From the Ivory Tower to the Glass House: Access to “De-Identified": Public University Admission Records to Study Affirmative Action

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Admissions processes at public universities are too often and too extensively shielded from public view, a policy that minimizes these schools’ accountability to the public and obstructs legitimate inquiry into government policies in politically volatile areas such as affirmative action. Although officials of “ivory tower” public institutions often invoke privacy laws to justify this shield against disclosure, such laws are mistakenly applied in this context. The specter of individual student privacy should not, and need not, prevent the sunshine of public scrutiny from filtering through the glass house of the public university admissions office. Educational institutions are entirely capable of protecting the privacy of individual students as mandated by federal law, while also complying with state freedom of information laws designed to ensure the accountability of public authorities, -- by redacting personally identifying information from public educational records and disclosing only anonymous, or “de-identified”, student data. With affirmative action an especially hot-button political issue – ballot initiatives were proposed in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma for the November 2008 election – voters should be permitted to access redacted public education records that will help them make informed decisions on these and other important political issues. This article explains how state and federal laws, including a newly proposed rule of the U.S. Department of Education, already harmonize needs for both privacy and access in permitting or requiring the disclosure of “de-identified” student data.


Originally published in 2009 by The Harvard Blackletter Law Journal (now known as The Harvard Journal on Racial and Ethnic Justice).

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