UPDATED: April 10, 2018 at 11:45 p.m.
A small, redacted portion of more than 90,000 pages of Harvard admissions documents—including applicants’ files and internal correspondence between admissions officers—will become public information in coming months after a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit against Harvard Tuesday.
At an April 10 hearing at the U.S. District Court in Boston, Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that, within the next two months, lawyers for Harvard University and advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions must file two near-identical sets of previously confidential Harvard admissions documents—one unredacted set to be filed under seal and one redacted version of the set to be filed publicly. These filings could total thousands of pages but will only comprise "a small fraction" of the 90,000 total pages of documents designated as "Confidential" or "Highly Confidential" that the University has given over as part of the ongoing lawsuit, according to a filing made by Harvard lawyers last week.
Nonetheless, most of the confidential information related to Harvard's admissions will not be contained in these filings. If the case goes forward, much of that information could become public at a later trial.
That trial is now likely going to take place this next fall after hearing participants discussed moving up the tentative date at the hearing Tuesday. Instead of a previously proposed date in early January, the judge, Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions spoke about holding a trial in mid-October.
Judge Burroughs determined that Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions must work together over the coming months to agree on redactions for the public set of documents prior to filing. She instructed both groups they should not redact the files to the point of being “incomprehensible.”
Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group, first filed the lawsuit against Harvard in 2014; the suit alleges Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process. Harvard has repeatedly denied this accusation.
In Oct. 2016, Harvard provided Students for Fair Admissions with data for hundreds of thousands of students who applied to the College between fall 2009 and spring 2015. This information, evaluated in the discovery phase of the ongoing lawsuit, omitted the names and social security numbers of applicants.
Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions previously battled over whether this College admissions data should become public in clashing briefs filed last week.
In its brief, Students for Fair Admissions argued that “Harvard already has redacted all personally identifiable information of applicants, alumni, and donors.” Harvard, however, asserted in its filings that even the redacted admissions data could render College affiliates identifiable.
Harvard asked for the documents to “be filed provisionally under seal,” citing concerns regarding student privacy. Students for Fair Admissions requested the documents be filed publicly, arguing the public has a “profoundly important” interest in the documents.
Representatives for both Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions said their respective institutions are content with the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday that the College is satisfied with Judge Burroughs’s ruling.
“Harvard College is pleased the court today affirmed our responsibility to protect the confidential and highly sensitive personal information of our applicants from unwarranted public disclosure," Dane wrote. "The process the court set forth will allow for the careful consideration of confidentiality before any private information is made publicly available.”
Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, said his organization is optimistic for the future.
“We are encouraged that the American public will soon have access to the full record in this lawsuit and look forward to the scheduled October trial,” Blum said.
Andrew D. Bradt ’02, an assistant law professor at University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email Tuesday that he thinks Judge Burroughs sought a “middle ground” between Harvard’s desire to keep the admissions data entirely under seal and Students for Fair Admissions’ request to make it public.
“Judge Burroughs's ruling does not surprise me,” Bradt wrote. “This seems like a wholly appropriate middle ground solution for this phase of the litigation.”
William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, numbered among several lawyers representing Harvard at the hearing—acting only as an attorney, not on behalf of the Corporation.
The Department of Justice has taken a strong interest in the lawsuit and in the confidential status of Harvard’s admissions data, filing a brief Friday as part of the lawsuit that argued Harvard should make the data public. Lee sent a letter to Judge Burroughs Monday calling the Department of Justice’s intervention “perplexing” and “entirely unnecessary.”
“The United States agrees that applicants to Harvard, their families, and the general public have a presumptively paramount right to access the summary judgment record in this civil rights case,” the Justice Department filing reads.
Justice Department spokesperson Devin M. O’Malley declined to comment on Judge Burroughs’s decision Tuesday.
The hearing comes a few months before a June 15 deadline—set by Judge Burroughs Tuesday—for the parties to file motions on whether the lawsuit can be resolved without a trial.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:
CLARIFICATION: April 10, 2018
This article and its accompanying headline have been updated to reflect and clarify the fact that the vast majority of Harvard admissions data will remain confidential until a trial likely to take place in mid-October. That data would only become public if the case goes forward after that trial.
—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