Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.
(J.C. Watts)

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” (Marcus Aurelius)

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant)

Neal King

I really didn’t know how I would approach this blog posting so I wrote a few different versions ranging from the usual judgmental rant with lots of finger pointing, even one with a few “I told you so’s” mixed in. It is always easy to look back at a crisis and speculate as to where things went wrong and as is often the case, point fingers at those we believe are to blame. The disgraced (ex) president Neal King is certainly an easy target for blame in this unfortunate situation with Sofia University (Sofiagate?) and it probably makes us feel better when we can point the finger at one person. However, I think there is much more blame to go around behind the Sofia University scandal that is satisfied by simply pointing a finger at the apparent irrational, unethical, unprofessional and possibly illegal conduct of the past president Neal King. Everyone – students, faculty, alumni, founders and staff who witnessed or directly experienced many of the early warning signs of managerial, professional or ethical misconduct, yet did nothing, may hold as much if not MORE of the blame than one person alone. In my opinion Sofia University reached this unfortunate state not simply from the actions of one man, but from the INACTION of those who knew something was wrong for quite some time, but said or did nothing out of cowardice, self-interest or in the case of some, an exaggerated detachment indicative of spiritual bypassing – I am on a “spiritual path of self development, I don’t want to hear, read or discuss anything “negative’ about the program“. I spent one year in Sofia’s Global Master’s Program and I can tell you that even from the limited perspective of a graduate student in an online program who has never even set foot on campus, there was ample evidence of managerial, administrative, educational, technological and professional “issues” indicative of wide-spread and systemic problems. In spite of trying everything I could to engage fellow students and collectively raise many of these issues or concerns with senior staff, including the president Neal King and Provost Paul Roy, I was not successful and so along with at least one other student, left the program in frustration just before the proverbial shit hit the fan.

As much as I wanted to avoid wasting any more time writing about my frustrating and disappointing year with Sofia University (formally the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology), these recent (but not surprising) events have confirmed the suspicions of many, including myself,  which led to some leaving the graduate program with Sofia University. I wont go into details again about the disappointing experiences myself and others had with the Global Masters Program in Transpersonal Psychology since I covered many of the issues and concerns in a previous post. However, there were certainly many indications during my year with Sofia that upper-management was fundamentally disconnected not only from the students and faculty, but disconnected from the ethical, professional and transpersonal ideals which founded the original Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. And from what we have now learned from other faculty, staff, board members and even the founder of ITP Bob Frager, there were MANY warning signs as soon as Neal King took hold of the institutional reigns.

I also won’t attempt to summarize all of the recent events around the shocking, irrational, unethical and unprofessional conduct of the past president Neal King which has led to the current crisis situation with Sofia University. Many other sites are already doing a great job of organizing the Sofia/ITP community, publishing a timeline of events, aggregating information, creating social media groups , Hangouts On Air and starting a petition for the Attorney General of California to investigate the actions of Neal King and the Board. Liberate ITP and other sites are doing an exceptional job of not only providing all the facts and details of this crisis situation, but they are also coordinating the Sofia/ITP community, students, faculty, staff and alumni in an effort to regain control of the institution and prevent it from becoming insolvent or damaging Sofia’s reputation any further.

I also want to make it clear that I am not coming to Neal King’s defense, or implying he should not shoulder most of the blame by suggesting there is plenty of blame to go around. With mass-firings, 7 Board members resigning, the school put in (temporary) lock-down in a futile attempt to prevent a meeting, email accounts disabled, computers confiscated, alleged secret negotiations, refusal to release budget details and other skeletons coming out of the closet, Neal King has plenty of responsibility on his shoulders. What this final blog post of 2013 is about, is just one man’s opinion of an unfortunate event. One ex-graduate-student’s perspective on how this situation may have been prevented, or mitigated, by the actions of a few motivated and courageous individuals willing to stand up for what is right, against what is wrong. In some cases, putting aside their own self-interest (job security) for the sake of the students they claimed to support and represent.

Who is to Blame?

So who else is to blame for this crisis with Sofia University? Well, I for one since instead of sticking around and fighting harder, louder and more persistently for the integrity of the program and the educational welfare of my fellow students, I bailed by leaving the program and entering another. But I was only one of a few students who were outspoken on the many educational, technical, communications or administrative problems we experienced with Sofia management and the Global Masters Program. I believe a great deal of blame rests on the shoulders of the top-level managerial and institutional “leaders” who knew there was something wrong early on, yet did little or nothing to address what has now become a cascading destruction of an entire University. Sure it was a noble and likely painful admission by ITP’s founder Bob Frager during the community meeting when he said he knew things were wrong but acted in his own self-interest in order to protect his job at the time. But I am sure that Bob Frager is not the only high-level faculty or administrative staff who witnessed or sensed there were problems, yet found some way to justify keeping quite. Collectively, all the silence and inaction may have even emboldened Neal King with an inflated sense of power and authority which might explain some of the more bizarre, irrational even psychopathic-looking behavior during his last few weeks as president.

Now I don’t want to paint all Sofia faculty or staff with the same brush. I am certain there were some people, possibly many, who tried to express concerns or have issues addressed but given what we know about King’s managerial style, they were likely ignored – along with the formal concerns sent to Neal King and Paul Roy from many of the students in the Global Masters Program. But even for those who tried to raise concerns but were shot down or ignored, is it not reasonable to ask at what point does failure to raise awareness of  concerns or ethical wrongdoing warrant even more aggressive, and possibly collective action? At what point does self-interest, self-preservation, the need to maintain the status quo in order to retain your job and feed your family, become secondary to “doing the right thing“? Of course I am not going to propose an answer to this most difficult and inherently personal philosophical and ethical question. However, clearly it is a valid question since many of those who may have remained silent throughout King’s alleged tyrannical reign in order to protect their jobs at the time, are now unemployed either as a result of speaking out recently, or the massive cutbacks due to budgetary shortfalls which many place on King’s shoulders. Clearly for some, keeping quite about wrongdoings or misconduct did not have the long-term benefits of job-security likely anticipated. Toss in the possible feelings now of regret or even shame for not having acted at the time when they witnessed the wrongdoing or had concerns, and I am sure there are many personal struggles and self-reflections taking place among many of Sofia’s staff and faculty.

Spiritual Bypassing

With regards to the personal and ethical dilemma of determining when is the right time to speak up or act when you witness or learn about wrongdoing and where speaking out may threaten your job or yourself in some other way, all I can say is THINK CRITICALLY and BE HONEST with yourself. If you consider yourself to be a student of transpersonal models of psychology or spirituality, then bypassing anxiety or stress-inducing situations will not make you happier or more spiritual it will make you weaker and more likely to fail (or suffer) down the road when you are faced with inevitable hardship and stress-inducing situations that you cannot avoid. As I mentioned earlier, there is a name for this practice of avoiding the painful, dark, stressful or personally challenging events in our lives in the name of positivity – it’s call spiritual bypassing. Avoiding the difficult, stressful or painful situations in our lives is cowardly and dishonest. Such defensive and avoidance behavior simply hides one from the truth and removes a perfectly good opportunity to face the pain, the conflict and develop genuine life-long skills of mindfulness, honesty, tolerance, critical thinking and possibly even morally defensible conduct.

The trappings of spiritual bypassing can look good, particularly when they seem to promise freedom from life’s fuss and fury, but this supposed serenity and detachment is often little more than metaphysical valium, especially for those who have made too much of a virtue out of being and looking positive. (R.A. Masters)

Many of us have heard the expression, “your enemy is your greatest teacher“.  By “enemy” I don’t mean simply an individual or possibly a country with whom you have an adversarial conflict. “Enemy” from a spiritual perspective is any thing, any person, any thought, any experience, any situation or any behavior which challenges your commitment to a spiritual or transpersonal practice. Tolerance and forgiveness are certainly worthwhile qualities to develop in any spiritual practice and so the lack of either should be considered “enemies” of a spiritual or transpersonal lifestyle. And how do we best learn and develop tolerance and forgiveness? Well, certainly not by intellectual or philosophical exercises. We learn tolerance and forgiveness by directly facing those situations or persons which are most challenging to our spiritual or transpersonal lifestyle. 

For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind! (Dalai Lama)

Lessons Learned

I have already written more than I intended in this post, and in some ways not nearly enough – particularly around the ethical dilemma when faced with the choice of speaking out against wrongdoing when there is a personal, economical (or family) risk of doing so.  I suppose there are no universal solutions since everyone must weigh the perceived pro’s and con’s themselves, against their own value system and immediate needs. But since Sofia played such an important role in my personal, spiritual and academic life, and many of my ex-Sofia-grad-student-colleagues are now facing some difficult choices of their own, I felt I should try and write something about these events.

Although I started this blog post by drawing attention, even blame, towards those Sofia faculty and administrators who knew there were problems early on but remained silent, I really can’t fault them entirely. If someone remains silent in the face of wrong-doing in order to protect their jobs and financial stability for their family, how can that be “wrong” or unethical? I suppose this brings me back to the question I posed earlier:

At what point does self-interest, self-preservation, the need to maintain the status quo in order to retain your job and feed your family, become secondary to “doing the right thing”?

Although I am not able to propose an answer to this challenging personal and ethical question, I do believe there are (at least) two lessons we can take away from Sofiagate:

  1. Always remain true to your principles and speak up immediately when you know something is wrong.
  2. Shit happens, all the time. You have limited control so when shit happens, face the problem, understand the lesson, grow spiritually and then move on.

I believe the first lesson is the most important when it comes to potentially avoiding or at least mitigating some of the same damages caused by this rogue university president, in other situations. When you look at the timeline of Neal King’s tenure with Sofia, apparently there were many warning signs indicating where he was taking the university. These warning signs were witnessed by many faculty, many staff and certainly many students and in some cases people did try to speak up, while many others who may have been able to make a difference, remained silent. Of course I don’t profess to understand each person’s individual circumstances as to what may have led them to remain silent. And like I mentioned earlier, in some cases it may have been a practical choice by well-intended people simply trying to protect their own jobs and ability to support their families. All I would ask or expect of people in those situations is to be honest with themselves and think critically. Ask yourself the very utilitarian question: “could my silence today lead to more harm to more people down the road, including myself?“. If you are honest and can answer “yes” to that question, then maybe you need to give the decision to remain silent a bit more consideration.

What Lies Ahead for Sofia University?

I don’t know what lies in the future for Sofia University and it’s many students. These unfortunate events have certainly empowered hundreds, possibly thousands of students, alumni, faculty and staff to come to the rescue and not only push for a formal investigation by the Attorney General of California, but to fight for a new Board and president who embody the transpersonal values which Bob Frager founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. The collective will and passion of so many people is encouraging and I have confidence that Sofia University will remain in operation. But this may be the easy part – in the short-term. The long-term challenges ahead for Sofia University are actually intertwined – the need for more students and the university’s reputation. Sofia University is fundamentally tuition-driven and so they need students, LOTS of students in order to remain financially sustainable. However, 2013 had one of the lowest enrollment rates in Sofia/ITP’s history which contributed to the budget shortfall. And now we have a crisis situation which may force some students to leave (increasing the budget shortfall even further), combined with the wide-spread negative PR being spread through the media. It may take a marketing, academic and community-driven genius of impeccable character to pull off a full recovery of Sofia University. Rebuilding the trust and confidence of the community, as well as potential students and faculty, is likely the single greatest challenge facing the new president and board. For the sake of my chosen field of transpersonal psychology, and the academic and spiritual development of all my Sofia friends, I certainly hope this turns our well for everyone, including those who may have contributed to these unfortunate events either by their actions, or inaction.

One last comment. As we all work through our (justified) emotions and reactions surrounding Neal King, it may also be worth considering that…”love and compassion are, among others, fundamental qualities of the deepest nature of mind. In those unchanging qualities is the actual source of safety for self and others. To realize this is to recognize our own deep worthiness and potential for inner freedom and goodness, and to recognize the very same in all other persons.” (John Makransky-Aren’t We Right To Be Angry? – Tricycle, Summer 2012)

When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness. — Joseph Campbell

What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself. — Abraham Maslow

If you can cultivate the right attitude, your enemies are your best spiritual teachers because their presence provides you with the opportunity to enhance and develop tolerance, patience and understanding. — Dalai Lama

Happier Times At Sofia University