Former UCLA Asian American Studies Director Nakanishi Passes at 66


Don Nakanishi (UCLA Asian American Studies Center)

Don Nakanishi (UCLA Asian American Studies Center)

Don Nakanishi, a respected figure in the field of Asian American studies, passed away on Monday at the age of 66.

His wife and son posted the following message on his Facebook page:

“We regret to inform you as friends of Don Nakanishi that he passed away this afternoon in Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a contribution to the Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship for Graduate and Undergraduate Students at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center ( or to the Nakanishi Prize at Yale University (

“Funeral arrangements are pending and will be shared in the upcoming days. Thank you for your love and support.”

No details were provided regarding the cause of death.

Nakanishi’s groundbreaking work transformed ethnic and intellectual diversity on American campuses. His career also redefined the relationship between scholarship and community service at UCLA, serving as a beacon for challenging dubious academic customs.

Born and raised in East Los Angeles, a predominantly Mexican American community, Nakanishi attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he was student body president. In his senior year, he also served as “boy mayor” of the City of Los Angeles during Boys’ Week. He attended Yale University, where he graduated cum laude with highest honors in political science in 1971, and Harvard University on full scholarships and fellowships. He received his Ph.D. in political science in 1978.

A professor at UCLA for 35 years and director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center for 20 years, Nakanishi was a prolific writer and highly influential teacher and scholar who wrote over 100 books, articles, and reports on the political participation of Asian Pacific Americans and other ethnic and racial groups in American politics; educational research on issues of access and representation; and the international political dimensions of minority experiences.

In 1989, a widely watched three-year multiracial struggle involving thousands of supporters came to a successful end with the granting of tenure to Nakanishi at UCLA. Attorney Dale Minami led the legal fight, Dale Shimasaki coordinated the legislative advocacy, and Glenn Omatsu and many others organized student and grassroots support.

The fight for Nakanishi’s tenure is widely regarded as a landmark movement in academia, and has been taught nationally as an important case study for student-community mobilization. A year after gaining tenure, Nakanishi was appointed director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and helped to develop it as the largest and most prominent program of its kind. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 2010.

Among his many former students are faculty members at colleges and universities across the nation and world, award-winning writers and artists, and highly committed elected officials, community leaders and educators.

Nakanishi was widely recognized for developing the fields of Asian American political and educational research. He was the first to demonstrate that Asian Americans, despite their high group levels of education and income that are usually associated with active political participation, had very low levels of voter registration and voting.

He also began in 1976 to compile lists of Asian American elected officials across the country, thereby launching the “National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac,” which is now in its 13th edition and has been touted as the “indispensable guide to Asian American politics.”

Two of his popular books — “Asian American Politics: Law, Participation, and Policy,” which he co-authored with James Lai, and “Asian American Educational Experience,” which he co-authored with Tina Yamano Nishida — have served to capture and advance the study and teaching of Asian American political and educational research.

Nakanishi received numerous awards for his scholarly achievements and public service, and was a highly sought out speaker. He was a board member for numerous national and local organizations, including the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni, Harvard University Graduate Alumni Council, Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, Japanese American National Museum, and Altamed Health Care Services of East Los Angeles.

President Bill Clinton appointed Nakanishi to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, which administered the public education and research program that was established under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which provided a national apology and reparations for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. The fund provided grants to camp-related educational projects.

Nakanishi served as national president of the Association of Asian American Studies and co-founded and served as publisher of Amerasia Journal, the top scholarly journal in the field of Asian American studies. A. Magazine identified him as one of the “100 Most Influential Asian Americans in the United States During the Decade of the 1990s,” and the Smithsonian Institution appointed him to a 25-member national Blue Ribbon Commission to plan for the future of the Smithsonian during the 21st century.

In addition, Nakanishi received lifetime achievement awards from the Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and California State Assembly. In 2010, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented him with the Spirit of Los Angeles award, noting that “as a young Antonio Villaraigosa, I had the great fortune of being one of his students.”

Nakanishi and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center worked jointly with the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in organizing an annual leadership academy for Asian Pacific politicians and local elected officials who were interested in seeking higher positions.

Through the generosity of UCLA faculty, students, staff, and alumni as well as community leaders, an endowment was established in Nakanishi’s honor. This award provides support for faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students for their outstanding practical research, publications, teaching, training, and/or educational service to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

In 2006, Nakanishi’s family established the Nakanishi Prize at Yale, an annual award given to two graduating seniors with who have provided exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale during their undergraduate career while maintaining high standards of academic achievement.

Nakanishi is survived by his wife, Dr. Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, who has served as assistant vice chancellor for academic research and resources and associate vice chancellor for analytical studies for the California State University system, and their son, Thomas, who completed his graduate studies in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

A Remarkable Career

David K. Yoo, the current director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, issued the following statement: “It is with a truly heavy heart that we share the news of the passing of our center’s former director Professor Don T. Nakanishi on Monday, March 21, 2016 in Los Angeles. Our sincere condolences to his wife, Marsha, and son, Thomas, and to his family members and friends during this difficult time. We will provide an update with more information as it becomes available, including a center-hosted celebration of Don’s life in Los Angeles.

“As many of you know, Don was on the faculty at UCLA for 35 years and served the Asian American Studies Center with distinction as its director from 1990-2010. Don’s contributions to Asian American studies and ethnic studies were pioneering, and those of us at UCLA were the prime beneficiaries of Don’s leadership and scholarship. Of course, his visionary influence extended much further, literally to other continents, reflected in his many travels to places like Australia and Japan to help establish and support ethnic studies.

“Don co-founded Amerasia Journal in 1971, played an indispensable role in establishing Asian American Studies as a viable and relevant field of scholarship, teaching, community service, and public discourse. His fight for tenure has widely been regarded as a watershed moment in higher education and has been taught as a significant case study for multi-racial student-community mobilization …

“Despite his remarkable career, Don, in his characteristic humility, always focused on his students and colleagues, as he was often the first to advocate for and to celebrate their accomplishments. As I know is the case for hundreds if not thousands of others, I will be forever grateful to Don for his care and mentorship, extended to me since we first met when I was in graduate school and that has spanned decades.

“Don will be deeply missed, but his legacy lives on through all of us who had the privilege of benefiting from his support, encouragement, and friendship. Rest in peace, Don.”

In a blog for The Huffington Post, Professor Frank Wu of UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco wrote, “Higher education administrators are not customarily celebrated. What made Don effective was his commitment to the community and his insistence on education that was useful. He was convivial, always engaged with the world.

“Don talked positively about growing up in a multi-racial neighborhood. He said that he had to learn to be a Chicano before he could become an Asian American. The civil rights movement for the one group directly provoked the civil rights consciousness of the other group. Despite his stature as a scholar, he was first and foremost a teacher. So many remember him, as I do, as a mentor — encouraging what others were discouraging.

“In the projects in which he participated, and those he organized and supported, Don promoted ideas that could be applied. He ensured that intellectuals who wrote books could relate to the people who were their subjects. He edited, for example, a definitive volume about Asian Americans in higher education. Instead of stereotypes of the ‘model minority,’ he presented data to show the issues facing students who were assumed to be overachievers.”

The University of Massachusetts-Boston said in a statement, “During the past 25+ years, no individual in the national Asian American studies field has had greater impact/influence or cared more in concrete, consistent ways regarding the campus-wide vision, development, and student/community-centered values of our Asian American Studies program at UMB than Don Nakanishi through both his direct personal engagement and his sustained leadership of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

“Don’s most recent major contribution at UMB was providing clarity and wisdom as an expert external reviewer, together with Elaine Kim, for our ethnic studies-centered MS/Ph.D. program in Transnational, Cultural and Community Studies, UMass Boston, during the final stages of its approval by the MA Board of Higher Education in 2013-14. But he shared and showed us so much more than just that …”

The Asian American Cultural Center at Yale said, “We hope that his family, friends, and students may find comfort in how he and his legacy have and will continue to shape Asian American studies in the United States. We were very lucky to have Prof. Nakanishi as our keynote speaker at Yale’s first Asian American Studies Conference in April 2015.”

Enrique de la Cruz, professor emeritus at CSU Northridge, posted on Facebook, “I am in shock. I worked with Don during the 1990s as the assistant director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. These, in hindsight were very, very, special years. Don had just won tenure when I started, and shortly thereafter, was selected to lead UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.

“Don was a visionary, and it was through his quiet leadership that the center evolved into the nation’s pre-eminent center for research on Asian Americans and their communities. He was a role model for me, as he epitomized the finest qualities of those who work in the academy. He was soft-spoken and collegial, selfless, inclusive, and collaborative in his work style, although he, too, can be tenacious when it was called for.

“To junior faculty, and the many, many students who took his classes or sought his advise he was a gentle mentor. But most of all he was generous in leveraging his status, and sharing the institutional resources he had access to, to help others.”



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