Senate Source

August 2009


UC to Award Honorary Degrees to Former WW II Internees

At the request of the Academic Senate, the UC Board of Regents has voted to grant honorary degrees to students of Japanese ancestry who were unable to complete their education due to their internment during World War II.


The Regents’ action follows a comprehensive investigation and review by a special task force led by incoming Senate Vice Chair Daniel Simmons and Vice President of Student Affairs Judy Sakaki and a unanimous vote of the Academic Assembly in June to amend Senate regulations and ask the Regents to override their longstanding moratorium on honorary degrees and recognize the historic injustice. Approximately 700 UC students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs at Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Davis during the 1941-1942 academic year and forced to leave the University under Executive Order 9066.


President Yudof and Grace Amemiya

President Yudof and Aiko “Grace” Obata Amemiya

The honorary diplomas will bear the inscription, Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam—or “to restore justice among the groves of the academe.”


Simmons, a law professor at UC Davis, praised the Regents’ vote. “The entire university will welcome the return of these individuals to our academic community,” he said. “The Senate deserves to be proud of its role in structuring this unique honorary degree for former students whose lives were disrupted by a nationally recognized denial of their civil rights.”


In the spring of 1942, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were sent to relocation camps in California and other Western states by military orders issued under the authority of an executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. Approximately 700 University of California students of Japanese ancestry were affected. Although some graduated in 1942 with the aid of sympathetic faculty and administrators, some returned to graduate after the War, and some obtained degrees at other universities, many never completed their educations.


Forty-six years later, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and acknowledged that the action was largely motivated by racial prejudice and wartime hysteria rather than by national security concerns. In 1990, each surviving internee received a check for $20,000 to compensate for wartime losses.


Executive Order 9066 also affected over 400 students at the University of Washington and 40 others at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. In 2008, these institutions granted honorary degrees to these former Japanese-American students. San Francisco State University declared its interned students “honorary alumni” a few years ago, and in 2003, Governor Gray Davis signed a bill authorizing California school districts to award high school diplomas retroactively to former students prevented from graduating because of internment.


The UC Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses recognized some of their formerly interned students in more limited actions in 1992 (the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066).  Then-Regent Stephen Nakashima wrote to Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien on behalf of Japanese-Americans in Berkeley’s Class of 1942 who were blocked from participating in graduation ceremonies. Many of these Berkeley graduates worked with faculty and administrators to complete their final exams by correspondence, but they suffered the indignity of receiving their diplomas in the mail while incarcerated in horse stalls at makeshift assembly centers. UC Berkeley arranged a special convocation ceremony in 1992 for roughly 100 Japanese-American members of the Class of 1942. UC Los Angeles also held a series of special events in 1991-1992 to commemorate Japanese-American students whose learning was disrupted by the internment and awarded a regular, non-honorary degree to an alumna who was a few units short of graduating at the time of the internment.


Since then, UC has received a number of requests to recognize interned Japanese-American students who were unable to return to UC to complete their degrees. In September 2008, the Academic Senate and UCOP charged a special task force to consider how the University of California might restore the academic relationship these former students had with UC. That task force recommended to the administration and the Academic Senate that the University of California award special honorary degrees to the students. The Academic Council unanimously adopted the recommendations at its April 29 meeting, and the Assembly of the Academic Senate enacted the recommended legislation on June 17.


On July 16, the UC Board of Regents agreed to grant honorary degrees to all students enrolled at the University in 1941-42 who were forced to leave their campuses as a consequence of Executive Order 9066. The Board’s unanimous decision marked the first time in 37 years it has bestowed honorary degrees, making a one-time exception to a moratorium intended to help avoid political pressures.


John Tateishi was a member of the task force and a former UC Merced Foundation trustee. He is also the former national director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and chairman of JACL’s National Redress Committee. Upon learning of the Regents’ decision, Tateishi said “In 1978, at the beginning of the redress campaign, which no one thought could possibly succeed, one of the things I hoped for was that, succeed or fail with the campaign, the strategy to educate Americans about the injustices of the WWII internment of Japanese Americans would give birth to various acts of conscience in helping make right the terrible wrong committed against the victims of the internment, and in particular, the Nisei [second-generation Japanese Americans born in the United States]. This is one such effort and one that I know personally will be so meaningful and significant. For those who are still alive and able to benefit from your efforts, I can tell you that you have given them something special beyond words.”


A search is underway for surviving former students or their relatives. Students will receive the honorary diplomas, regardless of the degree they were pursuing at the time, even though many finished their college educations elsewhere. Degrees alsow ill be awrded posthumously. While plans have not yet been finalized, there is a strong sentiment that the degrees should be awarded through campus commencement ceremonies.


Although UC’s action only applies to former UC students, legislation is pending that could allow Japanese-American students from California State University and California Community Colleges to receive honorary degrees. A bill introduced in the state legislature in December 2008, AB 37 (Furutani) would confer honorary degrees upon each individual whose studies at a postsecondary educational institution were disrupted by Executive Order 9066. Although this bill would only apply to public institutions, Furutani said that private colleges and universities are also urged to comply.


Members of the Class of ’42, or their survivors, should contact the University to learn how to receive the degrees. Information about those who were affected by the internments can be submitted by email to or phone to 510-987-0239.