A Questionable New Student

Tablet brings news of the unfortunate case of Sheherazad Jaafari, who was
admitted to Columbia‘s School of International
and Public Affairs (SIPA) despite her background as a public relations aide for
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The admission raises important questions of
standards and program policies.

A quick summary:
Jaafari’s admission was an almost classic case of influence-peddling. The
daughter of Syria‘s
UN ambassador and a press aide to Assad, she helped to coordinate Barbara
Walters’ interview with Assad. (She told Assad to stress to Walters that
unspecified mistakes had been made, because the “American psyche can be easily
manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are
‘fixing it.'”) Walters subsequently informed Jaafari that she had forwarded her
resumé to CNN’s Piers Morgan, and offered to help any application by Jaafari to
the Columbia School of Journalism. Walters ended the e-mail with the word “Hugs.”

Walters then
reached out to Columbia
journalism professor Richard Wald, telling him that Jaafari–who was “brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages”–had
helped her Assad interview, and wondering whether there was anything that Wald
could do to further the application. (That Jaafari worked for a brutal dictator
appeared not to concern the newswoman.) Wald wrote back to inform Walters that
Jaafari had applied not to the Journalism School but to SIPA, but that in any
case he would work through “the Admissions Office network” to “get them to give
her special attention,” and that he was “sure they will take her.”

the campus community learned that Jaafari would be attending SIPA, almost 2000
people have signed a petition urging Columbia
to revoke her admission. This would be a bad idea–not because Jaafari deserved
admittance, which she almost certainly did not–but because it could set a
dangerous precedent. Would such a move–rejecting applicants on the grounds of
the student’s political affiliation–mean that members of the university’s
notorious Middle Eastern Studies department would have grounds to protest
admission of Israeli students?

focusing on Jaafari misses the broader point in virtually anything
Columbia-related that involves instructors who teach about contemporary events.
In this respect, the response former Bush administration diplomat Jay Lefkowitz
gave to Tablet makes the most sense.
“More problematic” than students’ backgrounds, he argued, was “
that many universities seem to relish the
idea of promoting faculty members who harbor their own radical
ideologies–especially since they are the ones entrusted with doing the

Given the
radically anti-Israel atmosphere that too often pervades Columbia‘s
, it seems rather unlikely that student Jaafari will experience many
basic challenges to her worldview during her time at SIPA.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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