After an eight-year struggle, Soka University of America may finally get to build its 440,000-square-foot campus in Calabasas. The graduate studies and extension-course center, which provides masters of arts degrees in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction, got the go-ahead from the California Coastal Commission last month to expand its campus at Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road from 31 acres to 52 acres. The school intends to boost its enrollment to 800 full- and part-time students, from about 200 currently. The new campus, with four times the space of the current facility, also will include housing for about 500 students, compared with its current dormitories for about 150 students. Soka officials say the expansion will enable the university to accommodate an expected spike in demand in the years to come. “By 2005, there will be about half a million more people in California a year who want to study in a university,” said university spokesman Jeff Ourvan. “At the same time, there are not really new schools being built for them.” The April 8 nod from the California Coastal Commission caps an eight-year battle by the university to expand its operations a move that has encountered fierce opposition from homeowner and community groups that did not want the university encroaching on the Santa Monica Mountains. Under the terms of Soka’s agreement with the state, the university will donate 383 acres of land to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and agree never to apply for further expansion of the campus, in exchange for the approval to expand its campus now. The school’s original request, for a 5,000-student campus, ultimately was whittled down to allow the school a maximum of 800 students. In all, some 90 percent of the Soka’s land will remain open space. Soka University of America opened in Calabasas in 1987, after Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist sect, acquired 248 acres of land in the Santa Monica Mountains that once belonged to the Gillette family and decided to build the first U.S. branch of the sect’s 7,000-student liberal arts school near Tokyo. The group later acquired an additional 340 adjacent acres of land. A new 2,500-student undergraduate Soka campus in Aliso Viejo in Orange County also is under construction, expected to be completed in 2001. With the Coastal Commission’s approval under its belt, all that lies in the way of a groundbreaking for Soka’s Calabasas expansion is a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and two other groups calling for a new environmental impact report. “There are a lot of inadequacies in the report,” said Curtis Horton, an associate at the Law Offices of Frank P. Angel, which is representing the Sierra Club in the suit, along with the Monte Nido Valley Property Owners Association and an anti-development group called Save Open Space. “For example, there was a lack of effort in finding a feasible alternative site. They easily could have integrated the campus into their Orange County campus.” Ourvan said Soka officials are certain the environmental report is “air-tight,” and that the Sierra Club’s suit will not stop the project. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for May 29 in Los Angeles Superior Court. In addition to the environmentalists, others have charged that the campus would be used as center for activities of the Soka Gakkai, a powerful religious organization influential in the political and social arenas in Japan. The group claims some 12 million members worldwide (its U.S. ranks include 300,000 members, 20,000 of whom reside in Southern California). Ourvan said the university would not be used as a platform for Soka Gakkai activities, stressing that “this will be a university and nothing more.” He said the university’s curriculum will not have a Buddhist bent and expects to draw its larger crop of students from the general population. Ourvan said the school hopes to break ground in about two years on the first part of what will be a 20-year phased construction process. Its first priority is to build two dormitory houses, replacing the current decades-old buildings. “The dorms we have are in poor shape and have things like communal bathrooms,” Ourvan said. “We’d like to have dorms for the new millenium, or at least ones that meet 1990s standards.” Currently, about half of Soka America’s 200 enrollees are visiting students from Soka University in Japan. They pay up to $4,000 a semester in tuition and study the English language for credit at their home university. About 30 American students are enrolled in full-time graduate studies ESL instruction, a one-and-a-half-year program that costs $6,600 in tuition. The school also has a post-doctoral studies program with about 10 students that examines human-rights issues in Pacific Rim countries. The program, called Pacific Basin Research Center, is directed by a Harvard University professor emeritus of international studies, John Montgomery, who is based at Harvard. The rest of Soka’s students take night classes in language or study at the Botanical Research Center and Nursery, which does not offer a degree. University officials said there are no plans to add new programs to the curriculum once the enrollment is expanded. Soka America’s aim is to become a prestigious private university within 30 to 40 years, which also would help boost Soka Japan’s international image, Ourvan said. Alfred Balitzer, a professor of political science at the Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, who has worked as consultant to and lecturer at Soka, said the school is off to a good start. “The education that people receive at Soka is better than many other educational institutions in the country,” Balitzer said. “As the university grows and more programs are added, there will great pains to maintain that quality.” The school has no funds set aside for the expansion; however, officials said most of the money for the new facilities will come from Soka Gakkai, whose honorary president, Daisaku Ikeda, is Soka University of America’s founder. “We are confident that the majority of the endowment for building out the university will come from Soka Gakkai,” Ourvan said.