UPDATED: April 10, 2018 at 11:50 a.m.
Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 called the Justice Department's recent intervention in a lawsuit challenging Harvard's admissions process "perplexing" and "entirely unnecessary" in a public letter Monday.
Lee sent the letter to the federal judge presiding over the ongoing suit, which alleges Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions system. Advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions filed the lawsuit in 2014.
“Harvard does not, of course, dispute the Department’s authority to uphold the nation’s civil rights laws for all its citizens,” Lee’s letter reads. “But the Department’s belated interest in this case, and its submission on this confidentiality issue in particular, cannot help but give pause.”
The letter almost directly follows the department’s Friday filing, in which the federal agency asked the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts to unseal previously confidential applicant information and data related to Harvard’s admissions process. The briefing asserted the court should unseal the data so the department and the public can effectively participate in the suit as “friends of the court.”
Harvard has repeatedly argued the data must remain private to protect student privacy and “highly proprietary” admissions information.
Lee wrote in his Monday letter that the Justice Department’s request came as a surprise to Harvard. He wrote the department had not previously expressed concern over the University's desire to keep documents relevant to the lawsuit private.
“Before submitting its Notice on Friday afternoon, the Department never raised with Harvard any concern that it would not have access to summary judgment filings,” Lee wrote.
Lee—who wrote the letter only in his capacity as a lawyer, and not in his capacity as senior fellow of the Corporation—claimed the department has already gained full access to all relevant filings, which it likely obtained as part of its own separate, ongoing probe into Harvard’s admissions policies. The Department of Justice initiated its investigation in 2017, after originally—under the Obama administration—choosing to take no action on a complaint filed in 2014 that also alleged Harvard discriminates in its admissions process.
“To the extent the Department wished to ensure its own access to the summary judgment materials in this case, it already has that access,” Lee wrote.
Lee added the department’s filing comprises an “incomplete portrayal” of the body’s previous involvement in the lawsuit, which is separate from its probe.
“SFFA’s complaint was filed in November 2014, and yet for reasons that are not articulated, the Department waited until April 2018 to suggest that it has a ‘substantial interest’ in this litigation,” the letter reads.
Justice Department spokesperson Devin M. O’Malley declined to comment Monday evening.
Another Monday filing, submitted by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, states that students serving as amici curiae in the lawsuit share Harvard’s concern that confidential documents in the case could make past and present applicants personally identifiable.
Lee’s letter comes a day before attorneys for the parties will meet at the U.S. District Court in Boston to deliberate over the handling of confidential materials in the case and determine a more concrete timeline for future developments in the suit.
—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @delanofranklin_
—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel