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Should Columbia University have admitted Syrian dictator Assad's former press aide?

When Columbia University admitted Sheherazad Jaafari, a former aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, many students objected. But she's not the first controversial student at a US-based university.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 15, 2012

In many circles, it’s a given that every student deserves a decent education.

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But what if the student’s previous job experience includes working for a brutal, oppressive regime?

Sheherazad Jaafari, a former press aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – now engaged in a brutal civil war in his country that has killed thousands – was recently accepted as a master's degree student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). It has spawned outrage by Syrians based in the US, who say that Ms. Jaafari doesn’t belong at a school that promotes freedom and democracy.

“I’m very angry,” Hawa Dweidary, a Syrian-born graduate of Columbia's SIPA, told the Daily Beast. “I’m disappointed, to be honest. 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.”

Jaafari says she doesn’t understand what the controversy is all about. She admits having given President Assad advice on how to handle foreign media during the present crisis, but she told the Daily Telegraph, “Any ambitious American girl would do the same thing I did. You get an interesting offer, you challenge yourself and you go for it.” 

As for the controversy her acceptance at Columbia has elicited, she says, “I'm too young for this. I don't want to be a victim or the scapegoat. I'm a very simple girl and I don't want to pay the price just because my father is the [Syrian] ambassador [to the United Nations]."

Jaafari isn’t the first controversial student to be admitted to an American university, and she won’t be the last. But the debate over her admission to Columbia raises interesting questions about the purpose of a US university education, and the ways in which American universities see their roles in educating people whose influence may be felt for generations. Does an American college education guarantee future adherence to democratic values? Hardly. But an American college education at least gives one the shared coursework and perspectives that provide common ground for future dialogue.

The case of the former Taliban spokesman

Consider the case of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the Taliban’s former spokesman, who went on to become a student at Yale University.


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