Asian American scholars and activists are mourning the death of Don Nakanishi, a retired UCLA professor who died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 66.
Nakanishi was considered a pioneer in Asian American studies. He was also known for taking on the university system in a landmark battle for tenure in the 1980s.
Nakanishi spent 35 years on the UCLA faculty, and served as director of the university’s Asian American Studies Center between 1990 and 2010. He was succeeded as director by Prof. David Yoo, who considered him a close mentor.
“To me that is his enduring legacy, how he helped so many other people as a mentor, as a teacher, as a great colleague," Yoo said. "He was an institution builder.”
According to a university statement, Nakanishi grew up in East L.A. and attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he was student body president. Friends said his parents had endured an internment camp during World War II, and this had helped shape a man with a strong sense of justice.
"We were born after the camps, but I think our commitment to social justice issues was nurtured by what our families went through," said Glenn Omatsu, a lecturer in the Asian American Studies department at Cal State Northridge, who first met Nakanishi in the early 1970s, when both were studying at Yale.
"There was, at the time, still a lot of discrimination against Asian Americans and people of color, especially in higher education," said Omatsu, who described Nakanishi as a "determined, fierce, earnest kind of person."
Omatsu said that Nakanishi identified closely with the Chicano movement of the era, especially as an Angeleno from the Eastside. The two eventually worked together at UCLA on the Amerasia Journal, an academic journal on Asian American issues that Nakanishi co-founded during his days at Yale.
Nakanishi received his undergraduate degree in political science from Yale in 1971, and his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard in 1978. He went on to become an expert on Asian American political involvement.
According to the UCLA statement, Nakanishi was "the first to demonstrate that Asian Americans, despite their high group levels of education and income that are usually associated with active political participation, had very low levels of voter registration and voting."
In the 1980s, Nakanishi challenged UCLA officials' decision to not grant him tenure. His case made headlines and even prompted student protests. His attorney Dale Minami, said back then Asian American professors were typically only hired to science departments, not to the social sciences.
“By the end of his case, he became essentially a warrior, for justice and for integration and diversity in academia," Minami said. "As long as you are fearless, and you believe in your righteous cause, you have a chance to crack the ivory tower and turn it into a multicultural, multicolored tower."
The university decided to grant Nakanishi tenure in 1989, after a three-year battle.
Yoo called that decision "a watershed moment for American higher education."
In UCLA's statement released after Nakanishi's death, he was referred to as a scholar who "gained national recognition for establishing Asian American studies as a viable and relevant field of scholarship, teaching, community service and public discourse."
The UCLA statement did not note Nakanishi's battle to win a tenured position with the university's Graduate School of Education in the 1980s. According to a Los Angeles Times article from 1988, Nakanishi filed a grievance that "pointed out he was the only Asian on the faculty of the 53-member School of Education and alleged that the tenure review process 'was infected with political and racial bias.' "
Detractors at the time said racial bias was not a factor, and that the university's initial decision to deny Nakanishi tenure was because his research was not squarely in education, but rather was split between education and political science.
Yoo, with the Asian American Studies Center, said that Nakanishi's decision to fight for tenure was about more than his individual career.
"I think Don recognized early on that his case was about more than just his case," Yoo said, "that it was really about the role that ethnic studies was going to play in higher education in America."
According to the university, Nakanishi is survived by his wife Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, who recently retired from the California State University system, and his son, Thomas, a graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in public policy.