Soon after November 19, students for the first time will be able to probe the innards of their heretofore confidential undergraduate records. But their chance to see the files will be limited and, at least for a while, much of the confidential material will be missing.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, one of the most massive paper shuffles in Harvard's history is in progress. Under guidelines issued by Dean Rosovsky last month, House and department offices have begun to remove "material held under the assumption of confidentiality" from student files, and will ask the authors of these documents whether they would object to having them available for the perusal of students.
The magnitude of this procedure is difficult to grasp: assuming that each student has an average of four confidential documents in his or her file, over 25,000 inquiries will have to be made to clear the undergraduate records alone.
Rosovsky's guidelines make it clear that the University would prefer to keep "material which will be useful for advising, supporting, or otherwise aiding students" in the files. They urge the authors of this kind of material to return their writings to the files; and, if the author cannot be reached, they provide that the material will not be destroyed unless it is "certain that the author, though inaccessible, would not wish the material in question to be made available to the affected student." Just how that is to be determined with certainty, however, is left unclear.
No one is sure how many students will turn out for the grand opening of the undergraduate records, but Registrar Marion C. Belliveau is preparing for the worst. For now, at least, students will have to fill out a form giving their name and the time they would like to see their files, and will be limited to 20 minutes of viewing time--in the presence of a proctor.
For the first few weeks--until confidential material has been cleared and returned--the files will contain few revelations. One will be able to find out what Harvard's computer predicted his or her rank list would be, and possibly what his or her I.Q. is, if he or she didn't already know.
The recommendations will come a little later, and will bring on the real problems of the files law. Students will be able to contest the content of their letters through the Registrar's Office and the Committee on Privacy, Accessibility and Security of Records. That stage seems to be what everyone is worried about, and what happens when students challenge their letters of recommendations will determine whether the files law will have a major educational effect on Harvard or just an administrative one.