A Message to the Community From President Edward M. Feasel

July 31, 2020
Ed Feasel

Dear Soka Community,

May 3, 2021, will mark the 20th Annivers​ary of the Soka University of America, Aliso Viejo campus. This August, we will be launching our year-long 20th anniversary project under the theme, “Soka Global Citizens: Embodying Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion.” Our University Founder, Daisaku Ikeda, in his 1996 Teachers College, Columbia University address, defined these essential elements of global citizens to be:

  • The wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living.
  • The courage not to fear or deny difference, but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures and to grow from encounters with them.
  • The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.

These three attributes of global citizens, while innate in our lives, unfortunately are often not the traits we see most prevalently displayed in society, where instead self-centered material satisfaction and expansion are the focus. It is in our efforts to become global citizens, while pursuing our own personal growth and advancement, that we seek to develop that aspect of our lives that represents our greater selves, an awareness of and a connection to a larger body, community, and society.

Becoming a global citizen is a journey of personal growth and inner transformation. This includes an ethical and spiritual dimension of service and responsibility to each other, while mastering our lesser egocentric selves. Just as we are taught to become human in so many ways, such as accumulating knowledge and learning tradition and culture, education should also foster an ethical and spiritual quest of what it means to be human and to be part of a global community. Mr. Ikeda further shared in his Teachers College address, “Education is a uniquely human privilege. It is the source of inspiration that enables us to become fully and truly human.” This type of education is essential if we are to avoid and overcome the social ills and environmental degradation and destruction that we bear witness to today.

With the goal of recommitting to the founding principles and spirit upon which SUA was founded, the Board of Trustees has created a new Trustee Professorship in Ikeda Studies. The trustee professor will be engaged in teaching and research on Daisaku Ikeda Studies. The trustee professor will teach classes both at the general education and concentration levels in the undergraduate program and in a specific class in the graduate program. The trustee professor shall also undertake special assignments, as identified by the president or by the trustees, in strengthening and expanding the inclusion of Daisaku Ikeda Studies in various parts of the university’s curricular and extracurricular programming. This position will also oversee potential collaborations with the growing number of institutions in the US and abroad engaging in Daisaku Ikeda studies. We look forward to filling this position in the near future.

I will also be establishing a steering committee for the year-long 20th Anniversary Project that I will personally chair, with appointed representatives from students, staff, faculty, administration, alumni, and the Board. The steering committee will lead a campus-wide discussion and effort on inculcating the founding principles and spirit into the culture of our community.

The project will emphasize several aspects that make SUA unique:

  • First, the incredible efforts and commitment of our current students, staff, and faculty, all of whom, during this pandemic, are striving to create value despite the difficult circumstances they face.
  • Second, SUA’s founding values of peace, human rights, and the sanctity of life, which in combination with our mission and founding principles, as given to us by Mr. Ikeda, form the basis of SUA’s endeavors in education for global citizenship.
  • Third, our donors, many of whom come from humble backgrounds and often are not officially affiliated with SUA, but have supported our university because of their belief in our mission and their hope for our students to become world leaders.
  • Finally, our many alumni living around the world, who came to SUA even though we are a young and, in many ways, still unproven university. These alumni are striving to show the value of their SUA education in their respective communities and professions, as living proof of the positive impact of their educational experience. I look forward to sharing more details on our plans to engage the SUA community in this important project in the near future.

I want to also thank the Sohokai, our wonderful alumni organization, for their commitment to financially support several campus projects centering on recommitting to our founding principles. These projects include a new visitors room on the first floor of Founders Hall, sharing the history of SUA and Soka Education; the establishment of the Founder’s Meeting room on the third floor of Founders Hall, which will be named after Daisaku Ikeda; a new Peace Grove seating area where the eucalyptus trees stand outside the student center; and a new reception and casual meeting place in the current guest residence, which is located in the back part of campus. It is only due to the generosity of our alumni that we can make these significant changes to our campus as we celebrate our 20th anniversary.

As we embark on our 20th anniversary year, we have been horrified and appalled by the extent to which racism remains embedded in our society, as reflected in the unjustified killing of Black people. It is important now more than ever to concretely challenge the racist actions and prejudices that exist in our society. At SUA we have taken campus initiatives including, but not limited to, providing mandatory racial bias training for all staff and faculty last year, which will be continued on a regular basis and required for new employees; contracting with an African American counselor to provide counseling services for students; launching the Ayana mental health platform to better support marginalized and intersectional students on campus, with SUA paying for these counseling services; the athletics department working with Rise to Win, a nonprofit organization that works with sports communities to eliminate racial discrimination; and new orientation sessions for incoming students on the issue of race and discrimination led by Student Affairs. While we have made progress, we are committed to continue the process of eliminating all forms of discrimination.

In line with this goal, I am pleased to announce the creation of the new SUA Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Human Rights. The new center will be a resource for the community to carry out dialogue on these important issues. The center will host outstanding individuals from around the country and the globe, whose work is essential to increasing our understanding and progress on addressing the issues confronting our society, including global and local ethnic conflict as well as systemic and institutional racism in our country. It is my hope that this center will examine and explore how to confront what Mr. Ikeda, in his 1993 Harvard University address, termed “the arrow of a discriminatory consciousness” that has plagued the minds of humankind for thousands of years.

The center will be co-directed by Ian Read, current director of the International Studies concentration, and Kevin Moncrief, vice president for Mission Integration. Initial faculty fellows will be Lisa MacLeod, Veronica Quezada, and Nidanie Henderson-Stull. Three student fellows will be appointed, including one Soka Student Union Executive Council representative. Fellows of the center will serve a two-year term. The initial co-directors and fellows, working closely with Michael Weiner, our new vice president for Academic Affairs and interim dean of faculty, will help develop policies and procedures; solicit ideas for and establish initial programming; identify and create an external advisory group; and create a selection process for future fellows. Faculty fellows will also develop new innovative classes under the theme of the center.

I will also initiate this fall a search for a presidential hire in a new faculty position in Black Studies. The search will be led by Professor Weiner and a search committee consisting of the co-directors and fellows of the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Human Rights. The committee will make every effort to include opinions and suggestions from the Soka community, especially from those students in the Black Student Union and Students of Color Coalition who have spearheaded the call for this hire and other curricular changes still being discussed, including a proposal for a new African and Ethnic Studies concentration, which the students presented to the faculty forum last semester.

I am also pleased to announce the establishment of the SUA Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As an initial step we have appointed Maya Gunaseharan as the manager of Diversity Initiatives and Community Building.

In this role, Maya will coordinate efforts to develop and maintain a diverse and inclusive community for students, staff, and faculty. Maya graduated in 2019 from SUA’s Master’s program in Educational Leadership and Societal Change. She served seven years as a faculty member, facilitator, and trainer for the National Association of Independent Schools Student Diversity Leadership Conference. In that role, she led the Multiracial Affinity Group and supported the Black Affinity Group collaborating to create curriculum and facilitate workshops for students to engage in identity work. She was formerly the director of Student Activities for Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, New Jersey, where she partnered with the principal and deans to create a more inclusive community for students of all backgrounds. Together with faculty and students, she created diversity assemblies and programming. She advised student affinity group leaders and created a model grounded in positive youth development practices to serve the needs of the students. I’m confident Maya will do a tremendous job in supporting the university’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion on our campus.

To support this endeavor, I have formed a new Unity and Diversity Council that will serve as an advisory group to the new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The council will work closely with Maya to seek input from the community on the type of programming that will be developed, to create proposals for an improved process for investigating acts of micro-aggression, and to help set an agenda and vision for the future of the office. The members of the Unity and Diversity Council are as follows:

  • Ed Feasel, president (co-chair)
  • Kevin Moncrief, vice president for Mission Integration (co-chair)
  • Michael Weiner, vice president for Academic Affairs and interim dean of faculty
  • Tomoko Takahashi, vice president for Institutional Research and Assessment and dean of the Graduate School
  • Hyon Moon, dean of students
  • Michelle Hobby-Mears, associate dean of students
  • Maya Gunaseharan, manager of Diversity Initiatives and Community Building
  • Zahra Afrasiabi, faculty member
  • Jon Merzel, faculty member
  • Veronica Quezada, faculty member
  • Gail Thomas, professor emerita
  • Black Student Union, president
  • Latines Unides, president
  • Soka Student Union Executive Council representative
  • Alumni (Sohokai Board representative)

The appointments to the committee are for one year, and the student affinity groups and faculty representatives can change from year to year.

I am excited at the launch of these new initiatives, and I am confident they will create an avenue for positive action based on the entire community’s involvement in setting our agenda moving forward. In his 2012 Peace Proposal to the United Nations, Mr. Ikeda referred to the work of Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai. Dr. Maathai, he shared, attributed the success of the Green Belt Movement that she developed to it being “structured to avoid the urge to work for rather than with them [the people].”

It is in this same spirit that I hope the 20th Anniversary Steering Committee, the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Human Rights, and the Unity and Diversity Council will work with the entire SUA community on these important undertakings in the upcoming academic year.

We are a young institution, but I believe the mission of our university is immensely critical for our society to realize a world of peace, the wish of all good-hearted people. Let us strive to live up to our university’s mission and become a model of a community of global citizens leading contributive lives. I look forward with great anticipation and vigor to taking on this challenge together with all of you.

Ed Feasel

Note: This message was delivered to the Soka community via email on Friday, July 31, 2020.