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Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Bill Lee Discusses Affirmative Action Lawsuit at EDIB Forum

William F. Lee '72, middle, pictured exiting the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, where the Harvard admissions trial was held in 2018.
William F. Lee '72, middle, pictured exiting the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, where the Harvard admissions trial was held in 2018. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Yusuf S. Mian and Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 discussed the lawsuit challenging Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies during an event at the University’s first-ever Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Forum on Wednesday.

The University’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Sherri Ann Charleston, joined Lee, who served as Harvard’s lead counsel in the trial challenging its race-conscious admissions system. The suit, which seeks to overturn affirmative action in higher education, is set to be taken up by the Supreme Court in the fall alongside a similar case against the University of North Carolina.

The three-day virtual EDIB forum, themed “Reimagine Our Community,” kicked off on Tuesday. It features speakers such as actress Lauren Ridloff and Black Voters Matter Fund co-founder LaTosha Brown, along with interactive activities and breakout room discussions. During the final day of programming on Thursday, the event will include panel discussions with Brown, Harvard University Police Department Chief Victor A. Clay, and Harvard Human Resources Vice President Manuel Cuevas-Trisán.

On Wednesday, Lee discussed the admissions lawsuits brought by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, which charge that Harvard College and UNC discriminate against Asian American applicants and violate civil rights law by considering race in their admissions processes. Lower courts have ruled in favor of both schools, which deny the allegations.

The Supreme Court agreed to take up the cases earlier this year, setting the stage for a decision that could determine the future of affirmative action in higher education.

At the forum, Lee defended Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies.

“No one’s getting admitted that isn’t in that group of 15,000 fully qualified people,” he said.

“I think it’s unfair to assume that people who are of a certain demographic are somehow unqualified, because they’re all qualified. Every single one of them,” he added.

Lee rejected the allegation that Harvard’s admissions policies are discriminatory.

“If I thought there was affirmative discrimination against Asian Americans, I would not be the lead trial lawyer,” he said.

Charleston also defended Harvard’s admissions policies, emphasizing the importance of diversity in education.

“When we make our community universally designed and accessible, it’s actually not just benefiting some people, but benefiting all of us,” Charleston said.

Lee said there were few students of color on campus during his time at Harvard.

“Almost everybody that arrives on the Harvard campus, and it was certainly true of me, has the imposter syndrome,” Lee said. “The more diverse the community, the more sensitive we need to be to the fact that people will have those concerns.”

Lee also discussed the potential impact of the case beyond Harvard’s campus.

“I think the issues that the court will consider, as I said earlier, have implications well beyond Harvard, well beyond all universities, well beyond all universities and colleges, but for society more broadly,” he said.

“Harvard being Harvard, in some sense, the public almost reads too much into everything we do, both positively and negatively,” he added.

Concluding the discussion, Lee reiterated his belief that fostering diversity and inclusion complements the mission of higher education.

“There are some people who believe that our efforts to assemble a diverse community, and promote the interest of diversity and inclusion and equity, are somehow in conflict with free speech and free thought, which have driven universities and their success for many years,” he said. “I want you to know that, at least I believe, that’s just not true.”

—Staff writer Yusuf S. Mian can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @yusuf_mian2.

—Staff writer Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Charritzjack.

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