The evening of Jan. 15 started like any other for Stanford’s 7,000 undergraduates. That quickly changed when a mass email sent shockwaves through the student community, disrupting late-night studying and socializing — and starting an ongoing headache for Stanford’s administration.
The Fountain Hopper (FoHo), a student-run email newsletter, messaged its subscribers, claiming it could tell students how to gain access to their confidential admissions records. The email promised “step-by-step, foolproof instructions on how to view documents you have the right to view by federal law.”
“FoHo is sharing a tried and tested legal loophole that guarantees you access to your confidential, internal Stanford admissions file,” the message said.
The email referred to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law from the 1970s, and claimed that the act contained provisions guaranteeing a student access to all University files on him or her.
At first, the promises were met with an array of emotions from shock to suspicion.
“It was clear that they were looking for dirty laundry,” said one Stanford sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous.
“FoHo seemed more like a satirical, humorous journal so I wasn’t sure if the information that they gave out was a hoax,” said Michelle Chin ‘17.
Regardless, the email captured attention on and off campus alike. The New York Times and other media outlets had picked up the story by the next evening, and in the following weeks, Stanford received nearly 2,800 requests for records, according to University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin.
As it turned out, the FoHo email referred to a very real provision in FERPA. Along with protecting student privacy in various situations, the law guarantees students the right to inspect all University files on them, including admissions documents, within 45 days of a request.
On Feb. 23, as the 45-day window was running out, Stanford began responding to the requests. Tom Black, Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar, wrote an email to students and recent alumni who had submitted FERPA requests, asking them to reconsider their decision.
“You may also wish to consider that during Convocation, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw often welcomes new students with words to the effect that ‘we don’t make mistakes,’” the email read. ”So please ask yourself: What benefit do I seek from reviewing these additional admissions records? Will my life be better for having reviewed them?”
Students who still wished to view any evaluative materials beyond a photocopy of their application would have to schedule a 20-minute, in-person appointment. At that time, students could view their files and take notes on paper but could not take any photos of the records.
Black also included a Time magazine column by humorist Joel Stein B.A. ‘93 M. A. ‘94, who had requested his own admissions file during his time on the Farm. In the column, Stein comically explained why students should not want to view their admissions file.
Stein was surprised that the registrar had chosen to send out his article.
“That’s an act of desperation,” he said, laughing. “It’s a pretty weak argument to send out a humor column.”
While Stein acknowledged that the experience initially hurt, he added that viewing his files had proven valuable.
“It’s always interesting and useful to get feedback you’re not supposed to get,” he said.
Last week, the first groups of students viewed their admissions files. A staff member accompanied students for the duration of their 20-minute appointments to ensure that no photos of the records were taken.
The files contain quantitative scorecards, along with two to three verbal written evaluations of the application. Students are graded on measures such as intellectual vitality, non-academic engagements and their high school grades and test scores. The files also contain check boxes that indicate whether the applicant qualifies as “diverse,” a legacy or a “VIP.”
However, for most students, the written comments by the admissions office reader draw the most attention. In these evaluations, the application readers make their case for why the student should, or should not be, accepted.
“It felt like you reached some threshold with the numbers, and after that they mostly talk about your essays and extracurriculars,” said Will St. Amant ‘15. ”They were able to glean a lot from my application.”
Amant added that the process “felt surprisingly arbitrary,” but acknowledged that “they were really looking for someone who would be able to take advantage of the resources here.”
Justin Lai ‘18 had similar thoughts after reading his file.
“It just made me feel lucky to be here because you realize how precarious and subjective the whole process is,” Lai said.
Some students are also struggling to come to terms with the contents of their files. Lai noted that several of his peers were unhappy to read their evaluations.
“For some of them, it confirmed their own insecurities about being here,” Lai said. “They had self-doubts about their own skills or abilities…and their files got them in a slump. You have these suspicions, but you don’t want to see it on paper.”
According to some students who wished to remain anonymous, deciding whether to view the admissions files proved difficult.
“Of my friends, I was surprised to find that not everyone did it,” one student said. “The people who are legacies or athletes or who feel that there was a reason that they got in…they’re scared to look at it because they think that it would be more of a factor than it is.”
“There are a thousand legacies and a thousand athletes who get rejected,” he added, “so I almost think that it would be more helpful for those people who have that underlying suspicion.”
Another student expressed reluctance to view his own file.
“I didn’t really expect to find anything that serious, but based on that column that the registrar sent me, it seemed like it is far weightier and far more scathing than I anticipated,” the student said.
Lapin emphasized the possibility that students may not be happy with what they read.
“Because the admissions process is a rigorous and critical one, we wanted students to think very carefully what they are asking for,” Lapin said. “We have heard of people seeing these records…and they have regrets about that after the fact.”
The month and a half since FoHo’s original email has proven interesting, and at times difficult, for students and the University alike. Discussing the University’s response to the episode, Lapin stated that Stanford had sought outside help in managing the requests. The University has established a call center specifically to handle FERPA requests and has also consulted external counsel.
While Lapin stated that those who initially submitted a request “will have all of the access they are legally entitled to,” Stanford is no longer maintaining the admissions files of other students, and all electronic files that have not been requested have been deleted.
Ultimately, many students contended that the whole episode was overblown.
“[The incident] turned out to be marketed as a much bigger deal than it actually is,” Lai said.
Lapin expressed similar sentiments. While FoHo has sent subsequent emails, asking students for “interesting” comments from their records, the University isn’t overly concerned about the fallout from these files.
“How meaningful are a specific set of notes about one student in the absence of the aggregation of the entire applicant pool?” Lapin said. “I think the insight somebody is going to glean about the admissions process is actually likely fairly limited.”