Tell me if you’ve heard this story before: a young, well-connected aide to a foreign dictator leverages a personal relationship with a celebrity to gain admission to a world-class graduate school program in the United States, one which prides itself on being a destination for future world leaders. Under ordinary circumstances, the decision by the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University to admit Sheherazad Jaafari, a 22-year old press aide and confidante to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, would not have raised any eyebrows.
But the circumstances surrounding Jaafari’s admission to SIPA are far from ordinary. For one thing, the 22-year old Syrian isn’t just connected to any regime. Under Assad’s despotic rule, Syria has waged a brutal campaign to suppress a popular uprising that began in January 2011. The crackdown has claimed the lives of an estimated 15,000 civilians and has attracted international condemnation and calls for the president’s removal. Although the international community has taken steps to resolve the crisis, the violence has continued unabated and no end appears in sight.
While penalizing Jaafari for the behavior of the Syrian government may seem unfair, her ties to the regime are far more than just incidental. Jaafari served Assad as a media advisor, most notably helping arrange the president’s infamous interview with Barbara Walters—the celebrity in question—in December 2011. In her correspondence with Assad, Jaafari adopted a strikingly cozy tone with the dictator, praising him for his looks and referring to him as “the Dude”. The daughter of Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, she was clearly more than just a government attaché.
Since her admission to SIPA became public, Jaafari has attempted to downplay her relationship with Assad, asserting that she was merely an ambitious young woman who seized an opportunity to assist and influence her country’s leader. “Any American would have done the same,” she was quoted as saying.
Indeed, Jaafari is far from the first person to use powerful connections to advance her career; in fact, schools such as SIPA explicitly encourage such behavior. But the public reaction to her admission has been less than sympathetic. The New York Post, in typically colorful fashion, called on Columbia to revoke her admission. Recent SIPA alum Haya Dweidary (MIA, ’12), the only Syrian national in her graduating class, has publicly denounced the school for its decision.* Syrian rights groups have done the same.
Did the admissions committee make a serious error in judgment by accepting her into its exclusive student body? Or is Jaafari being unfairly singled out?
After all, while Assad’s brutal crackdown of anti-government protests has rightfully caused great international outrage, Syria is far from the only regime to attack its own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party has still not apologized for the massacre of thousands of unarmed protesters in 1989, but each year SIPA admits dozens of Chinese nationals—many of whom are Party members—without incident. Should SIPA refuse to admit government officials from countries like Uzbekistan, Belarus, or Sudan?
In many of these countries, the most talented, ambitious people—the kind that SIPA presumably tries to attract—are channeled into government service. If SIPA were to turn away students representing governments with questionable human rights records, where should it draw the line? Were SIPA to reject Jaafari solely because she worked for the Syrian government, the school would confront an uncomfortable series of questions about other applicants. It’s difficult to blame SIPA for considering each candidate based on individual rather than geo-political considerations.
Nevertheless, Jaafari’s case raises serious questions about the school’s admissions process. Her correspondence with Assad—conducted during a period of intense state-sponsored violence—revealed an uncomfortable degree of complicity with the president’s conduct. If Jaafari were truly aware of what was happening in Syria, her acquiescence to it constitutes highly questionable judgment. If Jaafari were unaware, then her naiveté would, almost by definition, put her qualifications for SIPA into question. Either way, the situation does not reflect well on her suitability for the school.
The scandal surrounding Jaafari’s admission need not force SIPA to overhaul its admissions criteria, but should at least lead to a serious re-evaluation of what the school seeks in its student body. SIPA students are required to debate historical and contemporary issues in an environment where their pre-conceived notions are routinely examined, challenged, and rejected. Students from an elite background should be accepted on the basis of their ability to enhance the school’s academic environment. Elitism itself—the sort typified by Jaafari—should not be the end goal.
Jaafari’s was not the first representative of an odious regime to be admitted to a top-ranked grad school program, and she won’t be the last. But in this particular instance, the SIPA admissions committee showed a remarkably poor grasp of public relations and reputation management in offering such a candidate admission.
*Full disclosure: I was also a member of SIPA’s class of 2012 and was acquainted with Dweidary. We spoke briefly about these issues prior to the publication of the article.