Don T. Nakanishi (1949-2016): Professor of Education Established Asian American Studies as Field of Scholarship

SSCE Professor Emeritus led UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, the largest and most renowned institute of Asian American Studies in the nation.

Professor of Education Emeritus Don T. Nakanishi, who gained national recognition for establishing Asian American studies as a relevant field of scholarship, died in Los Angeles on March 21 at the age of 66. The director emeritus of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center (AASC), retired in 2009 as a Professor Emeritus of Asian American studies as well as from UCLA Education’s division of Social Sciences and Comparative Education (SSCE).

During Nakanishi’s 35-year career at UCLA, he provided leadership and vision for the national development of the fields of Asian American Studies and Race and Ethnic Relations Scholarship. He also had a direct personal impact on students and colleagues in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

In 2013, Professor Nakanishi spoke to doctoral and master's students from  UCLA’s divisions of Higher Education Organizational Change (HEOC) and Social Science and Comparative Education (SSCE).  Front row, L-R: Elaine Tamargo, MSA student; Xue Hie, SSCE; Jenny Jong-Hwa Lee, MSA student; Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen, SSCE; Michael Ishimoto, SSCE; Jason Chan, HEOC; Mike Hoa Nguyen, HEOC; and Edward Curammeng, SSCE. Back row L-R: Keali’i Troy Lau, HEOC; M. Kalehua Mueller, HEOC; Joe Ramirez, HEOC; Marcia Fuentes, HEOC; Dr. Nakanishi, Dr. Robert Teranishi, professor of education and co-director, Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education; Erin Manalo, MPH student; Reuben De Leon, HEOC; and Nestor Espinoza, HEOC. Courtesy of Robert Teranishi and Edward Curammeng
In 2013, Professor Nakanishi spoke to doctoral and master’s students from
UCLA’s divisions of Higher Education Organizational Change (HEOC) and Social Science and Comparative Education (SSCE).
Courtesy of Robert Teranishi and Edward Curammeng

“Don was incredibly generous with his time and served as an inspirational mentor,” said Dr. Eddie Comeaux, now an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at UC Riverside. “His rare ability to connect with and influence students is something that we might spend a lifetime trying to mimic. Don encouraged me to consider how my own scholarship can bring to light racial inequalities in higher education and create a more equitable learning environment. I will always be deeply grateful for having worked with and learned from Don, and my professional journey is much better for having known him.”

“Over the past 20 years, Don served on more than 80 dissertation committees for students in UCLA Ed & IS,” said Professor Robert Teranishi, division head of SSCE and the Morgan and Helen Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies at UCLA. “The number of students for which he was an advisor in our department is likely much higher, but this is as far back as our records are available. With that said, his true impact was not in the number of students he advised, but how he influenced the lives of our students through his mentorship.”

“When I arrived at UCLA in 1990, Don was one of the first to greet me and offer his support,” said Daniel Solorzano, a professor in SSCE and in Chicana/o Studies at UCLA. “His support for students at UCLA Ed & IS was unparalleled. Even after he retired in 2009, Don was still available for consultation on issues as far ranging as UCLA¹s Campus Climate events to the cityhood of East Los Angeles. It’s hard for me to speak of Don in the past tense because I know I and our students will still call on him. Don Nakanishi is my friend and collaborator and I will truly miss him.”

Born in 1949 in East Los Angeles, Don T. Nakanishi was raised in the multiethnic, working class community. He attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he served as student body president. He was also selected as Boy Mayor of the City of Los Angeles when he was a senior. Professor Nakanishi received his B.A. in intensive political science from Yale University in 1971, and his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1978.

“I marveled at how fierce this humble man was and how working in and with community is the spirit of Asian American Studies,” says Jennifer A. Yee, assistant professor, Asian American Studies, California State University, Fullerton. “I looked to Don to explain systems I didn’t understand, to share his perspectives on what came next, and to advise me on how to conceptualize my life’s work and my future.”

A prolific writer and highly influential teacher and scholar, Professor Nakanishi wrote more than 100 books, articles, and reports on his research interests, which included 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; and public policy research focusing on poverty, race relations, and social justice.

“Don was a soft-spoken and humble intellectual and political giant who mentored with love and care, and who pioneered a scholarly foundation for research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in education,” says OiYan Poon, assistant professor of Higher Education, Loyola University Chicago. “To think of the scholars and community leaders Don mentored is to recognize that he leaves behind a deep legacy. He was able to plant seeds in those he mentored, masterfully cultivated our development with care, and helped us trust in ourselves enough to find our own answers. It’s up to all of us now to honor [his] legacy of scholarship, activism, teaching, and mentoring the next generations.”

Professor Nakanishi with students from the Class of 2010. L-R: David Maldonado, OiYan Poon, Professor Nakanishi, and Cheryl Matias. Courtesy of OiYan Poon
Professor Nakanishi with students from the Class of 2010. L-R: David Maldonado, counselor, College Academic Counseling, UCLA; OiYan Poon, assistant professor, Higher Education, Loyola University Chicago; Professor Nakanishi, and Cheryl Matias, assistant professor, Urban Community Teacher Education, University of Colorado Denver. Courtesy of OiYan Poon

Professor Nakanishi 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. In 1976, he began to compile lists of Asian American elected officials across the country, thereby launching the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac. Two of his books, “Asian American Politics: Law, Participation, and Policy” (With James Lai)and “Asian American Educational Experience,”(With Tina Yamano Nishida) have advanced the study and teaching of Asian American political and educational research.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Professor Nakanishi to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, which administered the nationwide public education and research program that was established under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that provided a national apology and reparations for the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. Both of Nakanishi’s parents and his older brother were among those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at Poston, in southwestern Arizona.

Professor Nakanishi has received numerous awards for his scholarly achievements and public service, including the National Community Leadership Award from the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies (2007), the prestigious Yale Medal (2008), the inaugural Engaged Scholar Award from the Association of Asian American Studies (2009), the inaugural Distinguished Educator Award from the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Foundation (2009), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Political Science Association, Division of Race, Ethnicity and Politics (2009), and the George Kiriyama Educational Excellence Award (2010). He also received lifetime achievement awards from the Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, and the California State Assembly.

A former national president of the Association of Asian American Studies, Professor Nakanishi co-founded and served as publisher of Amerasia Journal, the top academic journal in the field of Asian American Studies, which was established in 1970. He also co-founded AAPI Nexus: Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy, Practice, and Community Research. He also has been featured in a number of publications, including Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” which chronicles his undergraduate career at Yale University, and a special tribute issue of Amerasia Journal, “The Political World of Asian Americans,” which was published in 2010.

A sought-after speaker and media commentator, Professor Nakanishi has served on the board of directors for numerous national and local organizations, including the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni, Asian Pacific American Caucus of the American Political Science Association, Harvard University Graduate Alumni Council, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, the Japanese American National Museum, the AT&T Universal Service Task Force, the Asian American Justice Center, Nielsen Media Research, and the Western Justice Center.

During Professor Nakanishi’s directorship of AASC, the Center increased its endowment to over $6 million through generous gifts and donations from alumni and friends worldwide, including six endowed academic chairs. Upon his retirement from UCLA, faculty colleagues, alumni, students, donors, and friends established the Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American & Pacific Islander Studies, an endowment which annually recognizes and provides monetary awards to UCLA faculty and graduate students in Asian American Studies who are pursuing outstanding community-based engaged research.

Professor Nakanishi's students helped celebrate his retirement from UCLA in 2009. Courtesy of OiYan Poon
Professor Nakanishi’s students helped celebrate his retirement from UCLA in 2009. Courtesy of OiYan Poon

“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,” said David Yoo, professor of Asian American Studies and director of AASC in an announcement on the AASC website. “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.”

“As was characteristic of Don’s remarkable life, the extraordinary challenges that he overcame, would benefit him less than those who came after him,” says UCLA Professor of Education Mitchell Chang, who was Nakanishi’s student in SSCE. “He indeed changed the course of history in our department and through his struggles, made it easier for those who entered Moore Hall after him to pursue their own interests and identities.”

Professor Nakanishi is survived by his wife, Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, a recently retired Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs from the California State University system, and his son, Thomas Nakanishi, who completed his graduate studies in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

A funeral ceremony for Professor Nakanishi was held on April 2 at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. The Nakanishi Family has asked that donations are made to The Don T. Nakanishi Endowment for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American & Pacific Islander Studies at UCLA by contacting the UCLA Asian American Studies Center via mail at Box 951546; 3230 Campbell Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1546; by phone at 310-825-2974; or by visiting this link. Contributions may also be made to the Nakanishi Prize at Yale College.

For more on Professor Don T. Nakanishi, visit UCLA Newsroom.


Above: Courtesy of UCLA Asian American Studies Center