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Open the Files

The University admitted last week that it maintains two sets of undergraduate files--one of which is locked away in the Admissions Office--in order to prevent students from seeing some of their records. This practice, which violates the spirit and perhaps the letter of the federal law, should be stopped immediately.

Congress mandated student access to files in 1974 with the passage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment. The purpose of the law was twofold. First, to ensure that students would not be handicapped later in life by inaccurate records, the bill allowed students (and the parents of schoolchildren) to expunge erroneous material and to control third-party access to files. Second, to give students some understanding of the basis on which school authorities came to vital decisions about them, the law granted students access to their educational records.

Harvard's policy of destroying letters of recommendation sent to the Admissions Office, after such letters have remained in the files for three years, is commendably in keeping with the first goal of the Buckley Amendment. But the practice of preventing students from seeing those letters is less commendable. Harvard routinely removes letters of recommendation, along with guidance counselors' reports, from students' accessible files. The University has no procedures for informing students how much has been removed, where it has been stored, or indeed that anything at all has been taken from students' files. Although the law allows such a practice for letters written before the act was passed, the separation of more recent letters certainly runs counter to the second purpose of the federal records law. But the question is moral as well as legal. Dozens of admissions officers may have viewed the secret documents; surely the subject has a right to see them too.

Harvard's dishonest waiver policy compounds the offense. The Admissions Office routinely sends applicants a form permitting them to cede the right to view their admissions file once they reach Harvard. Despite the implicit pressure on them, only half the applicants waive their rights. Yet all students are then denied access to their admission files.

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Harvard should discontinue its misleading waiver policy. More important, the University should finally do what it should have done over a year ago--allow students access to all their files.

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