Alumni clash over Hashemi

Rahmatullah Hashemi ’09 has become the focal point of a nationwide debate over his admission to Yale as a special non-degree student, precipitating extensive media coverage and heated conversation among University alumni.

Since The New York Times Magazine published an article last month detailing Hashemi’s past as a former diplomat for the foreign minister of the Taliban and his current life as a Yale student, many alumni have spoken out publicly either against or in support of their alma mater’s decision to admit him last summer.

Yale administrators have generally been silent on the issue, and President Richard Levin declined to personally comment on Hashemi’s presence at the University. Hashemi has said he plans to apply for regular degree status this May.

“We acknowledge that some are criticizing Yale for allowing Mr. 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,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said in a statement.

Carolyn Claflin, acting director of the Association of Yale Alumni, said the Times story has elicited a spike in alumni communication with the office, with a variety of sentiments behind the contact.

“We have seen a moderate increase volume of phone calls and e-mail messages from alumni regarding this issue,” she said. “Their views have ranged the spectrum.”

But Inge Reichenbach, Yale’s vice president of development, said that while she has also seen considerable reaction from alumni, she does not believe donations to the University will decline as a result.

“We did have several e-mails, phone calls and letters from people who read the article in The New York Times, both alumni and also non-alumni,” she said. “Some were negative about Yale. Others were positive, reminding everybody that Yale is an educational institution, not a political one. I have not seen an adverse impact on giving to Yale and don’t expect that there will be one.”

While the feedback has ranged from supportive to outraged, some alumni are turning their opinions into social action.

In response to Hashemi’s presence at Yale, Clinton Taylor ’96 and Debbie Bookstaber ’00 started a campaign and Weblog called NailYale, a name that makes reference to the rumored Taliban practice of removing the nails of women who wear noticeable nail polish. Taylor said the campaign is encouraging alumni to send fake red fingernails to Levin and — in lieu of monetary donations — to the Development Office.

Taylor, who appeared with Bookstaber on the cable news show “FOX & Friends” two weeks ago, said that when he first read about Hashemi, he thought the story was a joke.

“I was baffled and a little stunned that Yale had rushed to embrace someone who is the antithesis of its values,” Taylor said. “If Yale does nothing to signal that it recognizes a problem exists, and publicly commits to fill the moral vacuum which made its absurd decision possible, the damage will become irreversible.”

Taylor said he and Bookstaber received an unsigned e-mail from an anonymous Columbia University account questioning the two alumni’s history of donating to Yale and calling them “retarded” for criticizing the University. Taylor said Bookstaber’s husband traced the e-mail and determined it was sent by Alexis Surovov ’02, assistant director of annual giving programs at Yale Law School.

Dean of Yale Law School Harold Koh said in an e-mail that Surovov has been temporarily relieved of his duties following the incident.

“His access to confidential development databases has been suspended, pending completion of an investigation,” Koh said. “We deeply regret his inappropriate and unauthorized behavior, and apologize to those Yale alumni affected by it.”

Surovov did not return requests for comment.

Other alumni also said the Hashemi controversy has affected their desire to give money to Yale.

Jed Duncan ’83, a New York investment banker who said he has been an “active giver” to Yale in the past, said he is now less enthusiastic about giving money to the University.

“The thing that really angers me about this is that the irony of what the school is doing seems to be lost on the school,” he said. “This is the same school that gave a very, very unwelcome reception to [President] George W. Bush [’68] … then they go out of their way to actively recruit as a diversity candidate this member of the Taliban, this guy who comes from a country and a regime that stood for anything but diversity.”

But some alumni said they question whether past Yale graduates should be taking an active role in the matter.

Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, editor of the New Haven Advocate, said he believes the alumni voice should be taken in perspective.

“I suppose I think it’s best for alumni to adopt an attitude of humility,” he said. “We should assume that the Admissions Office knows what they’re doing. I am astonished at their arrogance and the way in which they think that they know enough to comment.”

Tatiana Maxwell, president of the International Education Foundation, is one of three individuals — along with CBS News cameraman Mike Hoover and attorney Bob Schuster ’67 — who are financially supporting Hashemi’s Yale education. She said Hashemi was not prepared for the heavy national response to the Times story and that she has advised him to avoid much of the media coverage.

“Hashemi kept a low profile,” she said. “He is at Yale to learn, and he is grateful to us and grateful to Yale. It wasn’t his idea to go to Yale. It was ours.”

David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admissions Counselors, said he does not believe Yale’s reputation will be seriously affected by the Hashemi controversy.

“Yale has built up a reputation over the years as one of the world’s best educations,” he said. “I doubt very seriously that this would have any lasting or long-term impact on getting the very best class of students.”

Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel ’75 said he could not comment specifically on Hashemi’s application for regular degree status.

“For all admissions decisions, the general protocol is that the final actions are taken by an admissions committee,” Brenzel said. “The makeup of the committee varies depending on the time of year and nature of the program for which admissions are being decided. I cannot comment on a particular student’s application, whether past or future, but all applicants are evaluated on the merits of their application relative to the type of program for which they are applying and the pool of other applicants for that program.”

Maxwell said Hashemi will need financial aid if he is accepted, as his three sponsors will no longer support him financially. Maxwell said that while Hashemi still currently plans on applying in May, the negative attention he has received could impact his decision.

“It’s vital to him, but if he finds he’s truly unwelcome at Yale … [anyone] would have to reconsider,” she said.

Neither Hashemi nor Stanford Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw, who served as Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions when Hashemi originally applied, returned phone calls requesting interviews.

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