A group that is suing Harvard University is demanding that it publicly release admissions data on hundreds of thousands of applicants, saying the records show a pattern of discrimination against Asian-Americans going back decades.
The group was able to view the documents through its lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 and challenges Harvard’s admissions policies. The plaintiffs said in a letter to the court last week that the documents were so compelling that there was no need for a trial, and that they would ask the judge to rule summarily in their favor based on the documents alone.
The plaintiffs also say that the public — which provides more than half a billion dollars a year in federal funding to Harvard — has a right to see the evidence that the judge will consider in her decision.
Harvard counters that the documents are tantamount to trade secrets, and that even in the unlikely event that the judge agrees to decide the case without a trial, she is likely to use only a fraction of the evidence in her decision. Only that portion, the university says, should be released.
“This is an important and closely watched civil rights case,” William S. Consovoy, the lawyer for the group, Students for Fair Admissions, said in his letter to the court. “The public has a right to know exactly what is going on at Harvard.”
At stake in the dispute is the secrecy of the university admissions process, especially at elite institutions like Harvard that are competing for a small pool of highly qualified students, and whether and how race and ethnicity play a role.
Students for Fair Admissions includes more than a dozen Asian-American students who applied to Harvard and were rejected. They contend in their lawsuit that Harvard systematically and unconstitutionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants by penalizing their high achievement as a group, while giving preferences to other racial and ethnic minorities. They say that Harvard’s admission process amounts to an illegal quota system.
A spokeswoman for Harvard, Rachael Dane, while declining to comment on the specifics of the litigation, said: “Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group in its admissions processes. We will continue to vigorously defend the right of Harvard, and other universities, to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions.”
Harvard gave the court the documents in question, which include six years of admissions data on hundreds of thousands of high school students, as part of the pretrial discovery process. About 40,000 students apply to Harvard each year.
The contents of the documents have been only roughly sketched out in court papers. But Harvard said that the parties have exchanged more than 90,000 pages, including “deeply personal and highly sensitive information about applicants to and students at Harvard and the inner workings of Harvard’s admissions process.”
“Harvard understands that there is a public interest in this case and that the public has certain — though not unfettered — interests in access to judicial materials,” the university said. “Those interests, however, must be balanced against the need to protect individual privacy and confidential and proprietary information about the admissions process.”