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New Orange County College Has Small Classes, Huge Endowment

The Region

Education: Soka University, backed by a Japanese Buddhist group, emphasizes peace and liberal arts.

August 19, 2001|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This weekend, about 120 freshmen are walking onto the first private liberal arts college built in California in more than 25 years.

They're attending an educational experiment, a place where traditional faculty tenure has been tossed out and a global focus will require them to spend at least five months abroad and to study a Pacific Rim language. They will learn in classrooms that hold no more than 12 students in a school that, backed by an extraordinary endowment, seeks a reputation akin to a Swarthmore or the Claremont Colleges.

Soka University's Aliso Viejo campus, 103 acres and 18 buildings jutting into the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, is open for business.

Its $265-million hilltop site boasts travertine trim on the buildings, a one-acre lake, a copper-plated map of the world underneath a 100-foot dome and a computer port everywhere you turn, 3,800 of them.

Left over is a $300-million endowment, courtesy of the founding Buddhist group and its members, for a school that doesn't hold its first class for another week, a sum that other schools struggle to match.

It's more than Loyola Marymount University has saved in 136 years, more than Occidental College has raised in 124. "It's unbelievable," said Martha Hammer, president of the Independent Colleges of Southern California.

Soka plans on an eventual student population of 1,200. Students will major in liberal arts with a choice of concentrations in international studies, social and behavioral science and the humanities.

Half the student body is expected to come from foreign countries. And the education will be built on the Buddhist ideals of sanctity of life, peace and human rights.

"I don't think many will come here to be successful businessmen," said Soka President Daniel Habuki. "The goal is to contribute to society."

Added Eric Hauber, vice president for enrollment services, "We want students with a sense of commitment to more than themselves."

Soka never would have come to Orange County if it had been allowed to expand its campus in the Santa Monica Mountains, devoted to teaching English as a second language. Environmentalists have battled successfully for more than a decade to prevent Soka from growing beyond the 12 acres it occupies and onto the remaining oak-filled 576 acres it owns.

Though the university is continuing the battle in Calabasas, school officials ultimately accepted an offer to buy the hilltop site in Orange County from Mission Viejo Co. for $20 million.

In contrast to the Calabasas controversy, Soka's plans were embraced in Aliso Viejo. In a community of 42,000 that just incorporated this summer and that has seen its population grow 400% in the last decade, Soka was, for most, just another construction project.

"The timing was remarkable," said Habuki, 49, who also is president of the Calabasas campus. "If we were built 25 years ago, we probably would not get such a warm reception because we'd disrupt the community. We weren't the only ones generating dust. Everyone was generating dust."

As the buildings were going up, Soka tried to integrate itself into the new city and even agreed to give $10,000 annually for five years to the county branch library.

Most of the campus was designed by Norman Pfeiffer, architect for the Los Angeles Central Library remodeling and expansion of the early 1990s, who also is in charge of the restoration of the Griffith Park Observatory.

The buildings are clad in beige stucco with red tile roofs, similar to the nearby housing tracts. Windows are bordered with travertine, the same stone used to finish the Getty Center and the Roman Colosseum.

A one-acre, million-gallon artificial lake with a fountain sculpture of Neptune faces the four colonial pillars in front of Founders Hall. The 3,800 computer ports make it one of the most wired campuses in the world.

Buildings are named for couples. "They all said they couldn't accomplish their work without their spouses," said Hauber, the vice president of admissions.

There is Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Hall, named for the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his wife, and Mohandas and Ktsurbai Gandhi Hall, in honor of the nonviolent advocate of Indian independence. The Daisaku and Kaneko Ikeda Library--"Champions for peace, culture and education"--is named for the founder of the college and his wife.

Ikeda is also the leader of the controversial lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest religious organization, which financed the university. A 12,400-square-foot house on campus is reserved for the use of Ikeda and other dignitaries.

Although nearly unknown in this country, Ikeda has been the subject of sharply divided opinion in Japan. He has been called the power-hungry head of a cult that undermines democracy. Others see his group as fighting for the common man against an oppressive establishment.

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