Yale’s “Taliban Man” and Other Tales

John Fund

I view the National Association of Scholars as the modern-day equivalent of the reform leagues that fought the old political machines. In fighting Tammany Hall—today it is Tammany Yale, Tammany Harvard, Tammany Smith—you encounter presumptuousness with the education of our children parallel to the fiscal effrontery of government.

I was hurrying through Union Station, on my way to the airport, and I ran into a freshmen-elect member of Congress from this new class. I happened to know him a little from the campaign trail, and now he appeared befuddled and lost. He seemed in shock—wandering around in obvious distress. I stopped him and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I didn’t mean to do it,” he said.

Again I asked, “What happened?”

“Well,” he said, “I’m here for freshman orientation, and they told me exactly how things work here, but I forgot, and I’m sorry. Will they forgive me?”

“Man, what have you done?” I asked, yet again, and he looked up at me with terror on his face and said, “I don’t know how it happened, but I just now accidentally spent my own money.”

Closer to the truth than you want to know.

I am an outsider looking in at higher education. It is not primarily my beat, although along with Dorothy Rabinowitz and Dan Henniger and many of my colleagues I have written on several of the politically correct editorials over the years that Steve Balch and others of the NAS have helped us with. I am certainly aware of the work my colleague Bill McGurn did on the Bass grant at Yale, which caused so much controversy there. I do, however, cover K-12 education a great deal. I have written a lot of editorials for the Journal over the years on school choice and reform of K-12, and I think that that is obviously an important prelude to the area that readers of Academic Questions are primarily interested in—higher education. So, I did not intend to write a lot about higher education this past year, but an incident happened that compelled me to.

First, let me take you back 5 years to August 2001. This was just a few weeks before 9-11. We had a visitor at the Wall Street Journal. Our offices at the World Financial Center are precisely 70 yards across the street from what is now a big hole in the ground—the World Trade Center. But at the time it stood intact, and our visitor, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, was the ambassador at large and the deputy foreign minister for the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. He was there to explain why they were so misunderstood.

He had been to a series of elite schools—USC, Berkeley, Yale. He had been on a speaking tour trying to explain how the Taliban were really friends of peace and justice and civilization.

The Bamiyan Buddhas were items on the World Heritage UNESCO historic site list. Built in the fifth and sixth centuries, these giant structures were 120 ft tall, carved out of rock. They had been blown up by the Taliban, because, supposedly, Islam does not allow any graven images. But Islamic scholars around the world, including the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, denounced this as blasphemous to Islam.

Never mind, though, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi explained, “Well, you see, we’re tired of this because it’s actually your fault. UNESCO came to Afghanistan and said, ‘Don’t blow up these Buddhas. We are going to give you money to refurbish them and protect them.’ And we said to UNESCO, ‘But you are imposing economic embargo on us. This costs us trade. Our children are starving because of this. Give us the money not for some statues, but give us the money for the children.’ And UNESCO said, ‘That’s fine, but if you want money for the children you will have to go to another UN program. We do monuments. We do statues. We can’t do food aid.’” To this, Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi said, “Well, UNESCO was being insulting to us. We had to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas to sort of prove ourselves to them that we really were serious.” Our reply, that day, several weeks before 11 September 2001, was “Yes. We really do think you are serious”—seriously deranged.

This meeting lasted over 90 min, and at the end I felt, for one of the first times in my life, that I had looked into the eyes—into the face of genuine demonstrable evil.

I escorted him out the door. We passed one of our plate-glass windows, which looked out at the World Trade Center—I will never forget this—he stopped in front of our window, and he stared up, and he would not look down, and he would not move. Finally, I pried him away and I kept thinking to myself, what is this all about? Then, of course I remembered. Ten years before, in 1993, his people—or his allies—had tried to blow up the World Trade Center and failed. So he must be looking at the window and thinking, “the one that got away.”

I do not think he knew anything about the plot. I think he was too far down. But a few weeks later, I stood in the rubble of World Trade Center—3,000 of my fellow Americans having been incinerated or crushed to death. I saw things that day that I never want to see again. I saw couples jumping off that tower holding hands.

I forgot about Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi as the Taliban were swept from power by the military invasion of the allies. I assumed him either to be in prison, a fugitive, or dead. Then, opening up the New York Times, I see a February 2006 cover story titled “The Freshman,” featuring my old “friend,” Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi, now an undergraduate at Yale University. Technically, he was in a non-degree granting program, but the point of the article was that, after a bit of orientation, he would be mainstreamed into the undergraduate population. The goal of this was a degree, presumably because he had been marked for “leadership” in the Middle East.

Probably impelled by my experiences of August 2001, I started to write about Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi. Daniel Gelernter, a Yale freshman whose father is a professor there, numbered among several allies of mine at Yale. He observed that the entire community was mute and paralyzed at our articles. “The intelligentsia hasn’t told Yalies what to think yet, because even they haven’t made up their minds,” he wrote. He called the Taliban, “the evil and macabre terrorist group,” and wrote: “the fact that Hashimi didn’t do actual killing as a propaganda minister and deputy foreign minister does not absolve him. Goebbels didn’t shoot anyone either.”

The Taliban, as you know, was medieval in its thinking. If women were caught wearing nail polish, enforcers would tear the nails out, and, in at least one documented case, they chopped off the tips of the fingers. One Taliban cleric once banned paper bags in the Kabul market on the basis of a rumor that they were printed on recycled copies of the Koran.

Anyway, I tried to pry an explanation from Yale about how this fellow had arrived there. Yale said that the state department had let him in, which did not surprise me, but I pursued it and found that there is a list of terrorist nations, from which applicants for US visas are supposed to receive greater scrutiny. The Taliban, however, were so vicious that only three nations in the world had granted them diplomatic recognition. We were not one of those three nations, and, because we did not recognize them, we never put them on the list of terrorist nations.

Subsequently, after we had invaded Afghanistan and swept out the Taliban, a friendly US government was installed. When Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi applied for his visa from Afghanistan he had been a representative of a government we did not recognize, so it was not on the list of terrorist nations. He was applying from a country that was now friendly to the USA, which was enough to get him in.

Yale refused to explain this. They said they would only issue a single, 144-word statement, and then they shut up and just hoped the whole story would go away. They said that courses would help him understand the broader context for the conflicts that led to creation of the Taliban, then its fall. Universities are places that must strive to increase understanding.

That justification upset two women who showed up at Yale one night in March of 2006. One was Natalie Healy who had lost her Navy SEAL son Dan in Afghanistan in 2005 when a Taliban rocket hit his helicopter. Miss Healy, from New Hampshire, notes that her son had four children of his own, all of whom were appalled at Yale’s new student:

Lots of people could benefit from a Yale education, including all the Afghan women who were denied the right to a basic education under the Taliban. So why reward this man who was part of the group that killed my son? I want to tell Yale president Richard Levin that his not allowing ROTC on campus is one thing, but welcoming a former member of the Taliban is deeply insulting to families who have children fighting the Taliban right now.

Miss Healy showed up at Yale for a lecture by Malalai Joya, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament. Then 27-year-old Miss Joya had been hiding underground from the Taliban during their reign and came to Yale to criticize American foreign policy. She felt that much of the aid money that we had been sending to the new government was being wasted or misdirected. By chance, though, she was asked at her lecture, as she stood next to Miss Healy, about Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi.

She literally paused and then she shouted and pointed to the crowd of about 300 at Yale, “He should apologize to my people and expose what he and others did under the Taliban. He knew very well what criminal acts they committed. He was not too young to know. It would be better if he faced a court of justice than be at the food court at Yale.”

The reaction of the audience was immediate and astonishing. I was in the room as she received a standing ovation for criticizing US policy in Afghanistan. But when she criticized Yale’s treatment of this “Taliban man,” the applause turned to stone-cold silence. When the microphone was opened to the audience, not one of the nine questions from the floor addressed what she had just said.

At the reception afterward, I tried to sample some public opinion about this Yale audience’s black hole concerning Miss Joya’s comment. The closest I got to the truth was someone who said, “Well, Rahmatullah Hashimi is now a member of the Yale community. We have to protect our own.” To NAS members, that is probably reminiscent of what goes on at your universities—no matter what happens, we have to protect our own.

Miss Joya, the 27-year-old parliamentarian, was the same age as Rahmatullah Hashimi. She spoke through a translator, Machai Rhobar, a young Afghan woman who emigrated to New Haven, Connecticut, several years ago with three or four of her siblings and her mother. Her father had died at the hands of the Taliban.

I asked Miss Rhobar, “What do you think of all this?”

“It’s bizarre,” she answered.

I asked if she was going to school at Yale, to which she replied, “Oh no. I could never think of going to school here. I go to Gateway Community College.” She told me that she works 9 hours a day at a 7-Eleven in New Haven and she studies computer science in the evening at the community college. She earns nine dollars an hour. She found it inexplicable that she, who had to study by candlelight in an underground school in Afghanistan before she crossed the border to live in a refugee camp in Pakistan, would be in this situation in the country of her adopted loyalty, while Rahmatullah Hashimi was being honored and feted at Yale.

So, I wrote a column in which I proposed to Yale president Richard C. Levin that he invite this woman, and others like her, to his campus as transfer students. They would already be fluent in English and have a grade point average of 3.5 or higher. As precedent for allowing access to elite institutions, I cited a successful Harvard program to identify qualified and industrious Afghan women, who had been denied an education under the Taliban, and bring them from community colleges in this country. Rogers Williams in Rhode Island and about twenty other schools accepted the program. Yale summarily turned it down, opting instead for Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi, who had only a fourth-grade education.

I have nothing against fourth-grade educations. There are some public school systems so bad that I suspect that people are better off if they leave school after the fourth grade. But this particular choice by Yale—given Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi’s background and other attributes—seemed bizarre. I tried to contact Mr. Richard Shaw, the admissions officer at Yale who had made the decision. He turned out to have moved to Stanford, where he was running the admissions office. I left many messages asking him to explain admitting the Taliban Man, but Mr. Shaw would not return my phone calls. The closest we got to an explanation came from the New York Times, in which Mr. Shaw said another foreigner of Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi’s caliber and background had been applying to Yale, but they had lost him to Harvard—a setback that he apparently did not want to repeat.

The day after the New York Times article appeared, Haym Benaroya, a professor at Rutgers, wrote to Mr. Shaw expressing disbelief that Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi could possibly have gotten into Yale with a high school equivalency certificate. Mr. Shaw replied in an e-mail to Professor Benaroya that Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi indeed had nontraditional roots, very little formal education, but his personal accomplishments had made a significant impact on his native country.

Mr. Benaroya was stupefied. Did Mr. Shaw mean accomplishments that had a positive impact, not a terroristic or totalitarian impact?

Mr. Shaw responded: Correct, along with potential to make a positive difference in seeking ways toward peace and democracy. An education is a way toward understanding the complex nuances of world politics.

This was gobbledygook, of course. In the 1990s, Yale history professor Donald Kagan was briefly dean of Yale College. It was not a fit. Now, he spoke out against Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi in the Wall Street Journal. He called the university’s feckless dialogue between value-neutral professors and soft-minded students an abomination. The range of debate on campus is more narrow than ever, he said, and the Taliban incident on campus is a wake-up call that moral relativism is totally unexamined here. For Kagan, the ability of students to think clearly about patriotism and values is being undermined by faculty members who believe that, at heart, every problem is of US origin.

Mr. Kagan was not optimistic that Yale would ever respond to outside pressure on Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi. Yale has an 18 billion dollar endowment, he said, and Yale’s board is handpicked to lick the boots of the president. The only way that Yale officials can be embarrassed is if a major donor publicly declares that he is no longer giving to them. Otherwise, he said, they simply do not care what anyone in the outside world thinks. Still, I developed a number of friends at Yale for those few weeks. Among others, former acting president Hannah Holborn Gray applied pressure, and another Yale president, Benno Schmidt, also said that this was a moral abomination. We brought their criticisms to bear.

I did a lot of reporting from the communist bloc in the 1980s, and have been briefly arrested and detained in four communist countries. I have some experience in dealing with dissidents in totalitarian structures. So, I was startled to find that a lot of people at Yale seemed to me to be laboring as if under a totalitarian regime, in which thought control and a blanket “no comment” policy prevented them from speaking out. Even the tour guides at Yale were instructed not to answer any questions about Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi as they led parents around campus. In spite of this, more and more interesting items came my way about the admissions office. Almost enough for a book.

This anecdote, for instance: two students attended a grim high school in the Bronx. Both were Hispanic. Juan is befriended by someone who has high connections at Yale. He is encouraged and mentored with the goal that he will eventually apply and be accepted. This student has a sterling academic record. His mother is a teacher at the school. She is trying her best to ward off bad influences.

There is another student, whom Yale recruiters have their eye on. This student has some problems, is not as promising as the other, has a grade point average of about 3.0, has had some scrapes with the law, belongs to a gang, is rather indifferent, and partakes in no extracurricular activities.

So the time comes when the application letters are due. My friend who is high up in the Yale hierarchy calls the mother and says, “This is the time when Juan should be preparing the application.” And she says, “Oh yes, and I have other good news. We’ve finally saved enough money. We’ve moved to New Rochelle. We’ve moved to the suburbs. Don’t worry. Juan is still going to complete high school in the Bronx, but then we hope he goes on to college.”

At this my friend laments, “Oh my God! Why didn’t you talk to me? He’s doomed. He’s absolutely, positively doomed.” When Juan’s mother asks why, my friend answers, “Well, now your son will have ‘suburb’ on his file. It’s over. How could you do this?” And sure enough, guess who got in, and guess who did not get in! Because, you see, one was the more authentic Hispanic.

This is probably not an isolated example.

But, let us return to the Taliban story. Yale mailed out 19,300 rejection letters in late April. As one Yale administrator told me, “I can’t imagine it was easy for Yale to convince those it rejected that the Taliban student isn’t taking a place that they could have had.” Sure enough, there was a chorus of opposition. And, sure enough, a couple of donors approached Yale and said, if something is not done, we are going to go public.

After all, Yale was watching what had happened in Harvard. Larry Summers had been dumped a month before this incident began. I can report—and I have this on the best of authority—that that decision cost Harvard over 32 million dollars. David Rockefeller, Larry Ellison, and others withdrew sums that added up to over 32 million dollars. That is the money we know about, and, even if you have an endowment of 50 billion dollars, as Harvard probably does, to lose those gifts must have involved public embarrassment.

That was the backdrop for Yale’s quietly deciding to change the admissions standards for its non-degree program. All at once, Mr. Rahmatullah Hashimi did not make the cut for the sophomore year. He applied for the full-degree program, but his application was just, shall we say, shuffled aside. He has returned to Pakistan to be with his wife and two children, where I hope he lives long and prospers, and has an awful lot of time on his hands to reflect upon his brief experience at Yale in America, and perhaps on some of the lessons he learned here.

Now, why do I mention all of this? I mention all of this because I think it shows that you can affect what goes on. Not easily, and you would not win most of the battles, but you can fight City Hall—or its functional equivalent in terms of bureaucratic obstinacy today—the university functionaries.

I think it is important that we reflect on how to overcome these obstacles. First, we have a crisis in education. That is not news to AQ readers. I write about K-12. Bill Gates reminds us that our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they are in the middle of the pack. By twelfth grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations. And that is who we send on to higher education.

These are, undoubtedly, considerations of money. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools spent about 18 thousand dollars a year per pupil—formerly the cost of a Harvard education. Somerville is the next town. They spend less than 11. The aggregate standardized test scores of the two are almost identical, and in some cases Somerville comes out on top. In these two towns, and generally around America, we spend an awful lot of money to achieve results that often do not justify the cost.

Officials and pundits hush and scold us repeatedly to remember that “it’s all for the children.” If an alien visited this nation and looked at our public school system, his first questions would be, “What’s being done for the children? It looks like you’re doing everything for the adults.”

We also have the “blame-the-student” syndrome. Obviously, there are students who come from troubled families and impoverished settings in which education has a low priority. Again and again, though, when I hear this, I am reminded of the warden who opines that the prison would be a lot better place if the inmates were of a better class.

I think that our universities today are in the same situation that a portion of my profession was in in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected in spite of the fact that we had three television networks—and that was it, CNN did not even exist. We had three national news magazines that counted and one national newspaper. The New York Times was not even a national newspaper then. The Wall Street Journal was a financially focused publication. And USA Today had not even started. And we had 40—count ‘em, 40—talk radio news shows in the country.

Today, we have three 24-hour news channels—FOX, MSNBC, and CNN. There are as many news magazines as you want on the Web. In fact, you can have access to every newspaper in the world on the Web. Instead of 40 talk radio stations, we have 1400 talk radio shows. And, of course, we have the explosion of bloggers.

In this environment, universities are not a real market in the sense of a completely competitive environment. They, especially the elite universities, perform enormous socialization and status functions, and that will endure.

But there is disruptive innovation out there—some of which may be unsettling to many in higher education. My advice, though, is to cast off anxiety about the unknown. With innovation you have the best and clearest path to reform. Do—by all means—work to establish a department of Western civilization at some university. That is an entirely salutary objective. But, I think we should recognize that the disruptive innovation that has been fueled by a 9% annual increase in university tuitions over the past 25 years (more than double the rate of inflation), will catalyze change, especially in light of snail-paced, 0.5%/year growth in enrollments. A lot of customers are not served or are badly served by the current system. They will be looking for alternatives.

Are there ever alternatives out there! A lot of them are in specialized, market-oriented programs, but even these put pressure on the universities. For-profit schools are everywhere. The University of Phoenix has 1250 campuses, 165,000 students—50,000 of them online. Distance-learning programs are enjoying 33 percent growth annually, and there are now 5 million distance-learning students.

Corporate Education

General Electric spends a billion dollars a year at its 52-acre Crotonville corporate university in Ossining, New York. A molding company in New England has 9,000 employees and provides them with high school equivalency degrees, A.A. programs, B.A. programs, M.S. programs, M.B.A. programs. In Texas, Jeff Sandefer’s Acton M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship program encourages people to achieve bottom-line results in the real world of business, in addition to going to class.

The traditional college scheme is also pressured from below, as ever more students are turning to community colleges for low-cost training in the basics, with a large number of them going on to 4-year institutions. Community colleges are a rapidly growing segment of higher education, and though quality is lower in most cases, they almost always achieve results based on what the students need or want. They fill a need.

So, top schools—with their powerful resources, high-profile faculty, large endowments, well-established brands, and insulated, as they are, from public pressure for reform—will be around for decades. But the upper end of the market is a sliver; it is growing slowly, so these pressures will eventually force even it to change, just as, 25 years ago, the big networks and the big media—what I call the “lame-stream” media—have been forced to adapt (even though they had no natural competitors).

New technology, new opportunities, little niche markets—while they may not always appeal to your taste—are ultimately your friend, because they are the strongest force for change. Change will continue to come from within—and I encourage you to pursue the reforms that the National Association of Scholars has initiated. But, by the same token, do not overlook the external forces that are reshaping society. As with the Taliban Man, as I discovered in my encounter with Yale—eventually even the elites have to pay attention.

That goes for the communist countries I used to write about. They had looked as if they would never topple. But a remarkably small number of dissidents were able, in some cases, to shame them into change.

I will never forget my interview in 1989 with the last—the very last—economics minister of East Germany, as the Berlin Wall collapsed. Her name was Christa Luft. She was in her office at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon and she was exhausted. She had clearly been working 16-hour days. I asked her, “East Germany was viewed as such a success story in the communist nations. Its per capita income was literally stated by the CIA to be higher than that of Ireland. How in the world did this happen, because clearly the economy is collapsing, and yet you were credited with all of this success?”

She looked at me. Her exhaustion showed as launched into a jargonistic defense, but she was clearly too tired to go on. She slumped in her chair and looked at me. “We lied,” she said.

And I said, “Oh! Well, then what happened?”

And she said, “Then the worst thing happened. You believed us.”

“Yes?” I was curious.

She answered, “You never should have believed us. Look who we were.” And, she continued, “Then it got worse. You started giving us loans. Then you started giving us trade credits, so we had an incentive to lie even more. It got so bad, of course you know, that we began to believe our own lies.”

“It started out at politburo meetings, when we were given two sets of books: the real numbers and the fake numbers. Then,” she told me, “they took away the real numbers, and just the fake numbers showed up on the politburo table. By then, it was all over.”

She told of anecdotes about a machine in Dresden that was out of service for lack of a part. Because there simply were no parts, they were obliged to bribe someone to cannibalize a machine in Leipzig, and so it went until the entire economy fell apart. She told me, “If the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down when it did, we would have collapsed of our own weight within nine months. The economy was literally teetering at the end.”

Higher education is not there yet. But, from all of the help I got when I took on the admissions people at Yale, from all the friends and sources I developed in academia, I think I can identify a climate of fear coupled with an understanding that the outside world is changing and that the current administration is not willing to adapt. People are lying to themselves and believing their own lies and half-truths, and, as long as they do that, you have to keep up the fight for truth from inside. Others have to keep up the fight from outside. And the competitive pressures will gradually and grudgingly bring change. That change, it seems to me, is inexorable because ultimately the market does have its say in the end.

John Fund writes the weekly column “On the Trail” for the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (New York: Encounter Books, 2004). This paper is adapted from remarks to the assembled membership of the National Association of Scholars on the morning of 18 November 2006, as part of “What Works in Higher Education Reform: A Report from the Front,” the 12th general NAS conference, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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