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.