A month after news broke that an aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been admitted to the School of International and Public Affairs, SIPA students have continued to protest the controversial decision.
Protesters began demonstrating against Assad’s regime last year, and thousands of Syrians have since been killed in the ensuing clashes between his supporters and his detractors. Assad has faced international condemnation for his violent crackdown on protesters.
Last week, the SIPA Student Association submitted a set of student opinions to SIPA Interim Dean Robert Lieberman. According to SIPA Student Association President Paul Hersh, students were able to submit their comments, with the option of anonymity, over the last few weeks.
SIPASA hopes that administrators will now address their concerns about the aide’s connection to Assad and the ongoing violence in Syria.
The school previously issued a statement assuring students that the aide, 22-year-old Sheherazad Jaafari, was not given special treatment in the admissions process, in response media reports that journalist Barbara Walters tried to help her gain admission.
“The Barbara Walters detail has definitely complicated the situation,” SIPA University Senator Aly Jiwani said in an email. “But regardless of whether Barbara Walters’ efforts ended up helping her application or not, the real issue is that SIPA has accepted someone associated with the Assad regime and students feel strongly about this.”
Hersh said that the Walters connection was “just a very publicized and media-related example” of the admissions process through which all SIPA students must go, instead pointing to the fact of Jaafari’s admission as the real concern for students.
“What is contained and said in Ms. Jaafari's application materials is the important factor here,” he said. “For better or worse, no one outside of the administration knows what they contained.”
SIPA spokesperson Jesse Gale said in an email that “there is nothing about an individual student's application or admittance that alters this central academic focus and core civic values of the school.”
“As an academic community widely known for its longstanding commitment to democratic governance, human rights, and peaceful solutions to conflict around the globe, we at SIPA share deep concerns about the violence engulfing Syria,” Gale said. “We are proud of the many students, faculty, and alumni who have been working in this and so many other areas of conflict to achieve peace and justice.”
There were two Syrian students enrolled at Columbia in the 2010-11 academic year, according to statistics from the International Students and Scholars Office.