Why Sheherazad Jaafari Is Not Right for SIPA

The admission of a Syrian tied to Bashar Assad's regime raises serious questions about SIPA's admissions process.



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.


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5 Responses to “Why Sheherazad Jaafari Is Not Right for SIPA” Subscribe

  1. Angela June 19, 2012 at 1:24 AM #

    It is somewhat unfair to list Chinese students here in comparison to Jaafari. Whether Jaafari is aware of the brutal crackdown or not, she believes in her government and “loves” the dictator so so much, how about those Chinese students? To my knowledge, many Chinese young people apply to become Party members for a variety of practical reasons, like to get a job easier and to make their Party-member parents happy, etc. not because they have faith in the government. There are always exceptions, of course, but if you raise China as an example, it would be much better if you have talked to some and get an idea why they become Party members.

  2. Tammy Swofford July 20, 2012 at 1:11 PM #

    I commented on your opinion piece over at the Huffington Post. But Iwished to send along my thanks here for an excellent article. Having viewed multiple videos ranging from men in suits being gunned down by snipers, children stabbed and blundgeoned to death, and corpses of tortured children returned to their parents to send a message, I have a hard time believing that Ms. Jaafari was unaware of the brutal tactics of Bashar al-Assad.

    Perhaps there is need for a reconsideration of the honor bestowed on Ms. Jaafari. Should she be groomed for leadership? It is a question of not ethics, but what defines our humanity.

    Tammy Swofford

  3. Dennis August 20, 2012 at 2:18 PM #

    I know I’m coming to this late, but over the weekend a friend recommended I read this. It’s one of those things I wish I hadn’t done. The author, a seemingly regular gadfly contributor on the site, especially enjoys searching for the popular side of any question and has abused many interests along the way.

    Yet this present piece supersedes his past by presenting a hackneyed argument in which the author seems to do more to argue against himself than with.

    The author describes the relationship between Jaafari and Asad as “just more than incidental” in his best Perry Mason-esque zinger. It is a characterization that provokes more questions than answers and is, therefore, thoroughly incomplete. He characterizes Jaafari, perhaps correctly, to be an opportunistic vapid sycophant within a regime that kills its own people, which may explain, at least partly, her actions. It is not my intent to be an apologist for Jaafari, but rather raise a point the author overlooks and that is so obvious it almost bears going unstated: bloody civil wars cause people on both sides to do deplorable things, in whole or in part, out of fear. The author does not call her a war-criminal, yet falls woefully short in levying any clear indictment against her. His disciplined restraint on this point is commendable, yet it begs the question: if she isn’t guilty of killing people, then what exactly is she guilty of that should preclude admission to SIPA? Omission of action against the regime is not admission of support; nor is working with regime if your life or your family’s life is included in the demented calculus of a brutal regime. We should be sensitive to this.

    It isn’t until the 9th paragraph that the author finally gets to his point – which, manically and frustratingly switches from being about Jaafari to being about the admission process at SIPA. At best, he claims, again perhaps correctly, that Jaafari is naïve, or at worst exhibits “questionable judgment” – the latter phrase (again offering more questions than answers) is almost charmingly redeemable as it evokes the image of the author as a “Leave-it-Beaver-esque” scolding father. How aware should she be about what is happening in her country? Should all SIPA applicants be aware about what is happening in Syria? Or further, should all SIPA applicants be aware about what is happening in their own country? How would SIPA test this knowledge? What level is sufficient to satisfy these criteria? The author ignores theses questions and opens himself up to an avalanche of hypocrisy (how much did he know about Syria before joining SIPA?).

    I think we should dispense with the perfunctory arguments in the piece and only Jaafari to be admitted if her application meets the criteria set by SIPA and admittance does not violate U.S. nor international sanctions of any sort. All the better that she is a crony of a brutal regime. In fact, keep the long-held tradition of educating the friends and family of dictators in Western schools strong – a form of soft power that should be not understated. The reported upbringing and education of Kim Jong-un in Switzerland (of all places) may play an as-of-yet determined factor in changing the brutal North Korean regime. Where else should a naïve person go to find political moral grounding that a foreign policy graduate program at a leading Western university?

    The suburban-father-like author of the piece may one day know what it is to have a son or daughter come home from the first semester of college claiming to be a Marxist – Jaafari may have similar moral, philosophical, and political awakening that could spark a passion to combat the Asad-regime in her own way. This is an outcome that will benefit the Syrian people; and, an outcome more likely to be attained while at SIPA than in war-torn Syria.

  4. Nicholas E. September 2, 2012 at 9:09 PM #

    As a new SIPA student, I am truly disappointed in the SIPA community’s negative reaction to Sheherazad Jaafari’s admittance to Columbia.

    It appears that even at what is supposed to be one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world, the values that are core to an academic institution – diversity, exchange of ideas, free speech, tolerance – have been completely rejected in this case.

    I assume that the author of this article would prefer that SIPA was filled with only like-minded individuals with the same thoughts, views, and attitudes on all issues across the board?

    How far do we take this litmus test? Should SIPA reject Chinese and Russian government ministers, Republicans, neo-conservatives?

    Had it crossed the mind of this author that admitting Jaafari may actually be doing her, the people of Syria and the world a favor? Being immersed in a program like SIPA will undoubtedly expose her to new arguments, points of views, and Western thoughts on human rights. Maybe she will learn something and become a force of reform.

    Sure, SIPA doesn’t have to accept any government officials from Syria, Russia, China or North Korea. But maybe the world would become a better place if it did.


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