Critics of Yale’s decision to admit former Taliban diplomat Rahmatullah Hashemi have suggested that the ensuing controversy was partially to blame for the decrease in applications to Yale this year, but the University and some college counselors claim the effect on prospective applicants was likely minimal.
Applications to Yale for the class of 2011 decreased 9.7 percent from last year’s record high of 21,101, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said last week. While Yale administrators blamed the decline on last year’s record-low acceptance rate and natural year-to-year fluctuations, critics of the University have argued that high school students may have been disillusioned by Hashemi’s enrollment. Hashemi took classes at Yale through the Nondegree Students Program from the summer of 2005 through the end of the 2006 academic year, gaining national attention when he was the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story in February 2006.
After it became public, the administration’s decision to admit Hashemi, 28, unleashed a storm of controversy, with Yale eventually defending its decision on the grounds that it promoted a diversity of perspectives among its student body. Critics condemned the decision to admit a former member of a group that waged war against the United States. This past summer, Hashemi was denied admission to Yale’s selective degree-granting Eli Whitney Students Program and was also unable to obtain a visa to return to Yale from Pakistan to study this academic year.
Brenzel said the geographic breakdown of applications this year compared to previous years did not reveal any regional trends, particularly any that would indicate Hashemi could be the cause for the decrease in applications.
“This is simply impossible to say, but I would be skeptical of its having had a significant impact,” he said.
But critics of the administration’s decision pointed to what they termed Yale’s “poor handling” of the situation as a factor that may have disillusioned the nation about the University and diminished Yale’s reputation.
Wall Street Journal opinion writer John Fund, who published a series of editorials last spring expressing dissatisfaction with Yale’s actions, said administrators’ reluctance to fully explain their decision could have had an effect on prospective applicants.
“I think parents and students have a lot of places they can apply to and Yale has a fine reputation, but [Yale] didn’t come across as being very open, honest or straightforward,” he said.
A 2006 Yale graduate now working on Capitol Hill said Yale’s decision to allow Hashemi to take classes was unconscionable considering his background.
“My concerns were that Yale had accepted as a student to this institution somebody who aided and abetted an organization that declared war against the U.S.,” he said. “The quibble I always had was that he was, albeit on a smaller scale, the Taliban’s Joseph Goebbels — he was in charge of propaganda and publicity for the Taliban.”
Last spring, Clint Taylor ’96 launched 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 — encouraging alumni to forgo donations to Yale until the University’s decision to admit Hashemi was more fully explained.
“Once [the administration] realized they had made this mistake [in admitting a Taliban representative], they didn’t come out and say we made a mistake,” Taylor said. “I think in the long run that could affect Yale, that they don’t seem to realize what they did wrong and didn’t make amends for it.”
But the 2006 alumnus said he does not believe parents and students made the decision whether or not to apply to Yale based on their stance on this issue.
“There is a perception that Yale is this ivory tower institution which has no real attachment to what 95 percent of Americans think,” he said. “This may have cemented that image, but I don’t think applicants thought about Hashemi and made a moral decision not to apply to Yale because of it. I would like to think that might be the case, that people are taking a moral stand against Yale and their poor decision in this case, but I don’t think so.”
High school counselors in various parts of the country said they have not had students mention Hashemi when asking for college guidance, nor do they believe perception of Yale as an institution has changed because of the media attention.
Bruce Bailey, director of college counseling at Lakeside School in Seattle, Wash., said while students may have talked about the issue among themselves, it has not come up in the college counseling office.
“I didn’t hear one parent comment or one kid come in and ask what’s that about,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they didn’t talk about it, but it was perceived to be a fairly random occurrence and not particularly indicative of the Yale experience at all.”
Judy Morris, college counselor at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus, Miss., and Colleen Petty, guidance counselor at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville, Ga., both said there has not been discussion of Yale’s initial decision to admit Hashemi among prospective students. These high schools have sent students to Yale in the past, and this debate had little or no effect on their students’ choices this year, they said.
But Martha Lyman, director of college advising at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass., and a former Harvard admissions officer, said parents’ responses to the Hashemi story may possibly have influenced students’ decisions about applying to Yale.
“I suppose if you look across the country, there are very conservative pockets and obviously we have seen in our elections that though people are having second thoughts, they did respond to President Bush’s positions on security and other issues,” she said. “I suppose a parent getting wind of this might say [to their child], ‘You’re not applying to Yale,’ but that’s all speculation because I haven’t heard any kind of that conversation happening here.”
Lyman said she thinks the decrease in applications at Yale is more likely due to students viewing Yale as a long-shot and becoming discouraged by the heightened competition.
Hashemi, who has a wife and two children, appeared for about thirty seconds in Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”