Princeton sues to protect admissions documents sought in FOIA request to DOE

Princeton University has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education to prevent the release of hundreds of pages of admissions documents being sought under a FOIA request.

The FOIA request was filed on Oct. 27, 2015, by nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions (“SFA”), an organization that believes that race should play no role – helpful or harmful – in a university’s admissions decisions. The group is seeking documents pertaining to the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights investigation into complaints that the university discriminated against Asian and Asian-American applicants.

The investigation, which was part of a seven-year investigation of Ivy League admissions processes by the OCR, closed in 2015 after finding there was insufficient evidence of discrimination. In a 20-page letter to the university President Christopher L. Eisgruber, OCR wrote that they found that “the University weighed multiple factors in assessing applicants” and that it “treated each applicant as an individual, without making an applicant’s race or national origin a defining characteristic,”

The DOE has so far provided SFA with 868 pages of documents under its FOIA request, and anticipated releasing the remaining 861 that same week before Princeton filed its ‘reverse FOIA’ lawsuit on March 17.

The documents include demographic data and other internal policies and practices concerning Princeton’s admissions process. According to Princeton’s complaint, the documents also include “certain individuals’ application packets for admission.” The university argues that the “disclosure of the materials would put the University at a substantial competitive disadvantage to identify, evaluate, and enroll prospective students, as well as potentially discourage applicants from applying to the University in the future if they have concerns about the confidentiality of the materials they submit.”

The DOE had already rejected Princeton’s objections to the release of the documents. On March 1 they asserted in a letter to Princeton that a FOIA exemption designed to protect confidential commercial and financial information “does not apply to any of the materials that the university has produced to OCR.” In the letter they also assured Princeton that they would redact any information that may identify particular candidates.

In an interview with POLITICO, Edward Blum, the director of SFA, said that Princeton’s lawsuit to block the records “suggests that it has something important that they want to hide from the public.”

According to the POLITICO article, Blum, who was one of the advocates backing Abigail Fisher in her high-profile suit over Texas’ admissions policies that made it to the Supreme Court, said that his organization thinks these documents could be the starting point for a new lawsuit.

SFA has ongoing lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accusing them of racial discrimination against undergraduate applicants. In November 2014, SFA filed a complaint against Harvard alleging that the university uses racial “quotas” to disadvantage Asian-American undergraduate applicants. They filed their complaint against UNC that same month, alleging that white and Asian-American applicants were disadvantaged in favor of students of other races.

In a statement to SPLC, Daniel Day, a spokesperson for Princeton University, wrote, “The University filed the lawsuit to honor the promise of confidentiality we make to all applicants and their families. This is important prospectively as well as retrospectively, so future applicants will be willing to provide materials to us knowing the confidentiality of their materials will be respected, and so previous applicants will have their personal information and materials protected.”