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Harvard Pushed by U.S. to Share Admissions Data in Bias Suit

Updated on
  • College says data is ‘confidential,’ should remain under seal
  • Justice Department has also launched parallel probe of Harvard
Harvard banners hang outside Memorial Church on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

The U.S. Justice Department is joining a legal attack on Harvard University’s admissions policies, saying the government and the public have a right to see the admissions data of hundreds of thousands of applicants to the nation’s oldest university.

The government’s request to unseal documents comes in a Boston federal court lawsuit filed by more than a dozen Asian-American students who applied to Harvard and were rejected. They sued the university in 2014, claiming it systematically discriminates against people of Asian backgrounds while giving preference to other racial and ethnic groups.

Harvard has turned over six years of admissions data on hundreds of thousands of high school students to the plaintiffs, whose lawyers are urging U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs to make the information public while she considers their request for a ruling to resolve the case in their favor without a trial.

The university is resisting, saying that the release of the data would be tantamount to publishing confidential trade secrets on how it evaluates applications. A hearing is set for Tuesday.

“The vast majority of the information produced by Harvard contains deeply personal and highly sensitive information about applicants to and students at Harvard and the inner workings of Harvard’s admissions process,” Harvard said in a court filing.

The Justice Department on Friday urged the court to make Harvard’s documents public, saying the government has a “substantial interest” in the case because its interests overlap with an ongoing U.S. probe based on similar complaints by more than 60 organizations who claim Harvard College discriminated against Asian-American applicants based on race.

"This case thus overlaps with the legal and factual bases undergirding the United States’ investigation and could directly bear on that investigation," Matthew Donnelly, a Justice Department lawyer wrote, arguing that millions of dollars in public funds go to the University each year. "Harvard’s proposal contravenes the law and imperils the interest of the public."

Harvard denies discriminating against applicants from any group in admissions and is committed to safeguarding the privacy of students, a university spokeswoman said in a statement.

The leader of the plaintiffs’ group, Students for Fair Admissions Inc., is Edward Blum, who’s been involved in other litigation challenging voting rights laws and affirmative action policies.

A consortium of journalistic organizations also weighed in on Friday, saying the documents should be disclosed because the public has a right to know about the judicial process.

The case is Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 14-cv-14176, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

(Updates with background on dispute in third paragraph.)
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