Turkey’s most prestigious university is under attack

The freedom to conduct research and teach and the right to be educated have been the subjects of intense debate as the pressures on universities globally have increased and their autonomy has been steadily eroded.

These contemporary challenges have been reported by Scholars at Risk (SAR) in its Free to Think 2021 report which documented “332 attacks on higher education communities in 65 countries and territories”.

Among these countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, SAR monitored the state of academic freedom, along with rights to freedoms of expression and assembly. It concluded that these are under “attack” in Turkey. Core values of higher education, such as institutional autonomy and academic freedom, are deteriorating in Turkey day by day.

The deterioration began in earnest after the July 2016 coup attempt. As a result, government pressure has imposed changes on the country’s higher education system which continue to damage the universities’ autonomy, academic freedom, and their rights to freedoms of expression and assembly.

The universities’ democratic governance structure has been particularly damaged by amendments to the higher education law according to which rectors are appointed by the president of the republic.

The right of members of a university to elect the rector was revoked by decree in October 2016. The 2016 decree amended Article 13 of the Higher Education Law (No 2547). The YÖK (Council of Higher Education) now proposes three candidates for the office of rector and the president chooses from these proposed candidates.

The right to democratic elections

The recent history of Bogazici University fits this pattern. Since 1 January 2021, the students and academics of Bogazici University have been struggling for freedom of expression and the right to have their rector elected democratically.

Melih Bulu, previously a parliamentary candidate for the AKP (the Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan), was appointed rector of Bogazici University on 2 January 2021.

Following this appointment, students and academics at the university protested against this anti-democratic development. After many protests, Melih Bulu was finally removed from his position through a presidential decree published in the Official Gazette on 15 July 2021.

Erdogan always underlines how his party came to power not by appointment but through elections; in other words, he claims that he came to power through a democratic process. Despite this, he chose to continue his anti-democratic and authoritarian practices and appointed Naci Inci as rector of Bogazici University on 21 August 2021.

As soon as Inci took up his position, he dismissed some academics from their jobs.

Moreover, Professor Dr Özlem Berk Albachten, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences; Professor Dr Metin Ercan, the dean of the faculty of economics and administrative sciences; and Professor Dr Yasemin Bayyurt, the dean of the faculty of education, were dismissed from the deanships to which they had been elected by their colleagues.

The three deans brought their dismissal and the subsequent appointments made by the administration before the judiciary on the grounds that they were unlawful and procedurally flawed.

Freedom under threat

During the protests that followed, which were attended by both students and academics, many students were detained, arrested and prosecuted. Consequently, civil society is facing suffocation under this continued pressure. It is not possible to speak, to express oneself and therefore to exist. People can be taken into custody just for expressing their opinion on social media.

The system that President Erdogan wants to create is based on a clear chain of command with a top-down design following a patriarchal-hierarchical order.

The academy is or should be the place where knowledge is produced and shared freely with no outside pressure. It is also a place where intellectuals fulfil their responsibility towards society.

The desire to faithfully exercise this responsibility has sometimes led academics into difficult situations, both in authoritarian and democratic countries. These intellectuals come face to face with different types of oppression: being detained, accused, imprisoned or humiliated, either for publishing research that poses a threat to the government or for criticising the government’s practices and policies.

The attack on Bogazici University, an institution that is internationally known for its academic achievements and quality and which remains the most important university in Turkey, does not simply represent an attack on this one particular institution. The university is made up of students, teachers, administrative personnel, alumni, the people who believe in its scientific, academic and social contributions and its relationships with foreign universities.

In short, it is not just this internationally respected institution that is affected by the severe attacks on it, but a whole chain of different actors with much further-reaching implications for academic freedom and free expression generally.

Sevgi Dogan has a doctoral degree in philosophy from Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy. She is a collaborator in the internationalisation office at the Scuola Normale Superiore as the person responsible for the Scholars at Risk Network in Italy.