Barbara Walters, Bashar al-Assad, and One Columbia Graduate Student
by Daniel Luzer
Last week I wrote about the strange case of Barbara Walters’s attempt to influence graduate school admissions decisions.
Apparently Walters tried to arrange for an aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be admitted to the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. This happened after the aide, Sheherazad Jaafari, got Walters an interview with Assad last year.
But Jaafari wasn’t admitted, so the Daily Mail reported. I (somewhat understandably) concluded that therefore the system seemed to be functioning effectively. “If someone as prominent as Barbara Walters tries to use her influence to get someone admitted to an academic program, and she still doesn’t get in,” I wrote, “the system seems basically to work.”
Well not really. That actually wasn’t true. She’s received an acceptance letter and will be attending this fall.
My predecessor as Washington Monthly web editor, Jesse Singal, writes in the Daily Beast that some people are pretty annoyed that Jaafari has been admitted:
Last week, only one month after having graduated with her own master’s degree, the Syrian-born [Haya] Dweidary read with disbelief the report in The New York Times that Jaafari, aided by some helpful emails from Barbara Walters (who, through Jaafari, was able to score an exclusive interview with Assad last year), had in fact been admitted to SIPA.
“I’m very angry,” Dweidary said. “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.”
Technically none of us know anything at all about Jaafari’s talents. We know that she worked for Assad. There’s really no reason to think she’s not qualified, however one defines qualification for a policy school.
She’s apparently “brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages,” wrote Walters, perhaps in thanks to Jaafari for helping her get the Assad interview, so far the only only televised interview for an American network the Syrian president has granted.
It’s all a little unseemly, these suggestions of agreements and questionable loyalty, gratitude for services rendered. But then, frankly, being the press aid to a foreign dictator seems to me like pretty damn good preparation for a public policy program focused on international affairs, far better than most SIPA students, who come to school armed only with a few years in consulting or nonprofit work.