USC President Carol Folt has announced that she will publicly apologize to former Japanese American students for the discrimination USC committed against them during and after World War II. As reported by the LA Times, Folt will also award these students honorary degrees, making an exception to the university’s policy against granting such degrees posthumously.
This is a huge step forward in recognizing the horrific treatment of Japanese Americans in the World War II era. We are, therefore, very proud to announce that Jenna Edzant, Greene Broillet & Wheeler, LLP law clerk, was among the three USC law students credited with reviving the conversation about USC’s tainted past. With the help of an Academic Senate committee, the effort snowballed and affected real change.
According to the Times, the university is requesting the help of the public in locating the families of about 120 students who attended USC for the 1941-42 academic year.
“Advocacy Is What We Do”
It all started with a law school research seminar on the history of USC. Edzant and her partners for the project, Mirelle Raza and Sara Zollner, decided to look into how the USC administration, namely the former president Rufus B. von KleinSmid, had dealt with Executive Order 9066 in the throes of WWII.
In response to Executive Order 9066, then-UC Berkeley President Robert G. Sproul sent a letter calling for university presidents across the nation to accept displaced Nisei students. All major West Coast universities agreed to help about 2,500 students—that is, except for USC.
Today, Von KleinSmid is disgraced due to his history of antisemitism, racism, and support of eugenics. He not only refused to help Nisei students during WWII, but he and other campus officials actively refused to release transcripts; in other words, he took real action to deny these USC students the chance to study at other universities. And when some of these students attempted to reenroll at USC after the war, the university refused to accept their previous coursework. They would have to start from scratch.
These findings impassioned Edzant, Raza, and Zollner to go against the assignment guidelines; the professors told them it was supposed to be about history, not advocacy. Still, they decided the call to action would remain at the center of their project.
“We are future lawyers,” Edzant explained. “Advocacy is what we do. What is the point of researching and uncovering the injustice if we aren’t going to do anything about it?”
For the project, Edzant, Raza, and Zollner collaborated with Jonathan Kaji. (As president of the Asian Pacific Alumni Association, Kaji began pushing for action in 2007.) They soon learned that USC had continued to go against the grain when it came to this issue: In 2009, a state law required all CSUs and state community colleges to award honorary degrees to displaced Nisei students, living or deceased. UCs followed suit. But USC only agreed to grant honorary degrees to living students, citing a long-standing university policy against posthumous degrees.
Now, after almost 80 years, these students will finally receive the degrees they deserve—and an actual apology to boot. The surviving children of these students told the LA Times their parents would have been “thrilled”; many of them had remained proud Trojans despite the university’s mistreatment of them.
“I’m so happy the school is actually apologizing to these families and not just awarding the degrees,” Edzant said. “Talking to these families reminded me of our clients, how it’s often the intangibles—an apology, an acknowledgment of their pain, a chance to tell their story—that makes more of a difference than the dollar amount. I’m grateful our project was able to help even the slightest amount to get that for the families.”
To learn more, visit the “Forgotten Trojans” website.
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