Fifteen universities closed in purge after failed coup

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree enabling the closure of 15 universities and the Council of Higher Education or YÖK ordered a crackdown on academics in the wake of the failed attempted military coup.

The decree allowed for the closure of 1,043 schools, 1,229 foundations and associations, 35 medical institutions, and 19 unions along with the 15 universities.

YÖK suspended four university rectors, demanded the resignation of all deans and a blanket travel ban was imposed blocking academics from leaving the country.

The measures followed the imposition of a three-month state of emergency following the coup on 15 July, in which 240 people were killed – of whom 62 were police officers, 173 were civilians and five were soldiers – and 1,535 people were wounded. The coup failed after President Erdogan, using social media, appealed to citizens to mass on the streets to protect democracy.

The rectors of Yildiz Technical University, Gazi University, Dicle University and Yalova University, who are senior deans and were appointed by YÖK, were suspended for “the well-being of several investigations that are being carried out”, Anadolu Agency reported. Another rector was detained.

YÖK demanded and secured the resignation of all 1,577 deans from their administrative role at state and private universities, according to Hurriyet Daily News. They included 1,176 from state universities and 401 from private universities.

YÖK also ordered the recall to Turkey of all academics working abroad and blocked travel out of the country.

The measures appear to go further than identifying parties involved in the coup. Erdogan – and many Turks – believe the movement of United States-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen was behind the coup attempt and the university closures appear to be part of a wider effort to dismantle the influence of Gülenists.

Gülen has denied any involvement in the coup. But Erdogan describes his followers as a “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ)/Parallel State Structure, which has been identified as a threat to national security”.

In an interview with France 24 TV, the president said: “They had prepared for a coup attempt following an order from Pennsylvania. There are confessors among detainees. They are telling investigators from whom they took the order.”

In a statement to University World News, YÖK President Professor Yekta Sarac, said: “There is no doubt that the recent coup attempt was organised by an illegal organisation called FETÖ, which has infiltrated into many state agencies for decades. Recent happenings in Turkey [have] provided strong signals that the members of this illegal organisation may have penetrated into our higher education system, too.

“We see such well-organised illegal organisations as one of the biggest threats to autonomy of our institutions and the academic freedom of our faculty members. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in cutting the ties of any illegal organisation with our universities.”

YÖK stressed that the deans have resigned only from their “temporary administrative positions” and continue to hold their academic posts. Deans are appointed directly by YÖK while academic appointments are made by university administrations. YÖK also said that the travel ban was a temporary measure and rectors were re-authorised to permit travel abroad after two days of the ban.

Action condemned

But the European University Association or EUA has issued a statement condemning “strongly and unconditionally” the action against university staff and expressed its “heartfelt support for the higher education community in Turkey at this time”.

The EUA called on all European governments, universities and scholars to “speak out against these developments and to support democracy in Turkey, including institutional autonomy and academic freedom for scholars and students”.

Scholars at Risk, the New York-based network, in a statement, said: “Widespread closures of higher education institutions, particularly when they are based on alleged associations between those institutions and other parties, have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom, undermine democratic society generally, and may represent a grave threat to higher education on a national scale.”

It said while state authorities have a right to maintain order and respond to legitimate security concerns, such actions must comply with states’ human rights obligations, including those related to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, due process, the right to education, and academic freedom.

Gülen’s movement runs educational institutions in Turkey and a number of other countries, including the US, and his followers are believed to hold influential positions in Turkey which some describe as amounting to a “parallel state” or “deep state”.

YÖK ordered university leaders to identify and take action against any academic or administrative personnel suspected of having links to the Gülenist movement.

The order was disseminated at an emergency meeting of 165 university rectors on 18 July in the capital, Ankara. YÖK said 28 other university leaders were not invited to attend because their institutions were suspected of supporting the Gülenist movement, Nature reported.

Umit Erol, a professor and head of the business department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told Middle East Eye that there was a belief that Gülen – a former Erdogan ally who fell out with the Turkish president amid government suspicions over his movement’s reach and influence within Turkey – still holds the support of many working in Turkish universities, and that was why academics had come under collective suspicion.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Turkey director of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank, told Middle East Eye: “Academic freedom was already limited in Turkey and with these purges even those that are not touched will be intimidated.”

Nearly 22,000 staff have been suspended from the Turkish Education Ministry, due to their alleged links to the Gülenist movement, Hurriyet reported. According to bianet.org, at least 743 academics at 24 universities had been suspended by 22 July.

The EUA statement, signed by EUA President Rolf Tarrach and Secretary General Lesley Wilson, said: “While there has been global and unanimous support for the democratically elected government of Turkey in reaction to the military coup, the measures introduced today go in the wrong direction.

“More than ever Turkey needs freedom of speech, public and open debate, as advocated by its strong university sector, committed to internationally recognised university values, the principles of academic freedom, free expression and freedom of association.”

However, YÖK President Sarac, in his statement to University World News, said YÖK was well aware of the importance of academic freedom and hoped to “clarify” international public opinion, arguing that critical views were being articulated by “those who are not aware of the extent and the depth of the great dangers that our entire nation, including [the] higher education system, faces”.

In January this year the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, which has 80 member organisations across the world, issued a statement demanding that the Turkish government “desist from threatening academics”.

The statement was supported by 28 Nobel Prize laureates and reflected deep international concern over reports that Turkish federal prosecutors had placed under investigation approximately 1,128 academics from 89 universities in apparent retaliation for their co-signing a public petition criticising military operations against Kurdish rebels in the south-east of the country and urging Turkish authorities to renew dialogue with factions to build a lasting peace.