Gezi Park protests resonate in Turkish academe

In recent weeks, images from Turkey of tear gas and excessive police force, and stories about government investigations and accusations aimed at Gezi Park protesters, may have surprised many outside observers.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

Initially a small protest to stop plans to demolish one of the few parks left in central Istanbul, it erupted into vast demonstrations against the policies of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Yet the anger that has been on display – and the unwarranted crackdown by the authorities – would not surprise those who have been watching recent clashes between the government and parts of Turkish higher education.

In December a similar but smaller protest took place at Middle East Technical University, a public university in Ankara. Students wanted to demonstrate against the policies of Erdogan’s political party during a visit by the prime minister to the campus.

There, too, reports indicated that the police had launched unprovoked attacks and violence against demonstrators. When faculty members issued statements condemning police brutality, state officials began to press charges and opened disciplinary investigations against student protesters.

Then some government-appointed rectors condemned students there as ‘radicals’, and many faculty members responded by condemning their own rectors as undemocratic.

That was not the only example of how universities have been on the front lines between Erdogan and his opponents.

Over the past few years, Erdogan’s political party, known as AKP, has concentrated power and carried out a series of regulations that compromised the autonomous decision-making process of various public institutions, including academic ones.

Previously independent bodies, such as the Turkish Science Academy, had been forced to accept AKP-supported candidates; other institutions that were supposed to protect the environment have been absorbed into other bureaucracies or completely dismantled.

Indeed, it was only because of the Gezi protests that the Turkish parliament postponed debate on an AKP-sponsored draft law affecting thousands of hectares of forests that enjoy special protected status as conservation zones.

The proposal would have eliminated independent assessment of those areas by scientists or by scientific institutions, leaving the fate of the regions to politicians. Like Gezi Park, they would then have become open for private exploitation for tourism or construction.

The Council of Higher Education, which oversees Turkish universities and is often referred to by its Turkish acronym of YÖK, has long operated as an extension of the government. But under the AKP, its centralised disciplinary actions have drawn sharp criticism.

In 1982, following a coup d’état, the military-sponsored constitution established the council to exercise control over higher education. Accordingly, universities cannot autonomously elect their administrators, and they depend on the council to open an academic position.

The president of Turkey appoints the head of the council and university rectors – the latter from one of the three candidates who have received the most votes from the faculty. Controversial voting processes and bullying are among the grievances recently reported.

What’s more, the council also started a series of disciplinary investigations against faculty members and students, often prompted by issues on the state agenda, which under current circumstances means the AKP government.

Academics also targets

Academics have also been targets because of their research.

For example Onur Hamzaoglu, chair of the department of public health at Kocaeli University’s school of medicine, has conducted research on health hazards at urban industrial sites.

Not too long ago, Hamzaoglu found heavy metals in breast milk and infant faeces. After he publicly cautioned residents of Kocaeli against the dangers of chemical pollution supported by his findings, the leaders of the city and the province, both members of AKP, brought him to court.

Hamzaoglu was accused of “threatening to incite fear and panic among the population”. In addition, reportedly following the lead of the Ministry of Health and the Council of Higher Education, the rector of the university opened a disciplinary investigation against Hamzaoglu.

Turkish scholars have long been vulnerable to state prosecution in fields deemed ‘sensitive’ by officials. Recent high-profile examples include Ismail Besikçi, Müge Tuzcuoglu, Pinar Selek, and Büsra Ersanli.

They were detained and-or interrogated on the basis of their research on Kurdish populations or their teaching at a Kurdish science academy. Some were also subjected to ad hominem attacks by pro-government news media.

Students vulnerable

Students are equally vulnerable to investigations.

During the Gezi protests Elisa Couvert, a French student, was deported and reportedly interrogated about her thesis on the Kurds. The Council of Higher Education appears to have investigated students and faculty members who supported and-or attended the Gezi protests.

Also, a textbook on the history of the telegram (written by a professor at Ankara University) was reportedly held as evidence of illegal organisation.

According to the Initiative for Solidarity With Detained Students, students involved in the protests sometimes are forced to choose between their rights as citizens and the right to education; government-appointed university administrators reportedly punish or investigate student protesters, suspending them, expelling them, and-or not allowing them to make up necessary examinations if they are detained.

Surveillance, allegations of cronyism, concentrations of administrative powers, violations of academic freedom, and denying students their education are but a microcosm of the climate in Turkey. Much of this is not new, and yet it is most distressing that this is happening under a civilian government often hailed as a ‘model of democracy’.

But while protesters in Istanbul and elsewhere have taken to the streets for a variety of reasons, it is clear higher education has a big stake in how the demonstrations are resolved.

* Asli Igsiz is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University.