On January 1, a decree issued by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu the new head of Istanbul’s Bogazici University. A few days later, students and staff broke out in protest in response to the news. Historically, Turkish universities, and in particular Bogazici University, have been spaces where the public can challenge the government. Thus, the new move to replace an elected rector with one appointed by the government has caused an uproar not just at the university, but across Istanbul.
Bulu has long maintained close ties with the Turkish government, making him clearly biased and politically motivated: in 2002, Bulu founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), the political party which has held power in Turkey since 2003. Furthermore, he is the first rector chosen from outside a university since a military coup in Turkey in 1980. His close ties and support of the AKP have only fueled the protests. Since the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan’s government has cracked down on free speech and become increasingly autocratic. Thus, Bulu’s appointment was interpreted as a step further into curtailing academic freedom and free speech in Turkey. To understand why this move prompted large protests and clashes with authorities, it is important to look at the deteriorating state of academic freedom in Turkey over the past few years.
Attack on Democracy
According to UNESCO, academic freedom refers to ‘the freedom of members of the academic community, individually or collectively, in the pursuit, development, and transmission of knowledge, through research, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation, teaching, lecturing, and writing.’ It not only refers to the protection of individual members of academia but also to the autonomy of institutions to conduct matters without state interference. Academic freedom is one of the most fundamental mechanisms of a democratic society as it allows for a space to criticize the government. Thus, limits on academic freedom signal a broader political offence against institutions that can challenge the government. Through controlling institutions such as the press and academia, democratically elected regimes are able to slowly push the constitutional limits of their power and become more authoritarian.
The 2016 coup in Turkey resulted in wide-ranging changes made to the higher education system. The threat of losing power was more evident than ever, leading the ruling party to institute new laws on how universities function. However, higher education had been slowly becoming centralized and hierarchically regulated even before the coup in 2016. The Council of Higher Education (CHE) oversees both public and private universities by establishing laws to control and discipline them. Even universities such as Galatasaray University in Istanbul, established via a bilateral agreement with France, are subject to government control. Through the regulation of the CHE, the government is able to influence university programs as well as the selection and placement of students and faculty members.
Mechanisms of Control
The attack on academic freedom in Turkey is manifested in the form of massive purges and academic restructuring by the government. After the failed coup attempt in 2016, President Erdoğan was quick to blame the Gülen movement, a religious movement led by exiled leader Fethullah Gülen. This resulted in a wide-scale attack not just against followers of the Gülen movement, now deemed “terrorists,” but also against any dissenters of the government. The government legitimizes its actions by presenting them as moves for national security and protecting the unity of the country. By framing any criticism of the government as “terrorism,” the AKP is able to enact such drastic policies without losing the semblance of a democratic state. Human Rights Watch research shows that most investigations and prosecutions for terrorism-related offences are hardly ever based on concrete evidence.
‘Social, Civil, and Intellectual Death’
The purges that followed 2016 saw academics and their families being detained for years without due process. Even academics that have been expelled from their positions experience challenges going forward as well. These individuals are banned from taking office in public institutions and often prohibited from working in Turkish universities in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. Furthermore, their passports and property can be confiscated without any due process. This means that these academics are unable to travel to find work in universities abroad. While massive purges destroy the professional lives of these individuals, it also changes the atmosphere of learning and teaching for those who remain. Knowing that conducting research or teaching sensitive topics such as the Kurdish issue will possibly put them in danger, members of the academic community feel insecure and uncertain about their future. This has resulted in an environment of self-censorship and constant fear, especially amongst political science and history departments of universities.
Despite the government control and growing fear among academics as a result, critical discussions have moved from universities to alternate, underground spaces. A number of scholars continue to host lectures and seminars in ‘street academies’ or ‘solidarity academies.’ Furthermore, articles are now being published on new alternative forums. This is a testament to the pushback against the deteriorating state of Turkish democracy.
The protests that started at the beginning of the year are only getting larger. The people who are leading these protests are Turkish students and academics however there has also been a huge turnout of dissenters from different groups including the women’s rights movement, and the Kurdish community. It is clear that the lack of academic freedom signifies the general trend of anti-democratic actions by the ruling party. This demonstrates that the events at Bogazici University have only acted as a spark to challenge the government that has had such a tight hold on Turkish society for the past few years.