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.

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

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.

As the Taliban’s main voice to the Western world, Mr. Hashemi defended the Taliban’s treatment of women and its destruction of the ancient stone Buddha statues in the Afghan city of Bamiyan. But after the war began, Hashemi became disillusioned with the Taliban and sought to start his life over in the US. His acceptance to Yale caused some controversy among current students and alumni. But the university defended its choice, saying in a statement recorded by the Yale Alumni magazine:

“We hope that his courses help him understand the broader context for the conflicts around the world. We acknowledge that some are criticizing Yale for allowing Mr. Hashemi to take courses here, but we hope that critics will also acknowledge that universities are places that must strive to increase understanding, especially of the most difficult issues that face the nation and the world.”

Those who object to the admission of students like Jaafari or Hashemi aren’t generally thinking of the transformative effects of an American college education on young minds, of course. For critics, a prestigious US college degree is something too important to be wasted on someone whose demonstrated views are counter to those of a progressive institution.

The power of an American education

But don’t underestimate the power of an American education. In the early 1970s, Huang Hung was selected by Chinese Premier Mao Zedong to attend college in the US, in the hopes of preparing her to be a world-savvy future Chinese diplomat who would be a bulwark against the West, and a paragon of Communist virtue. 

This is not how things turned out in Ms. Hung's five-year plan, wrote the Monitor.

Instead, Hung fell in love with US culture and returned as a committed capitalist entrepreneur. She now heads up a chain of magazines, including “Seventeen” and “TimeOut Beijing.”

On the other hand...

Not every US college graduate has such a happy story, however. The US military’s School of the Americas has produced a number of dictators and human rights violators, including the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (now serving a 20-year sentence for murder in Panama).

Ted Kaczynski, a promising 1962 Harvard graduate – better known as the Unabomber – is serving a life sentence for sending a series of deadly letter bombs in support of his anarchistic and pro-nature beliefs. Recently, Mr. Kaczynski updated his profile in the 1962 alumni report.

His occupation: “Prisoner.”

Recent awards: “Eight life sentences, issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, 1998.”

When Kaczynski originally applied to Harvard, nobody objected. 

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