Students and faculty at Palo Alto's Sofia University are seeking a complete replacement of the school's board of trustees following across-the-board budget cuts this fall and a faculty no-confidence vote in President Neal King.
Seven out of 10 trustees have resigned in recent weeks and remaining trustees announced that King would resign effective Dec. 31, but demonstrators in front of the school Thursday afternoon demanded King's immediate departure.
Meanwhile, Sofia's remaining trustees Thursday afternoon named an interim president for the school, former Pitzer College president Frank Ellsworth, effective Jan. 1.
In a letter to the Sofia community, the trustees authorized King in the meantime to "take all necessary steps to restructure the organization in order to realize operational and personnel savings that will bring the budget into balance..."
"This is a very painful experience for those of us who care deeply about this school," said Aneel Chima, a doctoral student and former student representative on the board of trustees of Sofia, previously known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
Chima said students and faculty want new trustees drawn from past board members, alumni and people with historic ties to the school.
As students and faculty gathered in front of the school for Thursday's protest, Chima said he has received word that King that morning had fired at least 11 faculty and staff members, including the school's co-founder, professor Robert Frager, and well-known local psychologist and writer Fred Luskin, author of "Forgive for Good."
The 38-year-old nonprofit university, accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, offers on-campus as well as online degrees in psychology, with a bent toward the discipline's spiritual, emotional and creative aspects. It reports a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 526 students.
Frager, a psychologist, said on Wednesday he has filed a complaint with the California Attorney General's Office seeking an investigation.
"There's been an atmosphere of secrecy from the top down, so the board refused to give us a budget for this year and the president refused to give us a budget or clear figures about what's going on," Frager said.
King "has been at the school two and a half years and one major complaint is that he does not provide adequate information to people," he said.
Frager said he believes Sofia's enrollment numbers suffered because the admissions office was disorganized and "failed to respond to inquiries in a timely way."
In a written statement Wednesday, King said that despite "a revenue shortfall this year, Sofia University is not on the brink of insolvency.
"The board and I are fully engaged in a due diligence process to address enrollment and revenue, and to balance the budget for the current fiscal year," the statement said.
Frager said discontent began to emerge at the end of the summer when King announced he was imposing across-the-board salary cuts of 10 percent because of a $1.2 million shortfall.
"Our budget is about $10 million so we're talking about over 10 percent," Frager said.
The last straw came in November when King announced a second budget shortfall, Frager said. The amount was "not totally clear," but estimated at about another $1 million, he said.
"The way he was planning to make up the funds was an additional pay cut, cutting medical and retirement contributions and firing faculty and staff, among other things," he said.
At that point, Sofia's 50 full- and part-time faculty members delivered a no-confidence vote in King's leadership, Frager said. As faculty leaders explained their vote in a series of meetings with trustees, all but three of the trustees resigned.
Turmoil at the school, which allegedly has included the preemptive cancellation of some faculty email accounts, including Frager's, the hiring of security guards and a lock-out at the campus Tuesday afternoon has caused problems for students, many said.
"A very important aspect of what is going on is the damage being done to students," said a graduate student who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
"The hiring and firing practices of Neal King had been mostly secretive," the student said.
"I would only notice because new people were coming into senior positions so often. Over time, certain critical areas of the school like financial aid and accounting had so much turnover that mistakes were constantly being made on students' financial aid accounts, disbursement checks started coming late and tuition adjustments and increases became the norm.
"Students, above all, have suffered from these actions," the graduate student said.
Despite the troubles, many expressed allegiance to the school's mission of teaching psychology from a spiritual angle and said they hope past leaders will return to rebuild the institution.
"In spite of all the pain I and others have suffered I remain a loyal advocate for all of the wonderful things this school is and can bring," said a former senior manager, who said he was hired by King and later fired, as were the 11 staff members he hired in his year at the school.
King, a psychologist and former president of Antioch University in Los Angeles, was hired to lead what was then known as the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, which is housed in former office buildings on East Meadow Circle.
The year after his arrival the school rebranded itself as Sofia University. The restructuring in which the school said it would begin offering undergraduate studies was based on research into social and economic trends in higher education, according to a statement from the university at the time of the name change.