Jewish World Review March 13, 2006 / 13 Adar 5766
John H. Fund
Yale official calls Taliban critics retarded while the university maintains a stony silence
The president's alma mater is experiencing a similar flood of leaks, as the community there reacts to omertà the university has practiced in refusing meaningful comment on its admission of a former top Taliban official, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi. Beyond a single vague 144-word statement (later expanded to 281 words, including a defense of Yale's not hosting a ROTC program), Yale won't let anyone comment officially, citing student privacy issues and hoping they can keep silent and last out the storm. But unofficially, some Yale administrators are privately trashing critics. One even anonymously sent scathing emails to two critics calling them "retarded" and "disgusting."
That official Andrew Surovov, assistant director of giving at Yale Law School did talk to me. Last Wednesday, Mr. Surovov sent an angry email from a Columbia University account to Clinton Taylor and Debbie Bookstaber, two young Yale grads who are so frustrated at their alma mater's refusal to answer questions about Mr. Rahmatullah that they've launched a protest. Called NailYale, it focuses on the Taliban's barbaric treatment of women, which extended to yanking out the fingernails of those who wore nail polish. In a column, they urged alumni "not give one red cent this year, but instead send Yale a red press-on fingernail."
Mr. Surovov, a Yale alumnus who has worked in its development office for three years and is on the board of the Yale Club of New Haven, wrote Mr. Taylor and Ms. Bookstaber at their private email addresses with the subject heading: "Y [sic] do you hate Yale." Here is his email in its entirety: "What is wrong with you? Are you retarded? This is the most disgraceful alumni article that I have ever read in my life. You failed to mention that you've never contributed to the Yale Alumni Fund in your life. But to suggest that others follow your negative example is disgusting."
Intrigued that someone had looked up his wife's giving record, David Bookstaber, a Yale computer science graduate, used Columbia's publicly accessible IT account database to trace the anonymous email. The trail led straight to Mr. Surovov's Yale office. On Thursday Mr. Taylor phoned Mr. Suvarov, who told him he was angry because the furor over the Taliban official was hurting fund raising and could lower Yale's rankings in the next U.S. News & World Report college survey. He also accused Mr. Taylor and Ms. Bookstaber of "terrorist tactics," which when challenged he amended to "terror tactics."
I called Mr. Surovov Friday morning for a candid 30-minute conversation. Why had he sent his blistering attack anonymously? "I'm not sure," he replied. But he nonetheless stood by a subsequent email he had sent Mr. Taylor using his own name in which he said "I regret nothing" about his previous attack. He did reluctantly concede to me he had made "a poor choice" of one word "retarded." When asked if a day earlier he had verbally accused Mr. Taylor of "terror tactics" he paused for several seconds and said "I don't recall." He did tell me he viewed their protest as "a reactionary stunt."
He also largely defended Yale's refusal to answer questions on the ex-Taliban official by saying, "We can't respond to every political case. We need to show the university isn't here to make political decisions." When I asked him if admitting a key propagandist for the Taliban was a political decision, he claimed he was "only vaguely aware of Taliban practices." (He clearly shares that information deficit with some other Yale officials.) When I suggested that one reason Mr. Taylor might not have given to Yale was that he was a struggling graduate student, and similarly noted that Ms. Bookstaber is only 27, he said that was no excuse. "Everyone can give something," he said, in the smooth patter of a born fund-raiser. "Even $5 is a handsome gift they could have given."
Mr. Surovov made clear that even though he had used Yale equipment to launch his anonymous attack he acted solely in his personal capacity. When I asked how he had known the giving records of the two alumni, he insisted he had gotten them from public records. Despite repeated requests, he did not explain how he had obtained Ms. Bookstaber's private email address and her maiden name.
I called Yale at noon last Friday to ask if any official would talk to me about any aspect of the Rahmatullah case, and if someone would ask Mr. Surovov about his over-the-top emails and then decide if the university had a statement to make about them.
At noon on Saturday, Yale called back to say that once again no official would grant an interview of any kind. Spokesman Tom Conroy said he had spoken with Mr. Suvarov and been assured the emails had been sent in a private capacity. When I asked Mr. Conroy if he had specifically asked about the content of the emails, he said he had not, noting that many people at Yale send personal emails from their computer.
But not like these. I then obtained permission from Mr. Taylor and Ms. Bookstaber to share the Surovov emails with Yale. Mr. Conroy said he didn't believe most donor information was a public record, but said he would have to confirm that for me. Yesterday, 48 hours after I first asked for reaction to the Surovov emails, Mr. Conroy notified me that Yale administrators were not available and the university would be making no comment.
"Yale is practicing a most unusual media strategy," says Merrie Spaeth, a public relations executive whose father and uncle went to Yale. "I'd call it 'Just say nothing.' " Another PR expert characterized Yale's strategy as "Trust that people will lose interest in the questions if there are no answers."
Mr. Taylor feels put upon by Mr. Suvarov's denunciation. "I'm not sure how honest Surovov is being about how much research he did on us," Mr. Taylor told me. "Do I trust he or others aren't leaking to big donors over Welsh rarebits at Mory's [tavern] in a lame effort to discredit us? Hardly." His wife, Solange, also a Yale grad, asks: "Surovov can't judge the Taliban, but he can judge us?"
Both Mr. Taylor and Ms. Bookstaber are politically conservative. They say they love Yale and were deeply involved in campus life. Mr. Taylor, an Oklahoma native, worked in the admissions office for three years, where he was recruitment coordinator for American Indian students. Ms. Bookstaber considers herself a feminist and served as one of the main coordinators of the Yale Women's Center for three semesters.
Some liberal alumni are outraged, too. One is Christina Bost Seaton, a former officer of the Yale College Democrats who says she has "never voted Republican in my life." In a letter to Yale's president, Richard Levin, she argued that "the right wing does not and should not own this issue or the market on common sense." She opposes efforts to stop donations to Yale this year, but wants to send Mr. Levin a wake-up call. "This is not diversity this is a lapse in judgment. Diversity doesn't mean abandoning your sense of right and wrong."
Yale answered Ms. Seaton's complaint with its patented 144-word nonresponse, but privately it is spinning like mad to discredit its critics (including me) and reassure donors they are either wrongheaded or mean-spirited. One bizarre tactic being used to dismiss critics of Yale playing host to a former Taliban official is to assure donors that conservative writer and actor Ben Stein, the valedictorian of his 1970 Yale Law School class, is currently happy with Yale. Last year Mr. Stein raised a ruckus by writing in the New York Times that Yale's huge $15 billion endowment made individual giving to the school meaningless. He was no longer sure if Yale was "an investment bank or a school." Mr. Surovov told me that Mr. Stein "heard from a lot of his friends who set him straight, and he published a retraction soon after."
Mr. Stein says that's a complete distortion. "I retracted nothing. I merely said again that I love Yale so much I give to it anyway. Not everything is about reason." But then he put on his "reason hat" and let me know what he thought of Mr. Rahmatullah's presence on campus. "It's extremely discouraging. It's as if Yale had admitted a largely unrepentant SS man after World War II on the theory he would help rebuild Germany." He told me. "Yale is being run by Froot Loops and is wacky."
Which brings us to Yale's defense of Mr. Rahmatullah's admission. Here it is in its entirety:
Ramatullah Hashemi escaped the wreckage of Afghanistan and was approved by the U.S. government for a visa to study in this country. Yale has allowed Hashemi to take courses for college credit in a part-time program that does not award Yale degrees. Contrary to what has been reported by some in the media, he has not been admitted as an undergraduate to Yale College or to any of the other schools at Yale. We hope that his courses help him understand the broader context for the conflicts that led to the creation of the Taliban and to its fall. We acknowledge that some are criticizing Yale for allowing 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."This is a very curious statement. Mr. Rahmatullah "escaped the wreckage of Afghanistan?" Afghans I've talked to snicker at the idea someone who was a high official in the regime that created that wreckage could "escape" it. As for Yale's inference that their prize diversity catch isn't a real student, I'm told officials always expected that next month he would apply to become a degree-status sophomore after a year of assimilation on campus.
Indeed, a Feb. 24 article in the Yale Herald, a campus weekly, called Mr. Rahmatullah "one of this year's freshmen" and that the bar for admission to his special program "is set so that potential part-time Yalies" like him "must be as qualified as their full-schedule counterparts." No retraction has been printed. The Herald article didn't mention that Mr. Ramatullah has only a fourth-grade education and a high-school equivalency degree. It did quote assistant Yale College dean William Whobrey as saying that while Yale doesn't offer financial aid to students such as Mr. Rahmatullah, he and other special students get a tuition discount in the 35% to 40% range.
Some sympathetic to Mr. Rahmatullah, although not Yale, claim he has repented his Taliban past and updated his views. It's true he now claims to favor women's suffrage and free speech. But he still makes excuses for the Taliban. Late last year, Mr. Rahmatullah wrote an essay claiming the Taliban were "too ignorant to know their guest" Osama bin Laden "was harming other people" before 9/11. He also wrote that Israel was "an American al Qaeda" aimed at the Arab world. He blames the infamous filmed executions of women in Kabul's soccer stadium on a rogue Taliban ministry. He told the Times of London the killings were "all Vice and Virtue stuff. There were also executions in Texas." Now he is dodging reporters.
He recently told a fellow student he was stunned Yale hadn't probed his background more fully. But Yale did have its reasons for admitting him. Richard Shaw, Yale's dean of admissions before he took the same post at Stanford last year, explained to the New York Times that Yale had lost another foreign student of the same caliber to Harvard and "I didn't want that to happen again." Mr. Shaw isn't returning calls.
A former Yale admissions official told me Mr. Rahmatullah's acceptance into the special student program normally would give him a clear advantage when he applies for the full-degree program next month. "Now that their stealth admission of a Taliban official is public after eight months, the best thing Yale can do now is suggest he 'study abroad' next year," he told me. "Otherwise, they risk losing all credibility if they keep letting him study there while flatly refusing to explain their decision to anyone."
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