Harvard University has agreed to turn over years of confidential applicant and student records to the United States Justice Department, which has opened an aggressive investigation into whether the university has systematically discriminated against Asian-American applicants, officials said Friday.
It was the first time that Harvard had agreed to provide access to records under terms that the Justice Department seemed receptive to. But it added a condition that allowed government lawyers to look at the records only in the offices of Harvard’s lawyers, according to people close to the case.
That condition could make it difficult to do the kind of statistical analysis that the government has said it wants to do. But Harvard has justified it by saying that it wants to protect confidential documents from possibly being leaked to the public.
The Justice Department sought records for thousands of high school students — 160,000 by one estimate — and when Harvard resisted, citing confidentiality, threatened to sue the university if it did not turn over the records by Friday.
Responding to that deadline, Harvard offered a compromise position in which the government’s lawyers would be able to examine all the records, including an electronic database, in the offices of Harvard’s lawyers, with some personal information redacted.
“Harvard has offered the Department of Justice access to the requested documents in a manner that seeks to prevent public disclosure of confidential and highly sensitive student and applicant information entrusted to our protection,” Melodie Jackson, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said in a statement.
It was unclear on Friday whether the Justice Department would agree to the offer.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Devin M. O’Malley, struck a conciliatory note, saying: “The Department of Justice takes seriously any potential violation of an individual’s civil and constitutional rights. We are pleased that Harvard today indicated it too takes this matter seriously and has presented a potential path forward. The Department is reviewing the university’s response and declines comment at this time.”
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The Justice Department investigation is based on a complaint by a coalition of Asian-American organizations who say that Harvard has in effect penalized high-achieving Asian-American applicants by passing them over for admission in favor of less-qualified black, white and Hispanic applicants. Harvard has said that it does not discriminate on the basis of race, and that in the quest to put together a diverse student body, it looks at many intangible factors, and many applicants who would qualify based on grades and test scores alone are denied.
The complaint closely tracks a federal lawsuit against Harvard by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit organization formed to challenge race-conscious admissions policies.
In August, the Justice Department set up a special project in its Civil Rights Division — run out of its front office, where political appointees work, rather than its education section — to scrutinize race-conscious college admissions practices. After initially refusing to talk about it, the department said it was looking at a complaint filed on behalf of Asian applicants, describing it in a way that clearly matched the Harvard dispute.
The government investigation into Harvard was later confirmed by a Nov. 17 letter from the Justice Department to Seth Waxman, who is representing Harvard, complaining that the university had refused to turn over a single document it had requested, and threatening to sue unless the documents were provided.
The documents would include personal information about test scores and grades along with interviews and personal essays gathered during the admissions process.