Forgotten Trojans: USC Nisei Story

Nisei Activism at USC

USC During the Era of War

At the time of Pearl Harbor, USC had 121 Nisei students registered.  Immediately after the naval attack, the Nisei students vocally pledged their loyalty to the United States and the University, specifically.  At first, the USC administration responded with support, making statements and urging their student body and faculty to treat the Nisei students no different than any other student, because they were all Americans and Trojans alike.

When Executive Order 9066 set the stage for requiring all Japanese Americans relocate to various "evacuation camps", the Nisei students were forced by the US government to leave USC.  A handful of Nisei Trojans left USC voluntarily in order to set up the camps, while the remainder involuntarily left USC when relocation became mandatory.  (Failing to comply with relocation orders soon became a criminal offense.)  Throughout these early stages of relocation, USC continued to voice support for the Nisei students, praising their patriotism and loyalty through public statements and the Daily Trojan.

USC was the only West Coast university to not forward transcripts during internment.

Eventually, the US government allowed interned students to leave the camps and attend inland universities (students were not allowed to return to the West Coast during internment).  Some Nisei Trojans requested their USC transcripts so that they could transfer to other schools and leave the camps to continue their education, but USC administration refused to forward the transcripts.  It is currently unclear who was the ultimate decision maker regarding this policy, but reports indicate that the dean of the dental school, Dr. Lewis Ford, unabashedly refused to forward transcripts, saying to forward the transcripts would be akin to giving aid to the enemy, and the university President, Dr. Rufus von KleinSmid, adopted a similar point of view.  Regardless of who was responsible for the policy, the effect was the same--Nisei Trojans could not leave the camps to continue their USC education at other universities.  They could only begin their education over or remain in the camps

To forward transcripts would be akin to giving aid to the enemy.

When the evacuation camps were finally closed in 1945-1946, the Nisei Trojans who had not already restarted their education at other universities were not allowed to re-enroll at USC and their transcripts were still withheld.  

USC During the Era of Memory

USC's administration did not take any active steps to rectify its treatment of the Nisei students between the end of the war and the early 2000s.  Instead, USC was a passive canvas for Japanese American advocates and activists to revive the memories of what actually happened in the internment camps.  

Due to cultural and practical barriers, many Issei and Nisei spent years suppressing their memories of internment, with the result that even their children, the Sansei, did not know what really happened in the camps.  It was not until the Sansei (most of whom were either extremely young or born in the camps or were not born until after the war) reached college-aged and began learning about Japanese internment in higher education that the Nisei really began speaking about their experiences.  The Sansei thus began a campaign of "remembrance", taking steps to ensure that their parents' stories were memorialized and remembered for future generations.  Across the country, museum and art exhibitions, educational festivals, and other remembrance events worked to expose the truth of Japanese internment from the voices of those who had suffered its deepest consequences.

Some of these exhibits and events took place at USC or across the street at the Natural History Museum and Science Center.  While the USC administration was not involved in the planning of these events, the Daily Trojan covered each event and museum exhibit.  The Daily Trojan also covered various students and newspaper staff members who participated in the annual Pilgrimage to Manzanar.  USC did not take this opportunity to reveal and address its previous treatment of the Nisei students.

Other educational institutions began to do what USC did not--bestowing diplomas or honorary degrees. 

The redress movement grew nationally, culminating in the US government signing the Civil Liberties Act and issuing $20,000 reparations payment to Japanese Americans who had lived in the evacuation camps.  Soon after, other educational institutions began to do what USC did not.  Certain high schools and community colleges in Los Angeles bestowed diplomas or honorary degrees upon their Nisei students who were unable to complete their education during WWII as a result of internment.

USC During the Era of Activism

In the 2000s, Sansei leaders and their Millennial descendants transitioned from preserving the memory of internment to requesting accountability and redress from the University.  In 2007, APAA began to push for a formal apology from USC and honorary degrees for all 121 Nisei students who were unable to return to the school and/or had their transcripts withheld.  In response, a select group of Nisei students were offered honorary alumni status in 2008, but without any formal apology from the university.

Also in 2008, California Assembly passed a bill urging public educational institutions to issue honorary degrees to their Nisei students who had been unable to complete their educations due to internment.  The bill became law in 2009, requiring all CSUs and public community colleges to award honorary degrees to every Nisei student or their surviving family.  Shortly thereafter, the University of California Regents lifted its traditional ban on honorary degrees in order to similarly award Nisei honorary degrees.  While USC could not be compelled to issue honorary degrees by the State, as it is a private institution, it also did not have any barrier policy to awarding honorary degrees to the Nisei Trojans. Still, USC administration ignored calls to follow suit and insisted that it had fulfilled its redress obligations by awarding honorary alumni status.

The UCs awarded honorary degrees in 2010, but USC refused to follow suit, pointing at the honorary alumni status is 2008 as sufficient redress for refusing to readmit and withholding the transcripts of Nisei students.

In 2010, a student coalition formed to pursue the wider Nisei Diploma Project at specifically at USC.  Other activist groups, including the JACL, joined the call urging USC to issue honorary degrees and an apology.  On May 15, 2010, the UC schools all awarded honorary degrees to Nisei during their commencement ceremonies, but USC continued to hold out.  In 2011, a Nisei Diploma Project petition was signed by over 1,200 USC students, alumni, and faculty, demonstrating the widespread grassroots support for honorary degrees.

In 2012, USC finally responded to pressure and offered honorary degrees only to those Nisei students still alive, and without a formal apology.  Out of the 121 Nisei Trojans forced to leave USC in 1942, only 12 were given the honorary degrees.  During the ceremony, just off campus a group of USC activists protested USC's refusal to award posthumous degrees and the University's continued refusal to acknowledge its conduct regarding transcripts.  

Out of the 121 Nisei Trojans forced to leave USC in 1942, only 12 were given the honorary degrees.

But the student and alumni activists refused to stop.  In 2016, a large push for the university to change the name of VKC (Von KleinSmid Center, named in honor of President von KleinSmid) began to build steam in light of Dr. von KleinSmid's connection to the Eugenics movement and his treatment of Japanese students during his tenure.  The debate over VKC's name continued for years, but the name was not removed until July 2020 in the wake of BLM protests.  Removing the name and Dr. von KleinSmid's bust did not include an apology for the problematic actions the President conducted and supported.

Where Is USC Now?

To date, and despite continued requests, USC refuses to award honorary degrees to the remaining Nisei families, refuses to formally apologize for refusing to readmit and refusing to forward transcripts, and refuses to grant legacy status and scholarships to the descendants of Nisei Trojans.

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