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Harvard to Release Six Years of Admissions Data for 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 Brittany N. Ellis, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard must produce “comprehensive data” from six full admissions cycles for use in the pending admissions lawsuit between the University and anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions following a court order filed Tuesday.

Students for Fair Admissions launched the lawsuit in 2014, alleging that the University’s admissions process discriminates against Asian American applicants by setting quotas. Progress on the lawsuit remained largely stagnant over the past few months as the court awaited the Supreme Court ruling on a similar case, Fisher vs. The University of Texas at Austin. The discovery process has also prolonged the case as both parties have requested the release of certain documents and data.

The Harvard Admissions office.
The Harvard Admissions office. By Megan M. Ross

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ordered Harvard to produce “data from its admissions database,” which includes student applications, from the 2009-2010 admissions cycle through to the 2014-2015 cycle. The order said the University must also provide more limited data from the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 cycles in addition to specific data from admissions “fields,” which remain unknown because of a court-ordered seal.

The court order does not explicitly define “comprehensive data,” which in July SFFA had originally requested for eight admissions cycles. In response, Harvard filed a request arguing that the release of “personal information about each of the more than 35,000 individual applicants in a given year’s admissions cycle” could infringe on privacy. In addition, Harvard argued that releasing so much data was unnecessary given the amount of aggregate demographic data on applicants and admitted students that the University makes public.

Burroughs also ordered Harvard to produce “discovery relating to any prior investigations, reports, or official responses regarding alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants.” The order indicates that this information includes all material relating to any internal and external investigations into allegations of discrimination against Asian-Americans in the undergraduate admissions process.

But Judge Burroughs ruled that Harvard is not obliged to produce materials related to discrimination against Jewish applicants from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, information Students for Fair Admissions had previously requested. Burroughs wrote she was uncertain such information is “relevant to the invidious discrimination claims in this case, which allege that Harvard is presently discriminating against Asian-American applicants.”

Additionally, legal counsel for SFFA will not have access to academic data on students who matriculated to the College, according to the judge’s order.

Stetson University law professor Peter F. Lake ’81 said while the order for release of information is not unusual in the discovery process, he was surprised by what the judge ordered not to be released.

“I thought that limiting discovery and not allowing the tracking of students who’ve been admitted was interesting, and I have a feeling that that’s going to be a little controversial going forward,” he said. Lake said he thought data on matriculating students could “potentially validate decisions on individuals or show patterns of some kind of behavior.”

Following the Fisher vs. Texas ruling, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the race-conscious admissions process of the University of Texas was lawful, admissions data will become more important to admissions-based discrimination litigation, Lake said.

“I think that the generalized attack on race-conscious admissions as being unlawful is now essentially over for this generation,” he said. “I think we are going to see courts looking more at what’s happening inside the the inner sanctum of the admissions process.”

Spokespeople from both Students for Fair Admissions and Harvard’s Admissions Office declined to comment on the recent court order, although University President Drew G. Faust and other administrators have previously defended the Harvard’s admission policies.

Despite the court order, the lawsuit may continue to proceed slowly. Discovery information and all designated experts for the case can be submitted up until Sept. 18, 2017, according to a schedule filed by Judge Burrough’s office on Sept. 1, which could prolong a ruling until 2018.

—Staff writer Brittany N. Ellis can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @britt_ellis10.

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