For the first time ever, former Japanese American UC students who were prevented from completing their education because of interment during WWII will be given honorary degrees by the University of California.
A task force was prompted initially by UC San Francisco’s inquiry to honor a Japanese American former student who was interned in 1941. The task force will determine how many other former students were prevented from earning their degree due to internment.
“The task force was set up to figure out how we should recognize these people,” said UC Davis Professor Daniel Simmons, chair of the task force. “These folks were our students at UC and their relationship was severed by what is now considered an unjust act. This is an opportunity to restore justice in the grove of academia.“
Currently, the task force has identified approximately 700 people who attended Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Davis. The task force is still searching university archives for more cases of former students who could not complete their education, and will release those names later this month.
UC is not the first university to confer honorary degrees to formerly interned Japanese American students. The Universities of Washington and Oregon already handed out honorary degrees and encouraged UC to do so as well, Simmons said.
“In 2008 other universities decided to grant degrees to alumni who couldn’t complete their education, [which] triggered inquiries to the office of the president,” said Bill Kidder, assistant executive vice chancellor at UC Riverside.
This is a unique situation UC has been confronted with, Simmons said. The regents waived their bylaws for the purpose of approving honorary degrees, and the degrees are the first ones to be handed out from the UC as a whole, rather than a specific campus.
“It’s more about the gesture of recognizing the students‘ lost opportunity at no fault of their own, and restoring the bond between UC and the students who were exiled,” Kidder said.
The regents and many Japanese Americans have expressed excitement about the honorary degrees, Kidder said.
“It is a very proud moment for the university in terms of being able to address this issue,” said Judy Sakaki, vice president of student affairs at the UC Office of the President.
The campuses are currently planning what kind of ceremony might be appropriate. The task force is still working to identify anyone else deserving of a degree, living or deceased.
“This action is long overdue and addresses a historical tragedy,“ said UC President Mark Yudof in a statement. “To the surviving students themselves, and to their families, I want to say, ‘This is one way to apologize to you. It will never be possible to erase what happened, but we hope we can provide you a small measure of justice.“
Anyone who may know of someone eligible for an honorary degree can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORY BULLIS can be reached at email@example.com.