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

December 20, 1988|LARRY GORDON | 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.

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