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Harvard Asian American Alums Talk Affirmative Action, AAPI Leadership at Summit

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu '07, pictured here at the Harvard College Class Day event in 2022, was the keynote speaker at the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance summit over the weekend.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu '07, pictured here at the Harvard College Class Day event in 2022, was the keynote speaker at the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance summit over the weekend. By Dylan J. Goodman
By Madeleine A. Hung and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

Hundreds of alumni returned to campus to join students and faculty in discussing issues facing Asian Americans during the fourth Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance Global Summit.

From Oct. 13 to 15, the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance hosted its global summit, “Beyond Representation,” featuring keynote speaker Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07. Harvard-affiliated Asian American alumni — which included University faculty, CEOs, and politicians — also gave addresses and spoke on panels. The H4A Global Summit occurs every four years, with the inaugural summit launching in 2010.

The summit kicked off Friday afternoon with a celebration of new Asian American studies faculty, including Government professor Taeku Lee and History professor Erika Lee, who joined Harvard as a part of a three-year ethnic studies cluster hire initiative that concluded last year. The kickoff also featured speeches from University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane M. Paulus ’88.

On Saturday and Sunday, summit organizers and speakers hosted breakout sessions, with topics including Asian American and Pacific Islander narratives in the entertainment industry, the impact of cultural identities on health care, Asian American issues in media, and activism against anti-Asian hate.

Wu, who holds degrees from the College and Harvard Law School, delivered the summit’s keynote address. Wu is the first woman, person of color, and Asian American to be elected mayor of Boston.

While Wu was studying at Harvard, her mother’s health began to decline, forcing her to care for her younger siblings and take over the family business.

“That’s how someone who had no exposure at all to politics or government growing up — probably very suspicious in our family and afraid of government in some ways, given our immigration history — was immersed in just about every government system,” she said. “There was a school system, hospital and health care, opening a small business.”

“Eventually, I got fed up that it felt like none of these systems were really designed for people like my family,” she added.

Wu also discussed the experience of often being the only woman or person of color in the room.

“In some ways that’s given me the freedom to just accept and have people recognize that I’m going to do things differently,” she said. “The next generation will have a better time stepping into these leadership roles, but we need more examples today.”

Saturday morning’s summit opening session, “The Future of a Diverse and Inclusive Campus,” featured former Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72, Economics professor Raj Chetty ’00, Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, and Chinese for Affirmative Action board member Sally Chen ’19.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra affirmed the importance of diversity in learning environments in an introduction to the panel discussion.

“When we move beyond representation, we see the full picture behind the numbers. We see how each story, each experience, each individual contributes to something greater,” Hoekstra said. “We see how very important it is to ensure that each voice has a place at the table, as well as the support and encouragement of those sitting with them.”

During the panel, speakers discussed the future of American higher education after the Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action in June.

Gersen said the College played “a very key role” in convincing the Supreme Court to adopt the benefits of diversity as a rationale for affirmative action in a previous case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

“That amicus brief laid out this exact idea of — there are people who come from all different places; they can bring something to campus that other people may not be able to bring,” Gersen said. “Harvard, I think, was extremely influential in making the Supreme Court see the virtue of student body diversity.”

Chen, who testified in favor of Harvard in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, said she and the seven other students and alumni who submitted their testimonies talked about “how our race and ethnicity are inseparable from our experiences.”

William Lee said one of his frustrations with the aftermath of the case was that people equated the overturning of 50 years of precedent with a finding that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian Americans — which he said “cannot be equated.”

“If Harvard had been found to intentionally discriminate against Asian Americans, and we’d been ordered to stop but the law hadn’t changed, the rest of the world would be better off than it is today,” Lee added. “But because the law has changed, the ripple effects and the consequences are substantial.”

Chetty, who discussed his research on the correlation between higher education and positions of influence in society, said there is a “tremendous representation” of graduates from top-ranked colleges who assume these positions.

“That’s why it’s so important to understand who is getting into these colleges — because that ultimately shapes what the diversity of leadership in America looks like,” Chetty said.

—Staff writer Madeleine A. Hung can be reached at madeleine.hung@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com.

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