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Unlocking the Files

What Does Harvard Know About You?

By Stephen R. Latham

Harvard collects an enormous amount of information about you. Your application to the College begins a vast process of fact-collecting that in some ways does not stop until your death. Collected in the College's folders are academic facts, financial facts, medical facts, police facts, facts about your family, your school activities, your graduate school and job applications, and after you have left the College, facts about your career and family life. Who has those files, and who has access to them? How long is the information kept? What are the student's rights of access, and of privacy?

Strictly speaking, the legal last word on such questions is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, and the Health, Education and Welfare guidelines based on it. All educational institutions receiving federal aid must obey the guidelines, which generally give a student and his parents access to his school file, but make third-party access to the collected information difficult. Harvard's stance on privacy is much more stringent, restricting access to records far more severely than the law requires.

There are some things, of course, which are not secret, and which the College makes no effort to protect. Harvard calls these facts--mostly the sort of thing you might read in a yearbook biography--"directory information," and will release it to anyone. (A complete list is included in the student handbook.) Students especially partial to privacy can arrange to have even "directory information" withheld by writing to the access officer in the Registrar's Office by the May before the year in which they desire complete privacy.

Athletes have their own set of "directory information." The Sports Information Office keeps on file various statistics like height, weight and records broken, as well as the information provided by you on the biography form you fill out when you try for the team. This information is freely released to sportswriters, recruiters and anyone else who wants it.

On the other end of the privacy spectrum are police and medical records. University police chief Saul L. Chafin says police files are open only to the police department's records division and departmental personnel. The files are indexed alphabetically by suspect or perpetrator's name, unless that name is unknown, so that victims do no collect police files in their own names. Even people mentioned in the files (suspects, victims and witnesses) may not read the detailed accounts of criminal incidents. Only the suspect's lawyer, through a court action, can get access. Reporters are allowed to see a bare-bones description of each crime--"Robbery at Winthrop House, Tuesday evening"--containing only incident, date, and time, with no names of suspects or victims and no other specifics. "Sensitive crimes" like rape are given even greater security. Within the department, only members of the "sensitive crimes unit"--two female police officers and a half-dozen detectives--can read the officer's reports, which are kept separate from all others.

Police files are kept for only a few years--the average range, says Chafin, is three to five--and are then destroyed. Your encounters with the police do not enter your permanent record unless the case is brought before the Administrative Board.

Medical records are equally private. University Health Services (UHS) has two sets of health records, one medical and one mental. Access to medical records is limited to authorized UHS workers and the patients themselves. No one--not even your parents and family doctor--can see your medical records without your permission.

Mental health records, kept separately, can be reviewed only by your doctors or by you yourself, and this only after a discussion with a staff psychiatrist or the chief of Mental Health Services. No copies are ever made of the record unless you request that your licensed therapist or lawyer receive one. You may copy selectively from your record by hand, but may not copy it by machine. Paul A. Walters, chief of the Mental Health Services, says this is because third parties are often mentioned in the course of therapy--their privacy is best insured when rights to copying are severely limited. No record is kept of who has been treated in the mental health division, not even in your medical file. Medical/mental health file cross-referencing is only employed in cases where the mental health division has prescribed some medication, like valium, because that information might be vital to doctors treating the patient for physical illness. The cross-references mention only that the medication has been prescribed, with no further elaboration. Walters says that consultations between the physical and mental sides of UHS--which take place only if absolutely necessary--are not entered into your medical record. No one examining your medical record can tell if you also have a mental health record. And neither medical nor mental health records enter your permanent history.

And just what is that permanent history? Roughly speaking, it is everything except athletic, medical and police records. And it is kept forever, in the Harvard archives. Your history, by the time you graduate, contains a record of every official contact you have had with Harvard, as well as every unofficial letter or recommendation ever added to your House file. All of your Harvard-related financial records eventually enter the archives (normally five years after your graduation, when they leave Holyoke Center). So, too, does all the academic information kept in the Registrar's Office.

But the largest proportion of a student's history follows the track from the Admissions Office to the Freshman Dean's Office (FDO) to the House Office to the archives. All of the information you submit with your application is kept on file in the Admissions Office during the admissions process. If you don't get into Harvard, your files are kept for three years, and then destroyed. If you do, everything is forwarded to the FDO. Even confidential recommendations--those which you waived the right to view--are now sent on. (Before the Class of '83, the Admissions Office had the policy of keeping such recommendations on file.) At the FDO, freshman advisers, proctors, and senior advisers use the admission materials to become acquainted with students and to arrange rooming groups. Your freshman adviser receives a summary of your statistics--directory information, achievement and Harvard placement test results, high school activities, and probable area of major. Your original file, however, never leaves the FDO--proctors and advisers must read the files on the premises. "We try to respect the privacy rights of students," Henry C. Moses, dean of freshmen, says. In the course of the year, the FDO adds much more academic and disciplinary data to the file. Advisers and proctors file summary reports on each of their charges, often written in consultation with their advisees. These reports, Moses says, "are usually just straightforward accounts of the student's courses and extracurriculars." Important personal problems of which Houses should be made aware (severe depression, alcoholism) are often not written into files, but are relayed personally by the proctor to your future House Senior Tutor.

Your House office adds a greal deal more to the file, including tutor's reports, recommendations, disciplinary records, all academic information, and student letters and applications. Most of this information enters the student's file with the student's full knowledge, usually at his request. Although the law allows anyone officially connected with the school who has a legitimate interest in your education access to the files, Harvard is far more stringent. Only you, your House officers and people to whom you give permission have access. Even federal investigators (including FBI investigators attempting to grant you a security clearance) need your written permission. And once permission is granted, the file is not just handed over. The investigator must ask specific questions which are answered by your senior tutor on the basis of the file's contents.

Houses use the files primarily for the benefit of the student. They are a record of his undergraduate accomplishments, used by him and the senior tutor applications and letters. As no one may view the file without your permission, professors or teaching fellows can deposit letters in your file without your having requested them. Your file may have stuff in it that you don't know about. This happens very seldom, however, and in most Houses, senior tutors will tell you about new arrivals in your file. Everything in the House file stays in the House for a few years after your graduation, and is then forwarded to the Harvard archives.

You are the only person who has access to the collection in the archives. You can request anything there; you have access to everything but the confidential recommendations. If you die, your heirs or immediate family have access to your records. You or they can give permission to third parties (biographers, for instance), to view certain documents. Your file does not become open property (without your permission) until years after your death--control over access is placed in the hands of your family. If you have no family, Harley P. Holden, curator of the University Archives, says, access is limited "until about 80 years after your death."

Alumni records are accumulated beginning when you graduate. On microfiche, the alumni office has little information beyond the "directory" level. But the office also keeps on file every graduate's five-year class report forms, which contain whatever information the graduate wants it to contain, sometimes family and career news. The alumni office keeps the records only for a brief while after the given alumni's death.

There are many other places where you might be on file. Each department keeps academic and recommendation files on its students. Some final clubs keep files on members, their club Jues and offices, their financial contributions and so on. Some activities entail the keeping of employment records. Transfer and summer school students have their own files. Files are kept of applications for special concentrations. Honors theses are kept in the archives, free for anyone's inspection. Some professors keep files on students' class performance. Some of these are, of course, strictly the private files of individuals or private organizations and to these you have no access. But with any file kept by any official organ of the University, the general rule is this: you have full right of access to all information excluding that to which you have specifically waived your right of inspection. And no one but you and the authorized personnel of the department keeping the file can look at its contents without your permission.

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