Rethinking Europe

Turkey: Erdogan’s Battle Over Bogazici University

Reflections on the fragility of academic freedoms and human rights.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Credit: Fotostory - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • People in Turkey have experienced an accelerating round of attacks on academic freedoms and human rights of students and faculty at Bogazici University.
  • Bogazici University is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Turkey. It has always had one of the most welcoming campuses -- for conservative and liberal students alike.
  • Erdogan appointed a ruling party loyalist, Dr. Melih Bulu, to become the rector of Bogazici University. By doing so, he hopes to finally bring it into the government’s orbit of faithful servants.
  • Bogazici University’s future for its academic and individual freedoms, its renowned academic excellence, broad-based governance structure and its commitment to free and open exchanges looks grim.
  • As an economy bereft of natural resources, its human resources are Turkey’s mainstay in the race for a prosperous future.

Turkey is going through a major economic crisis, with inflation and unemployment rates in double digits. The Turkish currency has lost over 25% of its value in the last 12 months. The COVID 19 pandemic hit the country like a hurricane — causing untold misery and economic damage.

Running away from the dismal economy

Given this, one would expect the Turkish government to focus its attention on fighting the pandemic and improving the economy.

Of course, in Turkey the word “government” these days refers pretty much exclusively to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President.

Beating up on students for distraction purposes

However, people in Turkey have experienced an accelerating round of attacks on academic freedoms and human rights of students and faculty at my own alma mater, Bogazici University (BU).

Bogazici is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Turkey. Located on the European shores of the Bosporus Strait, the university has a stunningly picturesque campus.

This is also the university that has always had one of the most welcoming campuses — for conservative and liberal students alike. The latter is a rarity in Turkey and a sign of special distinction.

Bogazici also ranks in the top 200 Best Global Universities by the US News and World Report and historically happens to be the first American college abroad, formerly named Robert College.

The place for critical thinking

Choosing only from the very top of the high school graduates taking the national university entrance exam each year, its graduates are in a class of their own. They become renowned artists, intellectuals, academics, scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and much more.

BU’s success as an institution is due to the unusually liberal environment its campus offers to all its students.

This is also the place in Turkey to advance critical thinking, allowing students to think and ask questions without being afraid of prosecution or retaliation.

Its active student clubs represent a rich and diverse range of views — and offers a welcoming ground for people to learn and practice coexistence while exercising free speech.

A brief recap

Bogazici is usually in the news in Turkey and abroad for its academic success stories. As of late, however, it is in the news for a different reason.

In early January, President Erdogan appointed a ruling party loyalist, Dr. Melih Bulu, to become the rector (president) of Bogazici University. By doing so, Erdogan disregarded the decades-long tradition at BU to select its rector from among of its professors and through an election.

BU, together with few others, is an exception in Turkey for demanding merit in its administrative appointments. And while Dr. Bulu received his PhD from BU, he has to contend with accusations of plagiarism. His lack of administrative experience at a university of BU´s size is another factor.

The appointment decision, very predictably, led to major protests by the faculty and students both at BU and in the rest of the country, calling for Dr. Bulu’s resignation. Almost 5,000 BU alumni and as many international scholars have called for his resignation so far.

Petitions calling for international solidarity with BU are also spreading. In response, Dr. Bulu is quoted saying that he would not resign.

Erdogan’s next quagmire

As expected, the Turkish government responded to protests heavy handedly, arguing that it would not let another Gezi Park happen.

Large numbers of peaceful protestors have been arrested and the anti-riot police broke into the BU campus, accompanied by police snipers on building tops. Faculty members reportedly refused to join the new rector’s administration and it took a month to appoint the new vice-rector.

Presidential name-calling

In his response to peaceful protests, President Erdogan accused students of being terrorists and his coalition partner called them vandals and barbarians.

To outperform Erdogan, in a Twitter post the leader of his coalition partner, MHP, has called the demonstrating students “poisonous snakes whose heads need to be crashed.” Twitter has removed this Tweet. The LGBTQ students are particularly targeted.

The troll machinery

Since early January, dozens of BU professors have been targeted by online trolls. They find themselves accused of being elitists, provocateurs and, of course, paid agents of foreign governments.

Given Turkey’s newish lèse majesté laws, which are ever more akin the laws that have long been a hallmark of royal rule in Thailand, BU students are reportedly charged with “insulting the President,” “provoking the public to enmity, hatred and hostility” and “provoking to commit crimes.”

Adding fuel to the fire

Taunting the students in a press conference, Erdogan said about the students “if they had the guts, they would ask for the president to resign as well.”

In response, BU students released an open letter to the president where they denounced the president and said “you are not a sultan, and we are not your subjects.”

The Turkish government also denounced the calls for restraint and respect for academic and individual freedoms by the United States and the EU. Predictably enough, it accused them of double standards and of human rights violations in their own countries.

Erdogan’s strategic out: the Trojan Horse

For now, the solution Erdogan seems to embrace is to use the famed Trojan horse approach by establishing two new colleges at BU by presidential decree, the law school and the faculty of communication.

The obvious purpose is to appoint a new faculty to BU from the outside and change the composition of the liberal leaning faculty body, finally bringing BU into the government’s orbit of faithful servants.

The new rector dutifully endorsed this move on his Twitter account, adding that “he hopes the new faculties will add new perspectives” to BU.

BU will survive, at a cost to society

Bad as recent developments are, this is not the end of BU. The institution has endured many ups and downs in its long history.

However, the future of its academic and individual freedoms, its renowned academic excellence, broad-based governance structure and especially its commitment to free and open exchanges looks grim.

Erdogan’s real blind spot

What President Erdogan fails to admit is that reducing the potential for critical thinking and harming the country’s institutional development directly reduces a country’s future earnings ability.

As an economy bereft of natural resources, its human resources are Turkey’s mainstay in the race for a prosperous future.

Sadly, Mr. Erdogan fails to see the connection between the two.

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About Firat Demir

Firat Demir is a professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

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