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Students demonstrate as new Sofia president takes office

After firings, resignations, they say they're worried about Palo Alto school's future

As an interim president took office at Palo Alto's Sofia University this week, students demonstrating outside the school demanded replacement of the three-member board that hired him and a return to the institution's founding principles.

Students said they were committed to the school's mission of the study of psychology in the holistic style known as "transpersonal," which incorporates things like mindfulness and meditation, but are concerned about their futures following the abrupt firing last month of 12 administrators and senior faculty members.

Psychologist and author Fred Luskin, who was among those fired, said he would continue to teach this quarter even if he doesn't get paid because "this is a lovely band of students, committed to being a little different and marching to their own drum, which has created an atmosphere of cordiality."

Luskin, a researcher and writer on forgiveness, ran Sofia's review program for research ethics and taught clinical assessment and research design. The author of "Forgive for Good" and other self-help books, Luskin also co-founded the Stanford Forgiveness Project and teaches classes there on happiness, emotional intelligence, meditation and forgiveness.

Sofia's Interim President Frank Ellsworth said Monday he had reviewed the school's finances and "our numbers are solid.

"The operating budget should reflect a break-even for this fiscal year," said Ellsworth, who was president of Pitzer College from 1979 to 1991, in an emailed statement.

But students said the school would not be the same after the loss of key faculty members fired Dec. 19 by departing president Neal King. Besides Luskin, others fired included the school's cofounder, psychologist Robert Frager.

The students are seeking the resignation of current board members, all but three of whom resigned in the past month, and a slate of new leadership proposed by longtime faculty members.

"Some of the people they let go have been people who inspired me the most," said student Kevin Pinjuv, who came to Sofia in 2011 as a doctoral candidate after earning a political science degree from Vassar College and working in Washington, D.C.

"People are losing their advisers, their dissertation chairs, their major professors. It's been very dramatic and messy and heartbreaking."

Sofia, which until two years ago was called the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, is a 38-year-old nonprofit institution accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. It reports a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 526 and offers on-campus as well as online degrees in psychology, with a bent toward the discipline's spiritual, emotional and creative aspects.

After King's arrival as president in 2011, the school changed its name from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology to Sofia University and said it would add an undergraduate program.

But discontent emerged this past fall after King announced one 10 percent, across-the-board salary cut and then another. Seven out of 10 trustees resigned, King himself resigned and Frager said he had filed a complaint with the California Attorney General's Office.

Besides losing faculty members, students said the firing of the school's clinical coordinator, who set up internships with local mental health agencies, would hurt their programs.

Pinjuv, for example, has worked at Momentum for Mental Health in San Jose and at Sofia's own counseling center, the Community Center for Health and Wellness. Others said they had worked at counseling centers overseen by the Salvation Army and by Family and Children Services of Silicon Valley.

Doctoral student Maytal Shalev said she moved here from Israel to attend Sofia because of its alternative approach to the study of psychology. Shalev, who holds undergraduate degrees from Tel Aviv University, said she could have continued there to get licensed but came to Sofia because it aligned with her "authentic belief system.

"I've made a big investment to be here, and that's one of my big concerns," she said.

Doctoral student Susan Pearson, a former massage therapist in Chicago with a degree in history from Northwestern University, said she chose Sofia specifically for its transpersonal focus and is concerned about the loss of faculty.

"There's been a lot of discussion around whether it would be worthwhile to boycott the school, but I don't think it's in the students' interest and it doesn't seem to be in the interest of the school either," Pearson said.

"We believe in the qualities of the school, in the idea of transpersonal education. It's not just about receiving a degree; it's about being around people with a common point of view that includes a very inclusive and welcoming atmosphere."

Ellsworth, the new president, said he would establish a task force made up of students, faculty and staff to address the school's finances, and a second task force to address strategy and planning.

"I have spoken with multiple students, faculty and staff in person, who have all voiced their concerns, and it is my hope that by implementing these task force measures Sofia can move forward into a positive and sustainable future," Ellsworth said in the emailed statement.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Valentine
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2014 at 10:59 pm

I think it is important to note that Neal King did not resign until after receiving a vote of No Confidence from faculty. The faculty and staff who were fired on December 19 were victims of retaliation for their participation in an All Hands Community meeting the night before, during which attendees expressed concern about the future of ITP (aka Sofia University)and their commitment to uphold the core principles of transpersonal psychology.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Intriguing
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2014 at 11:41 am

I find this intriguing and am left with many questions. There appears to have been a core erosion at ITP previous to the name change to Sofia. That change drew my attention and left me feeling that ITP was a sinking ship attempting to quickly bail out the water. Now it looks like pirates have boarded, but I can't tell whether it's mutiny, sinking, or piracy.
My gut tells me Sofia University will only survive if the current leadership remains because any other change will full destabilize the institution into dissolving cmpletely. Something is amiss, for sure. But it may be that time is taking it's' course and Sofia, like many other schools, are having to adapt or perish.
Best wishes for a healthy solution.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Doctor Why
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Sophia has failed to reach "critical mass" to maintain sustainability with the requirements imposed by the state and federal governments, along with accrediting agencies, for reporting, loans, record-keeping, self-studies, and Lord knows what else. Sophia might consider "consolidation" with another institution to save overhead and reduce duplication, i.e. the California Institute of Integral Studies or the Institute for Humanistic Studies which share some common values. I wish Sophia good luck.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by calmingtor
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Jan 26, 2014 at 12:28 am

State Attorney needs to launch an investigation, the state needs to call the firing by an outgoing president with a vote of no confidence from the day before null and void and the two remaining board members and this new president need to leave and the board members that left under duress (stressful circumstances with a hostile president) need to be back on the board and reelect the Cofounder Bob Frager as President to get not only the school back on track with its core values but to make sure the staffing is in place to meet current student needs and requirements to remain accredited as well as be an inspirational source of a much need funding campaign. People are in line to donate money if Dr. Frager re-assumes the leadership and reins of the school he cofounded.


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