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Amid Battle, Soka Seeks to Please : Property: The Japanese school is locked in a conflict with conservancy over its Calabasas land. Once reclusive, it has developed a number of popular public programs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soka University still does not have a library or a student union, but the embattled school is building something else it dearly needs: goodwill and respect.

Embroiled in a legal and political fight with state parks officials over use of its scenic Calabasas campus, the once-reclusive Japanese school now welcomes the public with open arms.

Officials there say this is part of a plan to expand the small language school for Japanese exchange students into a full liberal arts college. Critics say it is a cynical effort by a wealthy institution to buy favor, but nonetheless are impressed by the sheer scope of Soka’s programs, which include:

* Six free tours of the campus a month, with special attention to the sycamore-lined drive used as the entrance to the plantation Tara in “Gone With the Wind.”

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* Free or low-cost weekend retreats for nonprofit groups and their members.

* Evening classes in Japanese and other languages taught by highly credentialed instructors at low rates.

Then there is the new botanical garden with an enormous California-native seed bank and free gardening classes. And on the academic front, a free human rights lecture series studded with Nobel laureates and a prestigious research program affiliated with Harvard University but funded solely by Soka.

While some community groups praise the avalanche of offerings, others are suspicious.

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“If this isn’t an organization trying to buy off the community, then what is?” said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that has been trying to acquire the land on which the campus stands. “They have enormous resources, and they’re using them to attempt to build a constituency base they would not otherwise have. What worries me is that, at a certain point, money talks.”

Soka University spokesman Jeff Ourvan dismisses that notion: “We’re not that Machiavellian.”

Ourvan said the open-door policy and new academic programs are meant to help transform the small school, located at the corner of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway, into a college for 3,400 students. They have nothing to do with Soka’s effort to ward off an attempt by the conservancy to seize the campus for a park visitors center, he said.

“This is what universities do,” Ourvan said. “We are a nonprofit, public benefit corporation, so we feel it is incumbent upon us to serve the community.”

The school was not always so community-minded, Ourvan concedes.

“The first three years, starting in 1987, this place was run by all Japanese, and they didn’t talk to anybody,” he said. “Then we suddenly announced our expansion plans and no one knew who we were.”

The ensuing criticism by local residents, environmentalists and parks officials mobilized Soka, which spent more than $935,000 on public relations and lobbying, not counting legal fees, during the two-year period ending April 1, 1993, according to the latest federal tax returns available. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its nonprofit foundation have spent about $834,000, including legal fees, lobbying and public relations, to obtain the land during the past seven years.

Soka’s public relations effort includes deluging news organizations with press releases announcing its nature talks and other activities and publishing a newsletter that touts several of its programs, including some sponsored by its sister campus in Japan.

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One academic program, a post-doctoral research center on Pacific Rim policy, is based at Harvard. Soka, the program’s sole benefactor, spent more than $438,000 on it during the two-year period ending April 1, 1993, according to Soka’s federal tax returns.

The most recent edition of the newsletter mentions an exhibit that critics say is designed to improve Soka’s image, particularly among American Jews. The free newsletter is mailed to about 30,000 households in Calabasas, Malibu and Agoura Hills.

Worried about anti-Semitism in Japan, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center looked for years for a Japanese sponsor of its traveling exhibit on the Holocaust. It recently found one in Soka University in Japan, which underwrote the $150,000 cost of bringing the exhibit to Tokyo City Hall in May, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center.

“Even the best American institutions find it hard to ignore the blandishments that Soka can offer,” said Edmiston, of the mountains conservancy. “That means that our task is all the more difficult.”

But Ourvan insists that the programs have nothing to do with Soka’s legal and political battles.

“We would do all this even if we weren’t trying to defend ourselves against the conservancy,” Ourvan said. “These programs will continue when the fight is over.”

Regardless of Soka’s motives, the school’s investment appears to be paying off in some quarters.

Although Soka has not formally asked groups to endorse its expansion plans, one private, nonprofit group that saved more than $14,000 by using the campus for free weekend retreats has become a staunch supporter.

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“After they’ve been so generous, yes, we would testify for their expansion before the Board of Supervisors,” said Paula Crisostomos, a spokeswoman for the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee, a Los Angeles-based group that has taken about 75 poor children up to the campus twice in the past two years. “They’re a valuable community resource.”

Even so, not all recipients of Soka’s generosity are stepping up to support the school’s expansion plans.

Earlier this year, the school treated 70 clients of Educare Foundation, another private, nonprofit group that helps disadvantaged children, to a free weekend retreat at the campus.

“They even cooked us meals,” said Stu Semigran, vice president of the Calabasas-based group.

But the group is not taking sides.

“We have a lot of respect for what the conservancy does too,” Semigran said.

Soka has also donated about $10,000 worth of computer equipment to the nearby Las Virgenes Unified School District. Grateful as school administrators are, the gifts will not affect the district when it comes time to take a position on the possible traffic impact and other effects of Soka’s expansion, said Leo Lowe, an assistant superintendent.

“They can’t expect it as a trade down the line,” Lowe said. “We’ll just consider the direct impact on our 13 schools.”


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