who wanted the site as headquarters for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Working determinedly behind the scenes, the school has acquired nearly 600 surrounding acres for as much as $56 million--perhaps twice what it was worth--and in mid-August announced it intends to grow into a four-year liberal arts college for 5,000 students.
A busy schedule posted on Soka University’s dormitory bulletin board shows the school has yet another controversial facet. Time is set aside morning and night for gongyo --chant- ing--the central ritual of a layman’s Buddhist group known as Soka Gakkai in Japan and as Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA) in the United States.
Soka University was founded by Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai leader and chief emissary, and its students--most of them members of the sect--participate in home-stays and social exchanges with NSA members.
Nevertheless, university administrators are evasive about the college’s religious ties and deny that the school will have a religious bent or--as some former members suspect--will act as an indoctrination center for the sect.
“There are many universities founded by religious organizations,” said George Odano, vice executive director of Soka University, Los Angeles. “Of course there are members of NSA here--the ideals we share, the philosophy. . . . But we will not offer any religious classes.”
The Soka Gakkai sect, which critics liken to a cult, claims upward of 10 million members in Japan and 300,000 in the United States, among them celebrities such as jazz musician Herbie Hancock and actor Patrick Duffy.
Group members chant for personal prosperity and world peace, donate liberally and dedicate their free time to events such as the gala school opening. The organization has frequently been criticized for its militaristic structure and its aggressive recruitment techniques, called shakubuku, which means literally “to break and subdue” potential members.
“We see destructive cults as those groups that deceive members into getting in and then there’s some kind of mind control or persuasion that keeps them in. That’s where the chanting comes in--it’s a pretty powerful, pretty intense experience,” said Rachel Andres, director of the Commission on Cults and Missionaries for the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
Neighbors said campus officials never told them of the university’s connection to Soka Gakkai and they only recently learned of it through copies of newspaper articles that some residents began circulating. Because of the site’s history, even a hint of the possibility of cult activities there “really gets my dander up,” Wrigley said.
The buildings in the meadow include a 1920s mansion, built by razor blade baron King Gillette, and dormitories for a Catholic monastery, which operated there between 1952 and 1970. But for eight years beginning in 1978, the structures housed the controversial Church Universal and Triumphant run by Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Former followers of Prophet said she reported receiving messages from masters ranging from Jesus to Merlin the Magician and recommended daily enemas to cleanse her followers’ souls.
Prophet moved to Montana after her expansion plans drew angry protests from neighboring residents and Los Angeles County zoning officials. But Soka University already has shown it intends to stay put and fight for the right to develop its school.
“Obviously they’re very determined,” said Dave Brown, vice president of the Las Virgenes Federation, an association of nearby homeowner groups that opposes the plans. “It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out” fight.
Mike Caggiano, elected in June to the future Malibu City Council, said beach community residents on the other side of the mountain range also are worried about Soka’s growth.
“We have major concerns about the amount of congestion it will cause on Malibu Canyon Road, which is not built to handle this additional capacity, and the spill-out onto Pacific Coast Highway,” Caggiano said.
As evidence that Soka intends to remain in Calabasas, every building on campus has a fresh coat of paint and many were extensively remodeled at a total cost of at least $1 million. The college also hooked itself up to the local sewer system--without the proper permits, said Pam Emerson, a planning supervisor with the California Coastal Commission.
And Ikeda renamed all the buildings, meadows, roads and bridges on the property. Even Calabasas Peak is now identified on a campus plaque as Soyu Mountains.
Soka administrators have worked at winning over neighbors with invitations to their gala opening and to a lavish buffet and symposium featuring Nobel laureate Linus Pauling in August. They have hired at least two public relations firms to present their ideas to the public and the press and later this month they plan to begin visiting homeowner associations to discuss their vision for the property.
Yet when it comes to outlining the specifics of their plans, they are vague, saying only that they hope to reach full occupancy by 2015.
“The vision is that it’s going to be an international campus,” said campus spokesman Jeff Ourvan. “But I really think the administration wants to talk with the community people and the parks first . . . to find ways to be in harmony with them.”
Only a few hints have emerged of their plans, which much eventually receive approval from both the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Coastal Commission.
John Schwarze, the county’s regional planning administrator, recalled that in discussions earlier this year, Soka officials talked of a gradual phase-in of students, “a few hundred at first and then in increments.” During a tour of the campus, Ourvan said administrators believe they have room for between 600 and 1,000 students and are investigating what former permits allowed.
NSA officials had announced plans in 1984 to build the U.S. campus of Soka University in San Diego, on 149 acres in the rural San Dieguito River Valley. They said they had been searching eight years for the right site for a 1,000-student, two-year junior college that would later grow to a four-year university.
But those plans were thwarted a year later when San Diego residents passed an initiative that required voter approval for any development there.
State and national parks officials said they were angered to learn last month that the university had acquired 332 additional acres, more than doubling the size of its campus. During a meeting in June, parks officials said, Soka administrators had denied that they were or would be in the market for more land. However, the university says it made no such statement.
The parks officials have long coveted the vast, mountain-ringed meadow as the cornerstone of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, envisioning its flat terrain, buildings and parking lots as the perfect site for a visitors center, administrative offices and trail head.
Through the years, government agencies have watched the Calabasas land pass from owner to owner while they struggled to find the money to buy it. Officials say the need for that land has become even more urgent as other parcels in the Santa Monicas have been gobbled up for private development.
In a last-ditch effort to acquire the land, parks officials last month suggested a trade of other government property suitable for a campus. So far university administrators have balked at moving.
“Our opinion is that a university need not be in such a unique spot,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
If negotiations fail, Edmiston and David E. Gackenbach, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, have not ruled out condemnation. However, the high price apparently paid for the land could complicate matters.
When told that county tax records estimate that Soka University paid $37.6 million for its newest acquisitions, Edmiston said he feared the transaction could inflate the value of any of the school’s parcels. Those records also show the original parcels were purchased in 1986 for $18.8 million.
“That’s at least double market value. You’re talking about establishing just an incredible precedent for land in the mountains,” Edmiston said. “It sounds like a sham transaction to me, but it may be that they are so rich that they have a checkbook that says we can deter people from ever buying it.”
Soka officials will not discuss the land transactions, saying they guaranteed the former owners that specifics of the sales would not be disclosed.
University officials also are short on details about why they want to establish a university in Southern California. They said they want to expand the international exchanges from their Tokyo campus, where about 6,000 students study subjects ranging from law to education. They also want to attract non-Japanese students to the Calabasas campus, they said.
SOKA UNIVERSITY Map shows landholdings of Soka University, where a Japan-based group hopes to build a 5,000-student liberal arts college. Existing buildings now being used for Soka’s language institute were part of an estate and a monastery.