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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

"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."

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