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Students’ Requests for Their Admissions Records Prompt Colleges to Purge Documents

Yale University has acknowledged that its law school responded to a wave of student requests for their application evaluations by discarding all such records — an action that has prompted an advocacy group to warn colleges not to destroy potential evidence in admissions lawsuits.

Yale Law School’s destruction of the records, first publicized by one of its own students on Sunday in a column for The New Republic, occurred after several students submitted requests for copies of their application evaluations under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or Ferpa.

In a statement that Yale sent to The Chronicle on Thursday, Asha Rangappa, the law school’s dean of admissions, said it had routinely discarded such information at the end of every admissions cycle until 2001 — when its admissions process became fully electronic — and had decided to revert to the old practice in response to the new records requests.

“Candid evaluations provided by faculty members and others are a critical part of the Law School admissions process, and if faculty reviewers knew that this information could be shared with admitted students, they might be reluctant to participate in the process,” Ms. Rangappa wrote. Thomas Conroy, a university spokesman, declined to provide an exact count of how many records requests the law school had received.

Students for Fair Admissions, an advocacy group that has filed lawsuits challenging the race-conscious admissions policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on Thursday sent Yale and several other Ivy League institutions letters warning that they put themselves at legal risk if they destroy such records.

The destruction of the records, says the letter, “is precisely the wrong course of action at precisely the wrong time.” The letter was signed by Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions and director of the Project on Fair Representation, an advocacy group that has mounted a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the race-conscious undergraduate admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

His letter says: “Not only does the destruction of admissions files raise serious concerns under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which allows students to access and correct inaccuracies in their own records, the destruction of such files risks spoliation of evidence relevant to ongoing litigation.” The letter tells the colleges that their admissions records might be subpoenaed in the Harvard case as evidence of other institutions’ practices, and warns them that their lack of such records would compromise their ability to defend their own admissions policies against a court challenge.

The Yale law students came up with the idea of using Ferpa to obtain their application records as a result of a controversy over similar records requests at Stanford University, where a satirical student newsletter, “The Fountain Hopper,” in January emailed subscribers a step-by-step guide to using the federal law for such purposes.

Stanford’s registrar, Thomas Black, initially responded to the requests by urging students to ask themselves what benefit they might derive from such information. In an email covered by The Stanford Daily, he told students to read a Time magazine column in which the author, a Stanford alumnus named Joel Stein, humorously lamented having learned through such a records request 23 years earlier just what admissions officers had thought of him.

In the end, Stanford chose, like Yale, to revert to the same policy it used when such records existed only in paper form: purging them after the completion of each year’s admissions cycle. It discarded any files that had not already been requested and said it would “no longer be keeping them moving forward,” Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokeswoman, said on Thursday.

Ms. Lapin said about 2,400 of Stanford’s 16,000 current students and about 400 of its graduates had submitted requests for their admissions records. She added, however, that only about 400 people had taken the necessary next step of scheduling appointments to review such documents, which the registrar’s office required them to examine in person. Stanford had reserved the right to redact from the documents any confidential information — especially references to teacher recommendations — before the in-person review by current or former students.

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