Dear President Nikias and the USC Board of Trustees,
I am a three-time graduate of the University of Southern California. My education at USC prepared me well for my current position as an academic administrator at California State University Dominguez Hills.
When I first heard that USC was planning on honoring former Nisei students who were attending the university at the beginning of World War II, I was overjoyed. You see, I helped to organize the awarding of honorary degrees at CSU Dominguez Hills in 2010. I witnessed first-hand what it meant to the honored Nisei and their families to receive the honorary degree.
What is most important to recognize is that the attempt to atone for a past wrong was what meant so much to these individuals and their families. For those families whose Nisei student was no longer living, the process of accepting the honorary degree in the memory of their loved one had deep personal and human meaning.
Additionally, it was not only Japanese American individuals who were moved by the process of righting a past wrong. Faculty, staff, and students of all backgrounds eagerly participated in the planning of the events surrounding the honorary degrees. They all wanted to be a part of the process of making amends. At the commencement, each of the honorees and their families were given a standing ovation by the graduates and their families in the audience. A young Latina, with tears in her eyes, cried out to the recipients, “Thank you. You deserve this.”
The conferring of honorary degrees was an act of reconciliation that held profound meaning for all who valued and cherished social justice.
I applaud the University of Southern California for making the decision to address this dark period in our nation’s history. I recognize that this is the university’s attempt to reconcile its part in denial of civil liberties for loyal Americans. I am proud that USC has made this first bold move to be responsible for the manner in which it treated those individuals and the manner in which it wishes to atone for that treatment.
It is in that context that I ask, why has USC made the distinction between Nisei who are still living and those who have passed on? Why do the Nisei who are still living receive honorary degrees, while those who have died only receive “honorary alumni status”? The California State University, the University of California, and California Community College systems all bestowed honorary degrees to the living and the deceased Nisei. Why would USC not simply do the same?
Additionally, I ask whether the current USC administration has considered disavowing the initial reactions of some of its administrators at the outset of World War II. Unlike the public universities and colleges at the time, some members of the USC administration purposely withheld the academic transcripts of Nisei students. This action prevented such students from transferring to universities and colleges in other parts of the nation. The rationale for this action was that these students were wards of the Army.
Granted, it was a time of hysteria and fear. However, other university administrations were able to discern that the Nisei were loyal Americans, not the enemy. The misguided decision to withhold transcripts and describe its Nisei students in such a manner was eventually addressed partially by USC. However by that time, lives had been altered and dreams of an education hindered by USC’s initial reaction. USC should make it clear to the world that it will not condone such actions in the future.
Tonight, my 12-year-old daughter asked me about the upcoming USC commencement ceremonies. She had heard about the honorary degrees and was excited that some people she knew might be receiving the degrees. When I explained the whole story of USC’s actions during World War II and that some Nisei would get honorary degrees while others wouldn’t, the joy left her face and she simply muttered, “That’s so wrong. USC should make things right.”
If a young 12-year-old girl can understand this simple truth, why can’t a leading international institution of higher learning understand?
The acknowledgement that USC is committing itself to the highest ideals of justice and civil liberties is not a sign of weakness. The offering of such an acknowledgement is just the opposite. It is a sign of institutional maturity and strength. If USC is to live up to its aspiration of being an international institution that leads the world into the future, it must have the ability to learn from the mistakes of its past.
I simply ask that the university confer honorary degrees to all Nisei students who were enrolled at the beginning of World War II and that the university publicly acknowledge the mistakes it made in characterizing and treating its Nisei students. By doing so, USC will make great strides in establishing itself among the elite universities across the globe.
Please, do not squander this opportunity to fully address and bring administrative closure to this issue. To not do so would be to fail to live up to university’s promise of being an institution of higher learning.
Mitchell T. Maki
B.S. 1982, M.S.W. 1984, Ph.D.1993
Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.