As debate continues over whether or not Sheherezade “Sherry” Jaafari, former press aide to Bashar al-Assad, should have been granted admission to SIPA, some of our own weigh in.
David Fine, CC ’13, interviewed Columbia professors, students, and alumni in a piece published on Tablet. Interviewees include Elazar Barkan, the director of Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Richard Bulliet, a history professor and director emeritus of SIPA’s Middle East Institute, and Jay Lefkowitz, Columbia alum and former United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. There is little agreement amongst parties. A spokesperson for the Syrian Expatriates Organization, as well as SIPA’s sole Syrian member of the class of 2012 contribute to the discussion. While the piece draws no definite conclusion, Fine digests a diverse group of opinions and draws parallels between Jafaari and Rahmatullah Hashemi— a former Taliban spokesperson who attended Yale as a non-degree student.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Illustration via Tablet