August 16, 2001 Aliso Viejo, Calif. (AP)--Ahmir Nezhad was bound for the University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles when he heard about the brand new liberal artscollege with a big dream.

There, he was told, he could participate in a Buddhist-inspiredexperiment--attending a private university where learning to make moneywas less important than promoting world peace, students must travelabroad and everyone from the president to the janitor has the same sizeoffice.

Nezhad thought it over and enrolled as part of the first freshman classat Soka University of America. The school opens this month. ``A lot of people think I'm taking a risk, sacrificing something,'' saidNezhad, an 18-year-old from Diamond Bar. ``I think I'm actually part ofsomething.''

The $220 million campus has inviting architecture, lush landscaping andsweeping views from a hill overlooking this Orange County community 70miles south of Los Angeles. Administrators hope the school one day willbecome a standard of higher education.

``The spectacle of a liberal arts college in a private sector with itsfinancial future assured is nothing less than astounding,'' saidChristopher J. Lucas, author of ``American Higher Education: AHistory.'' ``It's a one-time, one-of-a-kind college.'' The university is financed by Soka Gakkai International, a controversialJapanese sect that is one of the world's largest lay Buddhistorganizations.

Founded more than 70 years ago by philosopher and educator TsunesaburoMakiguchi, the sect created the Komeito reform political party in the1960s. Some compared the religion to a cult because of its aggressiverecruiting efforts in the 1950s and 1960s.

Members forced their way into followers' homes to make sure they wereadhering to the beliefs, and the sect banned mixing of religions, saidNobutaka Inoue, a religion professor at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo. It's a characterization Soka Gakkai has long dismissed, attributing theaggressive tactics in its early days to a few zealous followers. The newly incorporated city of Aliso Viejo isn't troubled by those whocriticize Soka Gakkai, embracing the university as one of the city'scultural staples. Its large theater and art gallery, for example, willbe open to the public.

With millions of members in Japan and abroad, the sect has accumulatedbillions of dollars in assets. Much of the money comes from the group'sweekly magazines, newspapers and donations.

The university touts a secular curriculum and an initial enrollment of125 students representing 20 countries.

``People have called this Buddhist U,'' said Daniel Y. Habuki, theuniversity president. ``Yes, there are principles of Buddhism here, butwe are not intending to make the students Buddhist.

``The only way we can prove this to people is to provide a greateducation and let them see the results.''

The campus is the second in the United States built by the Soka Gakkai,which has a network in Japan of primary and secondary schools and auniversity. The first American campus was started in 1987 northwest ofLos Angeles, in Calabasas, to teach English to Japanese graduatestudents.

Today, it offers graduate degrees in foreign languages. About seven years ago, university officials initially hoped to build asmall undergraduate campus in Calabasas, but met fierce opposition fromneighbors concerned about overdevelopment. When a 103-acre siteoriginally slated for luxury homes became available in Orange County,Soka officials began planning the new university.

Initially, Soka's Orange County campus will offer bachelor's degrees inhumanities, international studies and social and behavioral science. Asthe university's enrollment grows to its projected 1,200 students,Habuki said it will expand its degree programs.

All students will study one of three foreign languages--Japanese,Chinese or Spanish--and spend at least one term of their junior yearstudying or working abroad, said Archibald E. Asawa, vice president foradministrative affairs. ``We want to create global citizens, and global citizens have to havesome experience with the world,'' Asawa said.

Tuition, which includes room and board, is $24,000. Soka Gakkai, whichhas a $40 million endowment, has made $4 million available forscholarships. Students are required to live on campus, where smoking,drug use and drinking alcohol are prohibited.

Built to resemble California's mission-style architecture, the18-building campus also provides for the typical needs of anot-so-typical college experience. There is an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gym, a 225,000-volume library and a student center. The campus also is wired with fiber-optic cables and outdoor ports for laptop computers. While many of the university's faculty members are Soka members, otherssay the attraction was the chance to start a new college.

``The idea of being able to start from scratch and say, 'What is it thata global citizen needs to know about science' is very appealing,'' saidAnne Houtman, who gave up a tenured position at Knox College in Illinoisto become a biology professor.

For Gail Thomas, a sociology professor, the attraction was matching acollege education with Buddhist principles. ``For too long we have focused on the competitive side of education. To have an institution that is focused on the human aspect--what makes agood human being--is a meaningful opportunity for me,'' she said. ``Weall take risks. For me, the real risk is not trying to make adifference.''