With new president and programs, Sofia University enters new era

Private transpersonal-psychology school moves forward from financial crisis

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."

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20 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 28, 2015 at 8:27 am

"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."
Yet, “Current degrees that have low enrollment, such as women's spirituality and spiritual guidance, might be discarded, he [Frager] said."

So, please explain to me how discarding programs in spirituality, in the INCLUSION of spirit and the Whole Feminine are supportive of “Utilizing the foundational principles and programs already in place,” or teaching "transformative education," (whole student education). It’s a familiar story. Strip the Feminine and the Spirit out of business and call it holistic.

If they are really committed to a new way in business, in computer science, and in education, SUPPORT a key foundational principle of who we all are (spiritual, feminine) and bring it to the FOREFRONT of consciousness instead of once again following a trend of ‘discarding’ it out based on profitability, and invisibility.

Be new leaders in education, in sciences, in business by EXAMPLE! SUPPORT the inclusion of true-whole student education, of whole human beings in business by SUPPORTING the Women's Spirituality Program, by SUPPORTING the Spiritual Guidance Program!

8 people like this
Posted by Michelle
a resident of another community
on Apr 28, 2015 at 11:04 am

If the Women's Spirituality Program and Spiritual Guidance Programs have to go, it would be nice if we could work toward reinstituting them in the future when we have the funds to promote enrollment in them. Sad that everything in the world takes money. What I would like to see in the mean time, is education in these subjects incorporated into existing programs to keep the importance of this knowledge alive. For instance, I didn't know anything about women's studies at all until I was introduced to it in the Global PhD program. Now I understand how important it is. It would be easy to integrate these ideas into computer science, not sure about business. Because I'm not sure about business, only means that isn't my background and so my understanding of how to include women's studies in that area is lacking.

38 people like this
Posted by Samantha
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 30, 2015 at 2:46 pm

The important thing to remember in this situation is that the former leadership of the university ran the school into the ground financially and the school was almost lost for good due to lack of students and poor financial planning. The Women's Spirituality program had less than 10 students due to its lack of rigor and applicability to the real world. The school was a liberal created mess. Thanks to Liz Li and the new investors the school was saved with the spirit of the school infused into new curricula to keep the school modern, viable, and afloat. The dead wood of the school that brought it down needed to be eliminated like any viable business. The days of a free for all, easy liberal curricula are over. What is in place is a strong academic environment with high standards, with new professors with extensive experience and credentials. Many professors at Sofia are unappreciative of the new leadership that saved their gravy train jobs and saved the school. Typical of liberals.

3 people like this
Posted by Roberta
a resident of another community
on May 2, 2015 at 8:28 pm

So sad that those who wish to attack "liberals' actually may not know the relevance of "liberal thinking to the current paradigm shift our society is experiencing." The "liberal" and "open-minded thinker" does not "name call" as a distancing action, but considers ideological positions, other than what may be their own. With a liberal and acceptant world-view, many diverse points-of-view can be considered. For the person that cannot experience a wide and inclusive world-view, there is little hope, if s/he contnues to live in a lop-sided, polarized mind set. It is a frustrating paradox that open-minded thikers can comprehend the position of many ideologies, across the ideological spectrum, yet the "polarized and judgemental thinker" is trapped at their chosen polar extreme, unable to comprehend alternative views. Such is life during the pardigm shift.........

4 people like this
Posted by Kuevez
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 13, 2015 at 7:17 pm

You know what. This school is never going to function well. The administrators can be very unprofessional. It's why the school tanked. Spirituality gets entangled with administration and they act stupid and irresponsible. [Portion removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Liz
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2015 at 11:16 am

The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology was graduate school in psychology with fourth force psychology as it's "ground of being". With that degree--a doctorate in philosophy (plus a certificate in clinical psychology at the doctoral level), a graduating student (such as myself) was able to become properly qualified (via the appropriate CPA/APA approved internship programs) to sit the California Board of Psychology licensing exams & take their place in the working world as a professional psychologist and create positive and transformative change in the world from the inside! Sadly, this is no longer a possibility, as the school decided to make an about-turn during the APA approval process which would have left this school solid, serving the students for whom it was "supposedly" created (back in 1975). Yes, everything must come to an end. Too bad for clinical clients in need and for the world in general. In its day ITP graduated many students (a high passing quota for those from California graduate schools to pass the California licensing examinations) who were able to make a worthy contribution to the transpersonal worldview via their professional clinical work. I feel so grateful that I was one of the fortunate.

Like this comment
Posted by Cassandra
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 25, 2015 at 12:15 pm

This was just forwarded to me. It is unconscionable that almost two years after the brouhaha at this school, this creepy false narrative continues on. I was neutral, on the outside, but had access to ALL the players in this sorry drama. King and the school were a lousy fit, no question. However, King did what the board asked and resigned when the school became totally ungovernable [portion removed.] The ensuing panic drove students out and nearly caused the school to collapse. King didn't do that, Frager did. The CFO said that Frager misquoted and misunderstood her -- the finances had been reviewed by the auditors and board and this dark narrative was not supported. [Portion removed.] This group drove down enrollment with their relentless campaign against King, the board and the school. King didn't do the calculations for the new tuition structure, Paul Roy did. [Portion removed.]

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