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Data from Thousands of Harvard Applications to Become Part of Lawsuit

The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid located at 86 Brattle Street.
The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid located at 86 Brattle Street.
By Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writer

Application data for hundreds of thousands of people who applied to Harvard College will be given to a group suing Harvard for allegedly discriminating against Asian American applicants, the University told those students in an email Thursday.

Beginning on Oct. 28, Harvard intends to produce “academic, extracurricular, demographic, and other information” from all students who applied to the College between the fall 2009 and spring 2015, omitting the names and Social Security numbers of the applicants. The data will be used in the discovery period of an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard brought by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group.

The admissions office.
The admissions office. By Megan M. Ross

According to the email, SFFA will not be allowed to share the data with anyone other than its attorneys without court approval, nor will it be permitted to try to learn the identity of applicants from the information supplied.

"The privacy of our applicants remains critically important, and we will continue to take all possible actions to ensure it, while also respecting orders by the court,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in a separate email.

Students who do not wish to have their information used in the lawsuit are “are free to contact the court directly” or to hire a lawyer at their own expense, according to a Frequently Asked Questions page linked in the email. In addition, the FAQ page clarified that an eventual ruling “will not affect the decision that was made about [applicants’] admission to Harvard.”

The U.S. District Court for Massachusetts ordered in September that Harvard release “comprehensive data” on the students from those six admissions cycles, though it did not indicate what that data would include. Later that month, Harvard moved to dismiss the case, and the parties have agreed that SFFA will respond to the motion by Nov. 4.

According to the FAQ page, Harvard anticipates “that it will likely be years before the lawsuit is fully resolved.”

SFFA filed the lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, and in recent months the case has progressed slowly during the discovery period as both parties spar over the release of certain information. The lawsuit alleges Harvard’s admission process discriminates against Asian American applicants to maintain implicit racial “quotas.” The case was put on hold while the Supreme Court re-heard a similar anti-affirmative action lawsuit, Fisher vs. the University of Texas at Austin, but picked up again after the Court ruled in favor of race-conscious admissions policies at the university.

In its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Harvard argued that SFFA “cannot demonstrate that its members control the organization and that it genuinely represents them,” and therefore cannot litigate on their behalf. Harvard has called for the release of details of SFFA membership throughout the discovery process, while SFFA has contended that releasing such information would infringe on the privacy of its members.

Around 30,000 to 40,000 students apply to the College each year.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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