It's been more than a year since Sofia University students, faculty and staff were left reeling after the president of the Palo Alto psychology school made significant budget cuts, pushed out longtime faculty -- including the university's co-founder -- and then abruptly resigned, leaving the school in total financial and leadership crises.
Now, the private school on East Meadow Circle is looking to a new president with deep pockets and a broader vision to usher Sofia University, formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, into a new era.
This era, most notably, is coming with new programs in computer science and master of business administration (MBA) -- two educational spheres that seem to exist far away from the ethos and curriculum of Sofia University, which since its founding in 1975 has been dedicated to holistic, alternative education. Today, it offers degrees in clinical and transpersonal psychology as well as spiritual guidance and women's spirituality.
Sofia focuses on "whole-person education," which means mind as well as body and spirit, said Robert Frager, co-founder of the university.
Sofia's new and first female president Liz Li argues that the mission of Sofia should be applied to other disciplines. She envisions Sofia's 40 years of transpersonal-psychology research as the roots of a tree, providing the nutrition for new, innovative branches, like the computer-science program.
"Students at the beginning felt like -- they were so worried that this will become an engineering school or a management school," Li said. "I say, it's still a transpersonal school no matter what we are teaching because the value itself can be integrated and applied to any field."
Li, a Palo Alto resident with a doctorate in computer science, 25 years of experience in both the high-tech and academic worlds and a passion for holistic education, heard about the uproar at Sofia over former president Neal King's resignation in December 2013. King had been president since 2011. But discontent over King's leadership style had been bubbling since that summer, faculty said, when King imposed across-the-board salary cuts of 10 percent because of a $1.2-million budget shortfall. A second budget shortfall was announced that November, and the school's chief financial officer told Frager that the school would be bankrupt by the following March. The interim president who later replaced King indicated that enrollment shortfalls and poor planning led to the school's financial crisis, but Aneel Chima, a former student who now teaches at the university, said the explanations were later found to be not credible. He said King's spending was in excess that he was responsible for a huge amount of costly staff turnover during his tenure. King also instituted a tuition hike for one of Sofia's most popular programs, the master's in counseling psychology, which resulted in the majority of students leaving, Chima said.
The Sofia faculty soon passed a "no confidence" vote and seven out of the school's 10 board of trustee members resigned. King stayed on, eventually firing 12 faculty and senior staff members.
Students protested outside the campus carrying signs like "Reinstate faculty & staff now." Many faculty and students left.
Li was appointed last July. She had approached Frager, wanting to save the university -- and having the money to do so. She convinced several friends, some local tech workers and others in her native country of China, to chip in the millions of dollars that would not only bring Sofia back from the red, but sustain it for years to come. Li declined to say how much money she raised, but Frager said it was at least $4 million. The school's total loss, according to an auditor's financial report last year, was $2.35 million, Li said.
Li also has experience in building up schools. She founded the International Software School of Wuhan University in China and has been credited with getting International Technical University (ITU) in San Jose its Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation in five years. During her professional career, she also worked in various positions at Sony and McNair Technologies Corporation.
Despite Li's depth and breadth of experience, some members of the Sofia community were wary of what the new leadership and programs would mean for the school's alternative culture.
"The misconception is that we came here to get rid of the schools' transpersonal programs," Li said in a July 2014 press release announcing her appointment. "The reality is that we want to build a stronger and sustainable Sofia by utilizing the foundational principles and programs already in place."
And it seems there is a demand for what Li and Frager are calling Sofia University "2.0." Thirty-eight students enrolled in the master of science in computer science this year, which combines both online and in-person instruction. The degree is described as "technological skills with humanistic values" and "promotes creativity, cultural sensitivity and mindfulness." Concentrations include artificial intelligence, human computer interaction, big data and software design alongside holistic leadership and management. Li said transpersonal psychology is critical to finding balance in one's life, particularly so in the competitive, fast-paced world of Silicon Valley.
The masters of business administration is still awaiting WASC approval but has similar leanings. Students will learn business, management, accounting, marketing and economics with an "awareness of the core values of Humanists, an exploration of the social responsibility of oneself and of business, and an understanding of the entrepreneurial spirit needed to address the ever-changing world of business and not-for-profit organizations," the program description reads.
The school also plans to launch a master's degree in "transformative education," which will focus on instilling the philosophies and practices of whole-student education to current and future educators.
Frager said there will likely be more new programs in the future. Current degrees that have low enrollment, such as women's spirituality and spiritual guidance, might be discarded, he said.
"We have a lot to give the world, and we need to build the school into an institution that has the authority and the size that can do that," Frager said. "What Liz has done is really continued the movement into the real world, which is, I think, terribly important."
Chima, one of the main student organizers during the fallout over King's tenure, recently returned to teach in the school's clinical psychology department. He said he's optimistic about the new leadership.
For those who still have lingering doubts, he said, "My one message to them is, every one of us who fought really hard for the soul of Sofia needs to re-engage and see for themselves that there is something worthy to get behind again."