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Jewish World Review April 17, 2006 / 19 Nissan 5766

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

Meet the Afghan Yale refused to admit


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In February, former Yale admissions dean Richard Shaw was explaining why the university had admitted Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi. Yale once had, as the Times put it, "another foreigner of Rahmatullah's caliber" who applied. "We lost him to Harvard," Mr. Shaw told the Times. "I didn't want that to happen again."

Who? No one would say. Deborah Orin of the New York Post reported that a Yale spokesman acknowledged only that if that was Mr. Shaw's contention, "I'm sure he was telling the truth." As for Harvard, Ms. Orin noted it took her alma mater four days to call her back and say that "it would violate university policy to say if Harvard had admitted a Taliban-type applicant."

Now the Harvard Crimson might have located the mystery student, though Mr. Shaw won't confirm or deny it. Meet Masood Farivar, a 1994 Harvard graduate who now works for Dow Jones News Service as an oil markets reporter.


At first glance, one might view Mr. Farivar as a "Taliban-type applicant," but his background is actually quite different from that of Mr. Hashemi. Born in 1969, he left Afghanistan with his family in 1983, during the Soviet occupation. He was educated in a refugee school set up by the International Relief Committee, although he also attended an Islamic religious school. In 1987 he returned to his native land and spent two years fighting the Soviets as a mujahideen warrior. "I wanted to fight for my country because so many around me were," he told me.

While operating out of the caves of Tora Bora, which Osama bin Laden would later use as refuge, Mr. Farivar earned some money by writing for the U.S. government-funded Afghan Media Resource Center. One of the people he encountered was an exotic fellow mujahideen, Carlos Mavroleon. Mr. Mavroleon, son of a Greek shipping tycoon, had graduated from Harvard and worked on Wall Street. He had also converted to Islam, changed his name to Kari Mullah, and taken up arms against the Soviets.

Sometime after Mr. Mavroleon returned to his home in London, a package from him was delivered to Tora Bora by a courier. "Inside was an application to Harvard," recalled Mr. Farivar in a 2002 New York Observer interview, "with a letter of recommendation that Carlos had written on my behalf to one of his professors there." In early 1989, having received Mr. Farivar's application, the Harvard admissions office suggested that in light of his spotty academic record he should consider attending a year of U.S. high school first.

Mr. Farivar was able to get into the Lawrenceville School, outside Princeton, N.J. "I got off the plane with my big Osama bin Laden beard, my Afghan rebel hat and traditional garb," he recalled. "There I was with these 15-year-old kids. They were probably scared. I must have seemed very unapproachable, and I must have smelled." Still, Mr. Farivar did well enough to be admitted to Harvard.

For the first two years, he kept his beard and prayed five times a day. Gradually, he made more friends and became part of campus life. He graduated in 1994 after writing his senior thesis on St. Thomas Aquinas. The next year, he landed his job at the Dow Jones News Service. When Mr. Farivar read of Mr. Shaw's comments in the New York Times, he says, "I wondered if he was referring to me, but I had no way of knowing." Not wanting to inject himself into the story, he said nothing. But then Benjamin Heller, one of his Harvard classmates, read about Mr. Shaw's comment in the Harvard Crimson and contacted the paper saying that the reference might be to his friend.


The circumstantial evidence checks out. A former official at Yale's admissions office recalls Mr. Shaw discussing the loss of Mr. Farivar, whose application would have been handled before Mr. Shaw became Yale admissions dean in 1992. "I believe Shaw was referring mostly to Farivar and also perhaps partly to another 'exotic' student who applied while he was dean," the former admissions official told me. There are other clues. Mr. Farivar applied to 10 schools, but he says Yale "was the only or one of only two rejections I received. I didn't make too much of it."

If Mr. Farivar is indeed the student "who got away" from Yale, his friend Mr. Heller says, any comparison to Mr. Hashemi would be bizarre. "If [Farivar] is who Shaw is referring to, then he is full of crap," Mr. Heller wrote the Harvard Crimson. "Farivar was not some agent of a criminal regime like Rahmatullah Hashemi."

For his part, Mr. Farivar says he feels pity for Mr. Hashemi. "He strikes me as either a terribly misguided person or a charlatan and con artist," he told me. "What else can explain his almost overnight conversion to moderation? If he's truly changed his stripes, and the world has one fewer extremist, we'll all be better off. But I'm skeptical."

Such skepticism seems warranted in light of the few public statements Mr. Hashemi has made since the Times broke the news of his presence at Yale. Mr. Hashemi told Tim Reid of the Times of London that he had done poorly in his class "Terrorism: Past, Present and Future," something he attributed to his disgust with the textbooks: "They would say the Taliban were the same as al Qaeda."

Mr. Farivar says the Taliban were almost the same as al Qaeda. "What really turned me against the Taliban were their links to al Queda, who had Taliban officials on their payroll. [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar even gave Osama bin Laden the title of 'Commander of the Faithful,' a term fraught with deep meaning in Islam."

In his interview with the Times of London, Mr. Hashemi also shifted blame for many of the Taliban's brutal practices onto its Ministry of Vice and Virtue, even though he had defended its actions during his infamous U.S. tour in 2001, a few months before 9/11. As for the infamous filmed executions before crowds in Kabul's soccer stadium? "That was all Vice and Virtue stuff. There were also executions happening in Texas."

"That statement is inexcusable, an old, tired rehash of Taliban-era arguments," says Mr. Farivar. "The Taliban would also respond to claims that they oppressed women by saying that they were also abused in the West through domestic violence."


Yale now doesn't even attempt to claim that Mr. Hashemi has changed. In conversations with donors, president Richard Levin has fallen back on two arguments: that Mr. Hashemi currently is a nondegree student, and that the State Department issued him a visa. But Mr. Hashemi's application to become a sophomore in Yale's full degree program, the same type of program that Mr. Farivar graduated from at Harvard, is pending before Mr. Levin. That makes his continued presence at Yale especially relevant as Yale's Board of Governors, the body that supposedly runs the university, prepares to meet this week.

Many in the Yale community are appalled at the damage university officials have caused by their failure to address the Hashemi issue after seven weeks of controversy. "That silence has provoked bewilderment and anger among many," David Cameron, a Yale political science professor wrote The Wall Street Journal last week. "Yale appears to have no convincing response to those who ask why, given the nature of the Taliban regime, his role in it, its complicity in the 9/11 attacks, and his apparent failure or refusal to disavow the regime, Mr. Hashemi has been allowed to study at the university."

Even some who defend the right of Yale to make its own admissions decisions now say it went too far with its Taliban Man. Mark Oppenheimer, a Yale grad who edits the New Haven Advocate, an alternative weekly, says he has "finally come to the conclusion" that "Yale should not have enrolled someone who helped lead a regime that destroyed religious icons, executed adulterers and didn't let women learn to read. Surely, the spot could have better gone to, say, Afghani women, who have such difficulty getting schooling in their own country."

Mr. Oppenheimer attributes his prior reluctance to realize Yale had erred to "basic human stubbornness" and says he finds it "awfully upsetting to agree with jokers like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly," both of whom have discussed the Yale story on Fox News Channel. "The harder they flogged this issue, the more I became convinced that they had to be wrong. I just feel better across the fence from them. . . . I think it's utterly fair to blame the right wing for making me so desperate to dissemble."

James Kirchick, a Yale senior, wrote last month in the Yale Daily News that he was disturbed by the refusal of liberals to be outraged over the religious fascism the Taliban represent. Echoing Mr. Oppenheimer, he noted that "a friend of mine recently remarked that part of his and his peers' nonchalance (and in some cases, support for) Hashemi has to do with the fact that the right has seized upon the issue. Our politics have become so polarized that many are willing to take positions based on the inverse of their opponents'. This abandonment of classical liberal values at the expense of political gamesmanship has consequences that reach far beyond Yale; it hurts our national discourse."

Yale's Board of Governors isn't likely to address those broader issues at its meeting this week. But it will no doubt take some action in response to the Taliban Man scandal. Charley Ellis, one of the university's governors, has written to some alumni noting that "a careful review" of the school's "special student" admissions "is likely to lead to significant change: fewer folks allowed and stricter requirements and really close supervision." Mr. Ellis concludes that "if a mistake was made — either by the U.S. government or by Yale — it will not be repeated — not even close."

His response is revealing. Top people at Yale still won't admit the Taliban Man's admission was a mistake and continue to shift responsibility for his presence to the State Department. Several U.S. senators are indeed demanding answers from State and are preparing hearings on its procedures for granting student visas.

But Yale also owes itself a more searching examination of its own admission policies. Donald Kagan, a history professor and former dean of Yale College, told me there is growing anecdotal evidence that the supersecret world of university admissions often operates in such a capricious or unpredictable way that "people are justified in questioning the fairness of the process." He suggests that both public and private universities voluntarily disclose more of their admissions procedures to satisfy concerns that abuses are common. "If we have policies that we are proud of, then we should let people know how they operate," he told me.

More openness would be especially appropriate now. This spring, the nation's top schools received record numbers of applications and accepted a smaller percentage of them than ever before. Since many students have perfect SAT scores and grades, some parents are spending thousands to hire private admissions advisers. Anne Marie Chaker reported in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal that more and more admissions offices are looking for "a passion or commitment communicated in a clear voice" that goes beyond intellect or athletic ability. She quoted Swarthmore admissions dean Jim Bock noting that one successful applicant took a year off to work with AIDS-infected drug addicts. As an admissions dean, he says, "you don't forget it."

Given the ultracompetitive desire of applicants to stand out, admissions officers now have more discretion than ever. "This is the zone of discretion within which the admissions officials do their work," says one former top Ivy League official. "Much mischief is done within this zone — especially by the application of the academic elite's rather selective notions of authenticity and 'commitment.' For example, rest assured that religious commitment, or a fascination with one or another kind of entrepreneurial business, would be unlikely to attract the attention of admissions officials."


The real story of Taliban Man at Yale is the mindset it exposes among Ivy League admissions offices. After the New York Times broke the story of Mr. Hashemi's admission, Haym Benaroya, a professor at Rutgers, wrote to Mr. Shaw expressing disbelief that Mr. Hashemi, who has a fourth-grade education and a high school equivalency certificate, could be at Yale. Mr. Shaw replied that his Taliban applicant had "personal accomplishments that had significant impact" and insisted those accomplishments had been "positive."

"There you have the moral blind spot," Mr. Benaroya told me. "On the margin, admissions officials go for the 'exotic' over the well-grounded, and we aren't well served by that. They love to brag among themselves about the 'special' students one or the other has landed. The Taliban student shows some are special in ways we wouldn't want."

Indeed, I was told a chilling story of another Ivy League University that had two applicants from the same inner-city high school. Both were Hispanic. One applicant was a very good student who had participated in school and community affairs. The other was a mediocre student who had frequently clashed with authorities and even had a scrape with the law. A leading graduate of the school was trying to help the former student get admitted. The deciding factor might have come during his senior year when his parents managed to save enough money to move a few miles away to a suburb. "When I heard of their move I told the mother her son was doomed, because I knew how the admissions office thought," the graduate told me. "Sure enough the more marginal kid got in, because he was viewed as a more 'authentic' representative of the Hispanic community."

Benno Schmidt, Mr. Levin's predecessor as Yale president, supports diversity programs, but says that cases such as that of the Taliban Man demonstrate that "diversity simply cannot be allowed to trump all moral considerations." It also should not be allowed to trump common sense, as it apparently did in the case of the two Hispanic applicants. It's no wonder that Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, thinks admission preferences should be made more public. "Let's let the sun shine in," he says. There appear to be a whole lot of dark corners in university admission offices that deserve illumination.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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