Tempest Over Tenure at UCLA : Professor’s Fight for Permanent Position Raises Racial Issue

Times Education Writer

To his supporters, Don Nakanishi is a fine teacher and scholar who has produced important research in Asian-American affairs and surely deserves a tenured position at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education.

To his detractors, Nakanishi is someone who is trying to mask weakness in his scholarship with allegations of racism.

Either way, Nakanishi is now a controversial figure at the Westwood campus and his effort to gain a permanent professorship there is a cause celebre among Asian-American activists already suspicious about UCLA’s admissions policies on Asians. On Nakanishi’s behalf, they have organized a campaign of petitions, letter writing, telephone calls, fund-raisers and personal lobbying of officials at UCLA, members of the UC Board of Regents and state legislators.


“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said a School of Education professor, who asked to remain anonymous. “In a way, the merits of the case have become kind of irrelevant because of the political pressure.”

UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young is expected to make a decision in the convoluted case sometime in the winter quarter. Such a decision will end a second round of reviews of Nakanishi. Earlier this year, a UCLA faculty panel ruled that the first round, which began in 1986, was marred by procedural irregularities and possible undue interference by the graduate school’s dean.

“It has been so painful for me and my wife to go through this so long. But on the other hand, the longer this goes on, the less personally I take this,” said Nakanishi, 39. “It takes on bigger issues than whether Don Nakanishi gets tenure.”

Those issues, he said, include “access, representation and influence of Asian Pacifics in the major social, educational and political institutions in this country.” His case is a litmus test for the entire field of Asian-American studies, said Nakanishi, a Japanese-American who grew up in East Los Angeles and earned his undergraduate degree at Yale and his doctorate in political science at Harvard.

Some supporters suggest that Nakanishi is being punished for research into a drop in the admissions rate of Asian-American freshmen at UCLA during the mid-1980s, which Nakanishi and others said might have been caused by a deliberate quota. A grievance filed by Nakanishi last year 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.”

Citing the need to keep personnel matters confidential, UCLA officials declined to comment on specifics of Nakanishi’s case. “I would just state that I am confident that we can have and will have a comprehensive and fair review under the applicable criteria,” said Harold Horowitz, UCLA’s vice chancellor for faculty relations who has been close to the case.


Tenure usually means a lifetime appointment and is treasured for the intellectual freedom it brings. But it also represents an important financial and academic decision for universities. To encourage a full debate, identities of a candidate’s critics at various review committees often are kept secret.

‘Differences of Opinion’

Lewis Solmon, dean of the graduate school, declined to answer charges by Nakanishi’s lawyer that he tried to sabotage Nakanishi’s candidacy. “I think, in every tenure case, there are differences of opinion,” Solmon said.

To counter charges of racism, UCLA spokesmen stressed that 30% of all assistant professors who apply for tenure are denied it, and that does not include the many who leave earlier because of discouragement or other jobs. The spokesmen said that Asians make up about 6.5% of UCLA’s faculty, about equal to the national pool of qualified Asian candidates and much higher than a decade ago.

In the Graduate School of Education last year, five of the 53 tenured or tenure-track teachers were from minority groups--three blacks, one Latino and Nakanishi. The campus spokesmen pointed out that Asians, while heavily represented in the sciences and engineering, account for less than 1% of the national pool of people who hold doctorates in education.

At UC, a tenure candidate is supposed to be judged partly on his teaching and his community service, which in Nakanishi’s case generally are considered excellent. But according to many people familiar with the tenure process, publication of research studies in respected journals is more important.

According to one professor at the education school, Nakanishi’s problems stem from his appointment as an assistant professor in 1982 under an arrangement whereby he would spend half his time at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. From the start, Nakanishi’s work reportedly was outside the traditional research in education and often dealt more with political science, such as his studies that show low Asian voter registration levels in Los Angeles County.

“Don is a character who is highly regarded in the community but who has not played the usual academic game. He took a high-risk way,” said that professor, who, like others, requested anonymity.

Said another professor: “It’s not a clear-cut case. I’ve seen weaker cases get through and stronger cases denied.”

Yet another education school professor dismissed all the charges of racism and vendettas as “promotion psychosis.” “It’s just a blatant appeal to bring in other criteria into the case. It’s just reaching for something that isn’t there,” he said.

Nakanishi’s attorney, Dale Minami of San Francisco, said Nakanishi’s work was criticized as not original, but he dismissed those opinions as being from people who have a low regard for all ethnic studies. In January, the faculty committee that ordered a re-review of the case said that a specialist in Nakanishi’s area of research should sit on a new panel considering tenure and promotion to associate professor.

Nakanishi and his supporters say his record is comparable to that of tenured professors and insist that he has done what he was hired to do: investigate the experiences of Asian-Americans and how that relates to education.

“Graduate students at UCLA and other campuses tell me that how my case turns out will influence their own choice of specialties,” said Nakanishi, who is past national president of the Assn. of Asian American Studies. “Clearly, I owe it to them and the young professors who are coming immediately behind me” to continue the case.

Water Balloons

The son of Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II, Nakanishi enrolled at Yale University as a pre-medicine student with hopes of one day opening a practice in Boyle Heights. However, in 1967, on Pearl Harbor Day of his freshman year, dormitory mates bombarded him with water balloons in what was intended as a light-hearted prank, he recalled. That incident made him think much more about his parents’ experiences and the death of his paternal grandparents during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Later, he learned more about race relations during volunteer work in an Oklahoma welfare program. He then switched from pre-med to political science.

Leaders of Asian-American civic and legal groups say that Nakanishi’s research has been important for their causes. So they have helped raise an estimated $10,000 for his attorney’s fees and joined in well-coordinated lobbying campaign at UCLA.

Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a Los Angeles civil rights organization, said: “He is not being supported on the basis of a statistic or his ethnicity. He is being supported because he is qualified and people believe he has not received fair treatment.”

Asked about possible resentment by the university of such pressure, Kwoh replied: “If the community doesn’t get involved in cases where we have qualified professors, then we are actually doing a disservice to the university.”