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Confidentiality of Some Admissions Files Remains in Dispute in Suit Against Harvard

Emails from Director of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 are among the documents still in dispute in Harvard's admissions lawsuit.
Emails from Director of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 are among the documents still in dispute in Harvard's admissions lawsuit. By Timothy R. O'Meara
By Delano R. Franklin and Samuel W. Zwickel, Crimson Staff Writers

Months after a federal judge asked for a resolution to ongoing disputes over redactions to certain admissions files, the confidentiality of a number of documents remain a central point of contention in a lawsuit pending against the University.

These currently sealed documents include the depositions and emails of several Harvard officials, including Director of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70, according to a June 29 court filing.

The documents under dispute come on top of the hundreds of pages of admissions data and statistical analysis already made public in the lawsuit—revealing previously unknown details of the University’s secretive admissions process.

Students for Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action group suing the University over its treatment of Asian-American applicants to the College, describes the sealed documents as “probative of whether Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans.”

SFFA alleges the documents contain “racially-tinged communications” sent by admissions office employees to alumni interviewers, and several emails from senior administrators it says would be “embarrassing” to admissions officers, according to the group’s filings.

Lawyers for the University, however, argue these documents have little relevance to the case and write that the unsealing of the documents would harm the integrity of Harvard’s admissions process.

“The disclosure of information that reveals—to an unprecedented degree—the inner workings of Harvard’s admissions process may harm Harvard not only by motivating applicants to modify their behavior to take advantage of that information, but also by disadvantaging Harvard in the extremely competitive market to recruit, admit, and enroll the most outstanding students across the world,” Harvard’s lawyers wrote in a June 22 filing.

Other disputed documents include those that describe the “Dean’s Interest List,” which Students for Fair Admissions describes as composed of “applicants who have been brought to Dean Fitzsimmons’ attention.”

Also in dispute are a series of documents related to Harvard’s “one-pagers”—internal documents used to compare and analyze the demographics of incoming classes to those of prior years’ admissions cycle.

The filings additionally reference admissions officer training materials, such as staff interview scoring guidelines and a presentation on how to consider race in admissions.

Harvard argued in its filings that any public interest in the disclosure of such documents must be balanced against the privacy concerns of third parties, including applicants and alumni interviewers whose identities and personal information are contained in a number of the documents.

“Harvard, like every college and university across this country, has an obligation to protect student and applicant privacy,” University spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in a June 22 statement. “Harvard is deeply committed to protecting the extensive personal information applicants entrust to us in the admissions process, and today’s filing underscores this effort.”

This privacy dispute is the latest development in the ongoing lawsuit, which could have broad implications for race-conscious admissions at the University.

Judge Allison D. Burroughs, the U.S. District Court official presiding over the case, ruled in an April 10 hearing that a portion of more than 90,000 “Confidential” or “Highly Confidential” documents, including students’ applications and internal correspondence, would become public as the lawsuit moves forward.

Judge Burroughs will be determining which documents will be made public—and which will remain under seal—in coming months.

A trial for the case is scheduled to begin in Boston on Oct. 15.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @delanofranklin_.

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.

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