Battle for Academic Freedom in Turkey
by JOE HILL
The Rectorate Building at Boğaziçi University
Throughout January, peaceful protests, advocating academic freedom, were intensely present at university campuses across Turkey. The protests were sparked by the appointment of Melih Bulu as the rector (the head of the university) of Boğaziçi University. It is widely held that this was a political appointment by the President, as Bulu has close ties to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP). By tradition, the rector is elected from within the faculty. Boğaziçi has a long history of autonomy, being the first American college established overseas, and is - despite previous government attempts to meddle in education policy - a beacon of progressive and independent academic research. This brazen attempt at restricting academic freedom is a clear indication that Erdoğan’s government intends to recast Turkish higher education into a husk of what it once was, compromising scientific and social development.
Boğaziçi is known within Turkey for its progressive culture; LGBT and feminist groups are active on campus - a rarity across the rest of the country. It is considered to be a bastion of free thought and a haven for real academic debate. This is why, while similar state interference in other universities has been common in recent years, this specific move to politicise Boğaziçi’s leadership has caused such a major controversy.
Protestors at Boğaziçi’s campus, including students, the alumni, and faculty members, were dispersed with tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets by the riot police. Some students were strip-searched upon the arrests while Istanbul police also sought to home raids to detain at least 45 students that expressed their opposition to Bulu's appointment by participating in the protests. There were smaller-scale demonstrations at campuses across the rest of the country, held in solidarity with the students and academics of Boğaziçi, where two teaching assistants at the Middle East Technical University were fired because they supported the protests.
Turkey’s education sector has been under growing pressure over the last few years from an increasingly autocratic government. After a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdoğan has consolidated power through a series of purges; dismissing thousands of officials and seizing new powers to give him unprecedented control over the state, media, business, and education. In the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup, 15.200 education ministry officials were suspended, and 626 educational institutions were forcibly closed. After a range of legal battles, Erdoğan secured the power to personally appoint any full professor as the rector of any university, whereafter at least 20 rectors were appointed who align with the ‘one-man regime.’ This comes in the context of a ‘culture war’ in Turkey – with the government promoting conservatism, patriotism, and political allegiance to the AKP.
Despite Bulu being appointed on the 1st of January, he has been unable to appoint a professor to the role of vice-rector, as the staff of Boğaziçi has collectively agreed not to accept Bulu’s offers. Academics gathered on campus on the 22nd of January, turning their backs to the rectorate building in a clear display of their unanimous opposition to Bulu’s appointment, and stated that they will continue doing the same protest every day between 12 and 1 p.m. In this case, Erdoğan may have to appoint a new professor, who supports Erdoğan and AKP, to Boğaziçi in order for Bulu to then assign them as the vice-rector. However, adding a new professor to the faculty is not that easy since it is required to get approval from the department, the faculty and the board of management, respectively. As the battle of the students and the academia continue, Bulu remains as de facto rector.
The question as to whether Bulu’s appointment was entirely political or not is settled: Bulu has not had an academic career of success, has had very few teaching experience, and there are even strong accusations that sections of his Ph.D. thesis were plagiarised. The fact that Bulu seems underqualified is not the main point of contention; protestors are more concerned that this is another anti-democratic step by Erdoğan to further prohibit criticism of his agenda. While protesters argue that this is an attempt to strangle academic freedom, the government is promoting a narrative that universities are radically left-wing, corrupting students with Western ideas and inciting insurrection. Erdoğan has even referred to the students as ‘terrorists’, clearly attempting to delegitimise their protests by casting them as extremists and radicals.
In an era where academia is being undermined and attacked by populists and demagogues on a global scale, there are few areas where the battle is as advanced as Turkey's. Academic freedom is a vital principle in any strong democracy. President Erdoğan has slowly amassed more crucial powers that allow him to silence opposition and frame the narrative of events. Attacking the legitimacy of higher education and installing party figures as rectors of universities is just one in a broad wave of actions being taken to dismantle democracy in Turkey.
The protesters, who are calling attention to these actions, need support. Liberal democratic countries across the world need to unequivocally condemn Erdoğan’s autocratic government. The role of education should be to teach and encourage debate, respect, and tolerance – if it is abused, it can be used to rewrite history, substitute lies for truth, and institutionalise bigotry. The battle for academic freedom in Turkey is kept alive by those brave enough to keep fighting, despite the odds.