September marks five years since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hosted by Columbia University, which went out of its way to offer the notorious leader a prestigious American platform. This September, as students return to the Morningside Heights campus, among them will be a 22-year-old woman linked closely to the atrocities of another infamous world leader: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now professors, students, donors, and activists are debating again whether academic freedom has limits—and where the latest case of Sheherazad Jaafari falls.
Emails leaked last month revealed that Barbara Walters had helped Jaafari, Assad's former aide and daughter of Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, gain admittance into Columbia's graduate School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), a kind of finishing school for future diplomats. But the controversy at Columbia isn't about what strings Jaafari pulled. It's about the fact that she worked closely with the Syrian president for over a year to help him reach out to and spin foreign press as his regime murdered over 15,000 of its own people and tortured countless others.
News of Jaafari's admittance shocked various Syrian expatriates, many of whom have been working to raise awareness of Assad's atrocities in the United States. A petition calling for "Columbia University to adhere to general ethical principles and rescind admission to Jaafari," has been signed by over 1,800 people. The Syrian Expatriates Organization, a group made up mostly of academics and engineers, released a statement demanding that Columbia revoke Jaafari's admittance right after news of her acceptance broke. "We feel like accepting an adviser to Assad into a prestigious American university is like accepting a kind of partner to a killer," Sawsan Jabri, a spokesperson for the expatriate organization, told me. (Columbia hasn't responded to the organization, according to Jabri.)
SIPA's lone Syrian member of the class of 2012, Haya Dwiedary, who declined comment to Tablet, told the Daily Beast that she was "disappointed" that the school admitted Assad's aide. "I've been familiar with the kind of work she does for the government and the fact that she's a supporter of the regime to this moment. And this is a regime that has killed more than 15,000 civilians."
But Columbia professors are less quick to judge. While stressing that he isn't privy to the specifics of this "difficult question," Elazar Barkan, the director of Columbia's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, said he finds the situation troubling. "There are many different people that are admitted to SIPA, and politics is not a component of the process, but having said that, clearly the level of atrocities in Syria this year goes beyond the politics," Barkan told me. He also said he finds it unlikely that Jaafari would have been admitted if the SIPA admissions office knew of her extensive work within the regime.
Jaafari seems to have participated directly in Assad's attempt to cover up his regime's atrocities. Emails obtained by a Syrian opposition group reveal that Jaafari coached Assad for a widely broadcasted interview with Barbara Walters: "It is hugely important and worth mentioning that 'mistakes' have been done in the beginning of the crises because we did not have a well-organised 'police force.' American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are 'mistakes' done and now we are 'fixing it.' " That email was sent in November of 2011. Jaafari continued to work for Assad until at least January of this year.
Other professors I spoke to said they would have admitted the young woman even with knowledge of her role in the regime. They made the case that SIPA could be a positive influence on the 22-year-old Jaafari, allowing her to receive Western-style civic education and hopefully take those lessons back to Syria. "I can't see any moral issue at all," said Richard Bulliet, a history professor and director emeritus of SIPA's Middle East Institute. Bulliet, the professor who played a large role in bringing Ahmadinejad to campus, drew a bright line between key actors and young aides like Jaafari: "There's a huge difference between a principal and a functionary. If a functionary objects to a policy he can't really change it."
For now, SIPA is standing by its decision to admit Jaafari. A spokesperson declined to discuss Jaafari's case but gave SIPA's official statement, which defends its decision: "There is nothing about an individual student's application or admittance that will alter this central academic focus and core civic values of the school."
That was the tack initially taken by Yale University when it was revealed that Taliban spokesman Rahmatullah Hashemi was attending Yale as a non-degree student in February 2006. Like SIPA, Yale defended the decision, stating: "We hope that his courses help him understand the broader context for the conflicts around the world." But when Hashemi applied as a full-time student in a degree-granting program later that year he was denied.
So far, unlike at Yale, no great outcry has emerged from SIPA's powerful alumni community, which supports the school with annual donations. Columbia alum Jay Lefkowitz, former United States' special envoy for human rights in North Korea and a prominent supporter of the university, thinks that Jaafari's admittance is not the most major issue facing SIPA. "Given that liberal universities should be devoted to educating students," the former Bush Administration official said, "I would be concerned about imposing litmus tests based on ideology in the admissions process."
For Lefkowitz, the real issue facing schools like SIPA is not the students it admits, but rather the teachers it hires to educate them. "It's more problematic 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 educating."
David Fine is a junior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.