As new details emerge about the Dalai Lama's scheduled visit to the University at Albany, some have raised concerns over the sponsoring organization's ties to a controversial group.
The Ethical Humanitarian Foundation is hosting the visit as the inaugural event of its newest venture, the World Ethical Foundations Consortium. Both the EHF and the WEFC were co-founded by Clare and Sara Bronfman, the heiresses to the Seagram's distillery fortune, and conceptualized by Keith Raniere, a local entrepreneur.
The Dalai Lama will be at SEFCU Arena on Tuesday, April 21 at 10:30 a.m., Clare Bronfman said. The student-only event will be ticketed on a first-come first-serve basis and will be free, UAlbany spokesman Michael Parker said.
"His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] embodies compassion," Bronfman said. "His people are joyous people despite everything they have been through. I think they are a wonderful example of humanity and the spirit of humanity that I don't see everywhere."
The Dalai Lama will also attend a number of panel discussions at SEFCU Arena and Page Hall that will be held from April 18 to April 23 as part of the WEFC initiative. The discussions are open to the public and tickets will likely cost around $20, Bronfman said.
Raniere is also the founder of NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um), a group headquartered in Colonie that many have called a cult. Some former members and cult analysts allege that Raniere and NXIVM president Nancy Salzman use intensive training sessions to brainwash members and create a sense of devotion to its leaders. Raniere was also the owner of Consumers' Buyline, Inc., a discount buying club that was investigated by several states for possibly being a multi-million dollar pyramid scheme in the early 1990s, according to several reports.
NXIVM, formerly known as Executive Success Programs, is an international company that "advances human potential and ethics through personal and professional development programs, corporate trainings and a comprehensive coaching program," according to espian.net, one of NXIVM's Web sites.
"I have respect for the Dalai Lama, but I think that holding a program at a university may be an attempt to target students for recruitment into NXIVM courses and training," said Rick Ross, the founder and executive director of the Rick A. Ross Institute, which maintains an online archive detailing media accounts of suspected cults.
NXIVM is known for their self-help classes for business executives and leaders, entertaining such clients as Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group; Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; and Antonia C. Novello, a former U.S. surgeon general.
"Intensive" classes can last up to 16 days, and clients are told to address Raniere as "Vanguard" and bow as he enters the room, according to several published reports. In 2003, Forbes reported that NXIVM was bringing in $4 million a year.
According to a 2006 Metroland article, former students have claimed that the 16-day sessions can last up to 14 hours straight and during these sessions, "Room temperatures are kept uncomfortably high, the food served either lacks the necessary protein to maintain strength or is served irregularly or not at all."
However, Bronfman, a long-time member and supporter of NXIVM, said each day participants, also called Espians, go through five, two-hour sessions with 15-minute breaks between each one. Students have a 1 1/2 hour break for lunch and one hour break for dinner, she said. She described the meals as "very wholesome homemade food," and said Espians have control over the temperature of the room.
"It's a difficult thing to describe because it is an experiential process," Bronfman said when asked what it is like to take part in one of these sessions.
"I still consider NXIVM to be an extremely dangerous group and I am always suspect when Raniere is involved with any event," said Joseph O'Hara, a former NXIVM consultant. "I'm amazed that any group with any real integrity is involved with Raniere."
While with the group, O'Hara hired Interfor Inc. to keep watch on Ross, the cult analyst, who had recently been served with a lawsuit by NXIVM under a copyright claim.
After it became apparent that Interfor allegedly used illegal methods to obtain information about Ross, including private banking and phone records, he defected from NXIVM. O'Hara then allegedly leaked a confidential report from Interfor to a local reporter, who alerted Ross. Ross sued Juval Aviv, who compiled the report, before settling out of court. Details of the settlement remain confidential, but Ross said he is "very pleased."
NXIVM members have challenged Ross' credentials. In two separate but similar lawsuits that were recently filed in Niagara County in March against Metroland and Ross. NXIVM claims that Ross has a high school education and his "principle business is to promote himself through his Web sites."
Bronfman said NXIVM is an ethically based group that is in place to help people become successful.
"What NXIVM helps people to do is have objective perspectives and global perspectives," she said. "We separate the stimulus from the response. It helps people to become successful in their life."
NXIVM was scrutinized in 2004 after Kristin Snyder took her second 16-day intensive session in Anchorage, Alaska. After leaving the session, she allegedly left a suicide note in her vehicle before paddling a kayak into the middle of a lake to kill herself.
According to a Times Union article, part of Kristin Snyder's note read: "I attended a course called Executive Success Programs ... based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, N.Y. I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off ... No need to search for my body."
Although the 35-year-old's body was never found, her mother, Jonnie Snyder, said a death certificate was issued and she believes the NXIVM courses were a driving factor for her daughter's poor mental state.
Bronfman pointed to the lack of a body as suspicious and claimed there was no mention of the suicide note in any of the police reports. As of press time, the reports or evidence of the suicide note could not be obtained by the Albany Student Press.
"We just really believe that this group had a lot to do with her confusion," Jonnie Snyder said. "She was looking for answers."
Kristin Snyder was homosexual and a devout Catholic, which caused her - and her parents - great duress, her mother said. In an attempt to learn more about herself, Kristin took two 16-day sessions with NXIVM, totaling around $15,000, Jonnie Snyder said.
"She was working to achieve her full potential, and she did that didn't she?" Jonnie Snyder said sarcastically.
The Dalai Lama's visit to UAlbany isn't the first time Ross has alleged that Raniere has been using an event to reach college students. A group led by Raniere hosted a musical event at The Egg, welcoming several college a capella groups.
"This a capella event was very much skewed toward the college audience," Ross said. "Picking the University at Albany after being turned down by RPI and Skidmore as a venue for a program is indicative of who [Raniere] wants to reach and who he wants to attract for the program."
RPI and Skidmore both passed on hosting the Dalai Lama. Skidmore cited scheduling concerns, while repeated messages to RPI were not returned.
O'Hara, NXIVM's former consultant, doesn't think Raniere is necessarily targeting a younger audience.
"I don't think it's so much the age of the people as it is what their finances might look like," he said. "If they expect that there are any trust fund babies out there, that would certainly be in keeping with [Raniere's] recruiting techniques of the past."
Bronfman stood by NXIVM and the EHF, and said they provided the Dalai Lama with several news articles, including those casting a negative light on her groups.
"His Holiness spent an entire year vetting us out," she said. "I believe him to be an incredibly well-educated man of deep critical thought who considers his participation in anything he does very deeply. Given the data of who we are and the research he has done on us for a year, he is still coming."