Yale Undergrads: The Best, The Brightest, The Taliban?

Perhaps you dream of the day when your child will be admitted to an Ivy League institution. Maybe you do more than dream. You save money. You contribute regularly to a 529 account. If you are fortunate enough to have elders who have done well and now look at estate planning, maybe you are working with them to find the best ways to fund education for the next generation. You and your high school student are researching scholarships, loans, financial aid. Maybe you are working with a consultant.

Your student is studying, working, making a very high grade point average. Preparation for the SAT is vital, so much depends on it. The student is playing a sport, engaging in community service, undertaking special and notable academic projects. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have an advantage at a prestigious college, like a legacy admission or a relative who made a big gift. Even so, for many of the most fortunate, there are still no guarantees.

Or maybe there is something about the student which is just so unusual that the college just has to have them be part of their prestigious and diverse community. The student’s unique perspective is valuable to the academic community.

Last summer, Yale University admitted a student who had been an ambassador for the Taliban to a non degree program for students who do not have the traditional background. The student, 27 year old Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi has now applied for a degree program. Since an article appeared last February in the New York Times Magazine, Yale has been subject to serious criticism in the press. Advocates for families affected by the events of 911 and the military also question the value of giving someone with a terrorist background a first class elite education while an estimated 19,300 applicants for freshman admission will be rejected, and others may need to defer their education at a top institution for financial reasons.

Mr Hashemi appears by all accounts to be a highly motivated and self directed learner. He obtained his high school diploma in Pakistan after having to leave school in the fourth grade. His intelligence and his ability to speak English made him valuable to the Taliban, who sent him to the United States in 2001. He visited several colleges then, including Yale, defending the Taliban’s torture of women and the destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues. A foundation has been created by his supporters to fund his tuition.

One concern is that if he returns home, he may be subject to accusations of being a CIA agent. Apparently it is incomprehensible to many of his former colleagues that Americans are so high minded and compassionate that they might actually want to give a former terrorist collaborator a first class education in order to open his mind and present him with opportunities to end violence. Perhaps he is indeed discovering that a little education is truly a dangerous thing.

Some in the Yale community have called upon the college administration to clarify the admission preferences for non traditional students. Kingman Brewster (1919-88), who was president of Yale from 1963-1977 and who opened the university to women in 1967 once said “A demonstrated failure of moral sensitivity or regard for the dignity of others cannot be redeemed by allegations that the young man is extremely ‘interesting.’ ” It remains to be seen what besides notoriety qualifies Mr. Hashemi for admission as a sophomore pursuing a Yale undergraduate degree. President Brewster also spoke of the desirability for an applicant having “the motivation to stretch one’s capacity” and the need to build an ethnically diverse student body. Both these criteria could likely apply to Mr. Hashemi.

President Brewster’s original 1967 letter detailing Yale’s criteria for admission can be found on the Yale website here: http://www.yale.edu/asc/guidelines/policy.html