Soka University of America, the Newest Orange County Liberal Arts College

When first describing Soka University of America (SUA) in Aliso Viejo in Orange County it’s tempting to draw an analogy to Pepperdine in Malibu: both campuses are mere miles from the Pacific and have stunningly beautiful campuses…but then the analogy begins to falter.  

Both have religious roots: Pepperdine’s is evangelical Christian and SUA’s is Buddhist. While Pepperdine showcases its Christianity, SUA avoids any religious affiliation. In the March 10th, 2011 OC Weekly, a SUA spokesperson, Wendy Harder, says, “This university, from day one, has been open to everyone…Our first student body president was a Catholic from the Philippines.”  In the same article a senior at SUA, concentrating in International Relations, Akiko Tomita, concurs, “The [religious] aspect is not emphasized on the education side…A lot of my friends here are atheist or Christian.”

Soka was founded in 1960 by Daisaku Ikeda, a former business tycoon, who took the helm of the Soka Gakkai (a lay Buddhist organization that claims more than 12 million members with tens of billions in assets) . In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Ikeda called himself “the anti-authority.”  Though Ikeda has never set foot on the campus, his books are on display near the front of the 225,000 volume library, his portrait hangs in the reading room and a special guest house awaits him.

SUA began as a graduate school on 588 acres in Calabasas. When its expansion plans were restricted, SUA purchased 103 acres in Aliso Viejo for $25 million. The location is bordered on three sides by the Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park containing a 4000-acre county wildlife sanctuary. As one enters the front gate a fountain shoots forth from a large lake fronting the administration building, a structure composed of stone from the same quarry that supplied stone for the Roman Coliseum.

SUA, with 436 undergraduates, all of whom live on campus, is small. 96% of the classes have fewer than 20 students. The student-faculty ratio is 9:1, with half the student body being international students, and two-thirds being female. Admission is very selective: fewer than half the applicants are admitted.   The freshman retention rate is just under 95%, which places SUA in the company of Claremont McKenna, Emory, and College of William and Mary.

90% of the students receive some form of financial aid, with the average need based scholarship of just under $23,000.With a cost of attendance (COA) of around $45,000, financial aid brings attendance to within reach for most applicants. Additionally, if an applicant comes from a home with a HHI of under $60,000, tuition is free.

Its endowment exceeds $1 billion—comparable to Bowdoin’s in Maine. On a per student basis this translates to $2.3 million: only Princeton comes close with$2.2 million.

SUA offers only a bachelor’s in Liberal Arts which includes courses to perfect writing skills and general inquiry, sciences, key humanities core, creative arts, foreign language acquisition, health, learning clusters (which involve going into the real world, worldwide, to analyze problems and offer solutions). Students within the liberal arts program can then concentrate in environmental studies, humanities, international studies, and social and behavioral sciences which culminate with a capstone experience.

Daisaku Ikeda, in a lecture at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in 1997, stated Soka has established a ‘tradition of humanistic learning and scholarship where the focus is on each student’s growth and development.’ Its roots spring from Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a Japanese educator and Buddhist leader, who gave his life in defiance of the Japanese Imperial Army.

Yet, according to notes from a SUA planning committee meeting in 1998: ‘If we [SUA]overtly call ourselves a Buddhist University…we will be perceived as ‘not mainstream’…[while] an attempt to hide our Buddhist roots will be seen as secretive and cultish. We need to be somewhere in between,” which thereby placed SUA into a self-designed identity crisis.

SUA is no more or less mainstream than Harvard, BYU, or Middlebury College. Virtually all the private colleges in the US are not mainstream, producing their own unique learning experiences. SUA simply needs to reflect Makiguchi’s educational intent, call itself Buddhist (in much the same way that University of Pennsylvania is Quaker, University of San Diego is Jesuit, or Baylor is Baptist), and let the rest take care of itself.