20th Anniversary Recap – A Dialogue with the Asia Center’s Former Directors and Acting Directors

May 7, 2018
Harvard Unviersity Asia Center Former Directors

The Harvard University Asia Center’s 20th Anniversary Celebration on April 13 brought together former directors and acting directors of the Center for a panel titled “A Dialogue with the Asia Center’s Former Directors and Acting Directors on the Changing and Enduring Issues in Asia.”  The standing-room-only audience was captivated by the perspectives the former directors and acting directors shared on the challenges facing both Asia and academia, as well as by their anecdotes of their experiences with the Center.

Meg Rithmire, F. Warren McFarlan Associate Professor of Business of Administration at Harvard Business School, moderated the panel, which consisted of Ezra Vogel, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Emeritus; William Kirby, T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School; Dwight Perkins, Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus; Arthur Kleinman, Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Anthropology and Professor of Medical Anthropology and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology; and Andrew Gordon, Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History. Anthony Saich, Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, was unable to attend the event; he served as director of the Asia Center from 2005 to 2008.

After being introduced, the former directors and acting directors of the Center expressed appreciation for the founders of the Center, the staff, and the opportunity to lead the Center during their respective terms. They also shared their experiences and memories of the founding of the Asia Center, and they discussed the role the Center plays within Harvard and its relationships with the other Asia-related centers.  The former directors and acting directors likewise elaborated on changing global perspectives on Asia.

Ezra Vogel,  founding director of the Asia Center (1997-1999), called the establishing of the Center “a reinvention of the wheel,” given its focus on the transnational study of East Asia, a priority of the former East Asian Research Center.  But from the beginning, the Asia Center also included South and Southeast Asia under its purview.  Professor Vogel spoke on the Center’s mission to create new knowledge and provide opportunities for collaboration among Asian leaders.

William Kirby, who served as director of the Asia Center from 1999 to 2002, addressed the relevance of the Asia Center today, specifically in relation to attaining deeper understanding of Asia’s advances in infrastructure, education, entrepreneurship, and politics.

Dwight Perkins, director of the Asia Center from 2002 to 2005, said one of his main roles had been serving as a liaison for the Center’s fundraising efforts. He discussed the current political climate between the U.S. and China and its impact on the U.S. economy.

Arthur Kleinman, director of the Asia Center from 2008 to 2016, shared his experiences as founding chair of the Caucus of Center Directors during the 2008 financial crisis.   In addition, while director, he raised significant funds for the study of Southeast Asia, including establishing several endowed chairs. Professor Kleinman highlighted the Asia Vision 21 conference as a model of collaborative endeavor, and he urged the Asia Center and the other Asia-related Centers to take on the great problems of the world more clearly and explicitly.

Michael Puett served as the acting director of the Asia Center during spring 2013. Speaking of his “formative and inspiring experiences” working with the Center, Professor Puett noted that it has trained students to approach questions with a pan-Asian, pan-Eurasian, and often global framework—necessary lenses with which to address challenges such as global health and climate change.

Andrew Gordon was acting director of the Asia Center from 2016 to 2017, during current Director Karen Thornber’s sabbatical leave. He discussed the role of the Asia Center from the perspective of a social historian, with the Center promoting the transnational examination of many vital world issues, including the legacies of 20th century imperialism and colonialism.

Addressing some of the challenges academia is likely to face in the next 20 years, Professor Vogel cautioned against becoming overly dependent on data-driven research, which he argued would not be as enduring as in-depth studies of specific issues that place these issues in broader context. Professor Perkins, while acknowledging the merits of comparative, interdisciplinary work, also noted the need for in-depth, single-country knowledge. Professor Puett stressed the importance of challenging fundamental assumptions, while Professor Gordon highlighted the balance between breadth and depth of knowledge.

Professor Rithmire also asked the former directors and acting directors about the challenges likely to face Asia in the next 20 years. According to Professor Kirby, since 1979, Asia has had its longest period of peace since the Opium War, allowing the region to grow significantly more prosperous.  He asked how peaceful dialogue and resolution of differences can be promoted, given some of the current regional quarrels among Asian nations. Professor Kleinman addressed future challenges in Asia by noting that both indigenous and younger voices are not being heard. He pointed to a proposal from Asia Center International Advisory Committee Chair Victor Fung to facilitate translation in order to make public important ideas from a broader range of communities.

Listen to the audio recording of this panel, “A Dialogue with the Asia Center’s Former Directors and Acting Directors on the Changing and Enduring Issues in Asia.” Audio recordings of all the talks from the Asia Center 20th Anniversary Celebration are available on the Harvard University Asia Center SoundCloud page. Video of the Tsai Lecture, “China’s Worldview Under Xi Jinping” by The Honorable Kevin Rudd, which took place during the 20th Anniversary Celebration, is available on video.