Honorary Degrees Only For Living Japanese Americans Forced To Leave USC During WWII Not Enough

COMMENTARY: USC must change course and award honorary degrees, not just to living Japanese American students who were forced to leave the campus during World War II, but also to those who have since passed away. USC should also apologize for its racist, unjust treatment of its Nisei students in 1942.


Unlike crosstown rival UCLA, USC has unjustly refused to award honorary
degrees posthumously to their former Japanese American students
who were forced to leave the campus during World War II.
Photo: Darrell Kunitomi

LOS ANGELES — Over the many years that the crosstown rivalry has existed, students and alumni of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and those at the University of Southern California (USC), have always gloated about their athletic teams (usually football and basketball), or which school is better.

Of course, much of the boasting is based solely on emotion-laden loyalties, without basis in fact, not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, loyalty to your school is a good thing.

But one issue where Bruins can say they are better than the Trojans, and know that they have the facts behind them, is how the two campuses treated their Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans, the first generation born in the United States) students during World War II, following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, on February 19, 1942, which authorized the forced removal of over 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast, with over 110,000 being incarcerated in American concentration camps for more than three years.

Being smack dab in the middle of the exclusion zone, both UCLA and USC had a problem: What to do with their Nisei students?

Following the lead of then-University of California (UC) President Robert G. Sproul, UC Berkeley and UCLA, which was led at the time by Provost Earle R. Hedrick, worked to assist their Nisei students, as best they could, to transfer to colleges and universities in other parts of the United States that were not in the exclusion zone.

At the time, Sproul’s views on race were very, very progressive, compared to the majority, which was wrapped up in the racist, anti-Japanese sentiment of the time.

“We Americans, in spite of our democratic ideals, too often allow unreasonable prejudice to deprive people of races other than white of the full privileges that should be theirs as native-born citizens of the United States,” said Sproul. “This continuing problem threatens to become more acute now as Japanese American relations become more critical.”1

“The American citizen of Japanese ancestry is likely to be discriminated against because of superficial physical characteristics that have no influence whatsoever on the quality of his mind, the strength of his character, or the depth of his loyalty to the United States,” added Sproul. “Every good citizen should recognize this danger and do all in his power to counteract it, whatever may happen on the other side of the Pacific.”2

As mentioned earlier, those views led Sproul, and the University of California, to lead efforts to assist Nisei students in their efforts to continue their education elsewhere.

According to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, “The evacuation meant that some 3,500 Japanese Americans would be prohibited from attending colleges and universities on the West Coast—an incalculable loss to both the nation and the ethnic Japanese community. First to recognize and confront the problem was a group from the University of California at Berkeley led by Robert Gordon Sproul, then President of the University. Sproul and his colleagues set out to transfer as many students as possible to universities in the interior.”3

At UCLA, approximately 200 students were forced to leave the campus as a result of Executive Order 9066.

“The campus also witnessed the tragic loss of its Japanese and Japanese American students, approximately 200 of whom were swept with their families into internment camps,” wrote Marina Dundjerski, in her 2011 book, UCLA: The First Century.4 “Administrators tried to help interned students transfer into colleges away from the West Coast internment zones. They succeeded with a few, but not many. Whether students were drafted or interned, Bruins who left before midterms received a refund, and those who completed midterms earned full credit for that semester.”5

“All students who leave the University under government order, whether to join the armed forces or to comply with the enemy alien proclamation, will be treated alike,” said Hedrick.6

In stark contrast, Nisei students at USC had to deal with a hostile, uncooperative campus administration, led by then-President Rufus B. von Kleinsmid.

As Professor Roger Daniels pointed out in 2002,7 and as Rafu Shimpo English Editor Gwen Muranaka, and California State University, Dominguez Hills Professor Emeritus Donald Hata have recently noted, the von Kleinsmid regime acted with what can only be classified as hateful, racist vindictiveness, refusing requests by their Nisei students to send official transcripts to colleges and universities outside the exclusion zone so that they could continue their education (see “Ochazuke: Why Not, USC,” May 27, 2010, “Ochazuke: Political Theater and an Apology From USC,” March 21, 2012, “Letter To The Editor: On Nisei Degrees and USC,” March 26, 2011, and “Ochazuke: Alumni With An Asterisk,” March 29, 2012).

Indeed, in 1942, when representatives of the two campuses came together, agreeing to award the Victory Bell to the winner of the annual UCLA/USC football game, the schools could not have been farther apart in terms of their treatment of their Nisei students.

Sadly, despite the passage of seventy years, the two campuses continue to be rather far apart in how they have treated their Nisei students since World War II.

All UC campuses honored Nisei students who were forced to leave their respective campuses with honorary degrees, awarded to them, or posthumously to surviving family members.

UC’s action was prompted by the impending enactment of Assembly Bill 37, authored by Assemblymember Warren T. Furutani, on October 11, 2009, which required all California State Universities and California Community Colleges to retroactively grant honorary degrees to their Nisei students who were forced to leave their respective campuses due to Executive Order 9066. The bill also requested that the University of California follow suit.

But UC was ahead of the game.

Despite some initial resistance, about three months prior, on July 16, 2009, the Regents of the University of California voted to grant the special honorary degrees, making a one-time exception to suspend a 1986 moratorium prohibiting the granting of honorary degrees (UC had not awarded honorary degrees since 1972, but the Regents made it official in 1986).

“This action is long overdue and addresses an historical tragedy,” said UC President Mark G. Yudof. “To the surviving students themselves and to their families, I want to say this is one way to apologize to you. It will never be possible to erase what happened, but we hope we can provide you a small measure of justice.”

“I am extremely proud of the action that the Regents took today to address this unfinished business,” said UC Vice President of Student Affairs Judy Sakaki. “It means a great deal to me personally, to all former internees and to the entire Japanese American community.”

On May 15, 2010, in a solemn, yet still upbeat ceremony on the Westwood campus, 48 of the approximately 200 former UCLA students (or their representatives), received their honorary degrees, in front of jubilant, proud family members and friends.

Across town, after efforts by alumni and the USC Diploma Project, USC, which was not subject to the state law requiring the honorary degrees, will follow suit during their annual commencement ceremony on May 11, 2012, awarding Honorary Baccalaureate or Master’s degrees to their former Nisei students who were forced to leave the campus during World War II.

But, unlike the UC campuses, USC will not award honorary degrees posthumously. In fact, only “…living former students who were enrolled at USC prior to February 1942, who did not complete their degree at USC as a result of the incarceration of individuals of Japanese ancestry during World War II” are eligible.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the vast majority of these students have passed away.

“We are privileged to honor the accomplishments and the dreams of the Nisei students who are highly deserving of receiving a college degree for the work they have done at USC,” said USC President C.L. Max Nikias. “Through the years, these students have been among the most passionate and dedicated members of the Trojan Family. We are honored that our Nisei students have an enduring devotion to USC, and we want them to know that the university is also devoted to them.”

But Nikias’ words ring rather hollow, as USC is, evidently, only devoted to those who are still with us, neglecting the memories of their former students who have since passed on.

Indeed, just like the injustice they inflicted upon their Nisei students during World War II by refusing to send official transcripts to schools outside the exclusion zone, thus preventing them from continuing their education, USC is compounding that injustice by denying family members the right to receive the honorary degree for deserving former students who are deceased.

Instead, these alumni, and their surviving family members, are being relegated to second-class status as “Honorary Alumni.”

USC must atone for their errors, past and present. The USC family—faculty, staff, alumni, and especially current Japanese American students at the campus—must demand that the honorary degrees be awarded posthumously, not just to those still alive, and that USC officially apologize for their racist policy of refusing to release official transcripts for their Nisei students during World War II.

Nothing less is acceptable.

The honorary degree that UC campuses awarded to their former Nisei students read, in part, Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam, a Latin phrase that means, “to restore justice among the groves of the academy.”

The time has come for USC to do just that.


Gann Matsuda, the editor of the Manzanar Committee’s official blog, did his undergraduate work at UCLA, and worked at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, and the now-defunct UCLA School Management Program. In 2010, he served on the UCLA Honorary Degree Task Force that planned the commencement ceremony honoring UCLA’s Japanese American students forced to leave the campus during World War II.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


1Sakamoto, James. (1942, January 1). “University Head Asks Confidence: President Sproul Says that Japanese People Should Be Well Treated.” Japanese American Courier. p. 9.

2Sakamoto, James. Japanese American Courier. p. 9.

3The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. (1997). “Relocation Centers.” In Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission On Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Seattle: University of Washington Press. (pp. 180-181).

4Dundjerski, Marina. (2011). UCLA: The First Century. London, England: Third Millenium Publishing Limited. 

5Dundjerski, Marina. UCLA: The First Century.

6Dundjerski, Marina. UCLA: The First Century.

7Daniels, Roger. “Incarceration of the Japanese Americans: A Sixty-Year Perspective.” The History Teacher. 35.3 (2002): 32 pars. 31 Mar. 2012.

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This story was reprinted by the Rafu Shimpo on April 26, 2012 (print edition), and on April 28, 2012 (web site).


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9 Responses to Honorary Degrees Only For Living Japanese Americans Forced To Leave USC During WWII Not Enough

  1. Hiroshi Omori says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    • Gann Matsuda says:

      Spread the word! USC administration needs to feel some serious pressure, especially from within the USC family, and most important, from its current Japanese American students!

  2. Patricia Wakida says:

    wait, I just received a press release announcing that this has been reversed! USC is granting honorary degrees to its Nisei who were denied graduation during WWII!

    • Gann Matsuda says:

      Yes, but only to those who are still alive. For those who are deceased, their families are invited guests at the USC Commencement, but will only able to receive a certificate honoring their deceased relative as “Honorary Alumni.” In other words, second-class status.

  3. Marilyn Sanders says:

    I had no idea of these facts. Shameful & once “outed” their only option was to reverse their original position.

  4. Marilyn Sanders says:

    Why? I don’t understand this position. A wrong needs to be corrected.

  5. Lily Siao says:

    Never liked that school. Now this just re-enforces my opinion. :/

  6. Susanne Norton La Faver says:

    I’m going to write them right now. My great-grandfather, Rev. W.S. Matthew, D.D., was USC dean and acted as president for a short time in 1880s. His oldest daughter, Margaret Matthew D’Ille Gleason later served as Manzanar’s social welfare director 1942-1945. The university’s current actions need to be rectified.

  7. Pingback: Open Letter To USC President C.L. Max Nikias Regarding Honorary Degrees To Japanese American Students Forced To Leave Campus During WWII « Manzanar Committee

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