If there’s a Holy Grail in higher education, this might be it: thousands of documents that lay bare the inner workings of Harvard University’s admissions process.
The US Justice Department thinks the public deserves to see the information. Students and guidance counselors would love a peek. And a federal court case that could end up before the US Supreme Court hinges on this trove of information and whether it offers proof that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in its admissions, as an advocacy group has alleged.
On Tuesday, US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs indicated that some of Harvard’s admissions data will become part of the court record and open to public view in the coming months.
Still, how many of the tens of thousands of documents — which include student applications, notes about students from admissions officers, manuals for how to evaluate applications, and data on how Harvard scores student qualities for admissions — will be revealed is unclear.
Harvard has argued that much of the data is akin to “trade secrets,” and a good chunk will likely remain secret. The university has also repeatedly denied that it discriminates against Asian-American applicants.
In a court session Tuesday ahead of a trial scheduled for this fall, Burroughs asked Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit organization that has been fighting affirmative action policies on campuses, to file two versions of court documents. One version, which will be publicly available, will have the sensitive information redacted; the other won’t.
She urged both sides to work on determining what should be redacted, although warned them against blocking out too much information, rendering the documents incomprehensible.
“I don’t expect to get pages and pages of blackness,” Burroughs said, in reference to heavy redactions.
The affirmative action case against Harvard has attracted intense scrutiny, especially under the Trump administration.
Students for Fair Admissions filed its lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, claiming that the university caps the number of high-performing Asian-Americans it admits each year.
Separately, a coalition of Asian-American groups also filed complaints about Harvard with the Justice Department in 2015. Those complaints spurred little action during the Obama administration. Then last year, the Justice Department launched an investigation into Harvard’s admissions policies.
Since then, the federal agency has threatened to sue Harvard over the slow disclosure of documents. And last week, it sided with Students for Fair Admissions in court, arguing for more transparency of Harvard’s admissions data.
“Applicants to Harvard, their families, and the general public have a presumptively paramount right to access the summary judgement record in this civil rights case,” John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general, wrote in a court filing.
But Harvard is concerned that some students might be identifiable through a quick Google search, even if their names and addresses are redacted.
Additionally, the university is worried that the information could be a boon for the college admissions industry and families who are all looking for any advantage to help their children land a spot at the Ivy League school.
“Publicizing this information would cause applicants and college consultants to seek to orient their applications to what they perceive Harvard wants, to the detriment of the authenticity of the information Harvard receives and its ability to make its best judgements,” wrote Felicia Ellsworth, an attorney with WilmerHale, which is representing Harvard, in a filing.
Harvard officials have also raised fears that Students for Fair Admissions would use the information in a “media campaign” to further its “agenda to eliminate consideration of race in higher education and to assail those institutions that consider race in order to pursue their compelling interest in the educational benefits that flow from a widely diverse student body.”
But William Consovoy, an attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, said so many of the documents in this case have been deemed top-secret that he hasn’t even been able to show his client some of the information.
On Tuesday, Burroughs allowed Consovoy to share some of the information with Students for Fair Admissions solely for review in the case.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.