Unrest at Boğaziçi University

One of the leading internationally recognized universities in Turkey, Boğaziçi University (BU), is currently under a strong attack from the Turkish Government. A new rector, coming from circles completely outside BU, has been appointed by a presidential decree issued overnight on January 2nd, 2021. On February 6th, 2021, another presidential decree also issued overnight, established two new faculties– those of law and communications– without any prior consultation and planning. New appointments, not in accordance with the procedures defined by law, are being made to provide support to the new rector. Moreover, a long serving, successful and internationally respected female academic of BU has been singled out for personal insults while minority groups at BU have been subject to harsh treatment. BU case is the latest in the process of dismantling of academic institutions in Turkey and deserves continued attention of the international academic and research community.

The history of BU goes way back to 1863, when Robert College was established as the first American educational institution outside the USA, on the hills at a prime location along the Bosporus, in Istanbul. The land for the campus was granted by the Ottoman Sultan in 1869. In the following years the boys high school, Robert Academy, a sister institution, the American College for Girls, established in 1871, and Robert College (RC), mainly an engineering school with special status, that gave bachelor degrees grew into well-established institutions with their graduates often in key positions in Turkish society3.

In 1971, I was a sophomore student in physics at RC, when the existing university law was amended to abolish special-status higher education institutions. RC (similar to Middle East Technical University (METU) with also special status) was transferred to the Turkish government with the new name of “Boğaziçi University”. This transition, full of uncertainties for students and for faculty members, and the turbulences that the whole institution had to go through, is still remembered. The situation was further complicated by the overlap with considerable amount of student unrest after the 1971 military takeover and the attitude of the military that students were responsible for the unrest in the country. However, by means of strong leadership, good communication and mutual understanding among the Board of Trustees, University Administration and the Government the transfer was implemented relatively smoothly, and we, having started in 1970 our university education at RC, were proud graduates of BU in 1974. Since then BU evolved into one of the key educational establishments in Turkey, currently admitting the top 1-2% of about 2 million students who take the centrally administered university entrance examinations. BU has also secured its place among the highly respected international academic circles with its graduates scattered across the world to pursue higher degrees. Its graduates are also prominent in Turkey serving as prime ministers, ministers, politicians, businessmen and distinguished artists and writers.

Current unrest at BU started at the beginning of January when Melih Bulu, who is a politician and an academic with close ties to the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party), was appointed as the rector. Bulu, who had received his MSc and PhD from BU, had spent his academic career mostly in private universities whose standards are not as rigorous as Boğaziçi. Since then students and faculty members have been staging peaceful protests demanding his resignation and, more importantly the reinstatement of academic sovereignty, which normally allowed the faculty to select candidates for appointment as rector. Demonstrations have involved protesters, in their academic gowns, standing with their back towards the rectorate building, chanting slogans and singing popular songs whose words have been adapted to the protest. They repeat this procedure for some hours every day. The peaceful atmosphere of the protests changed when an artwork displayed at an exhibition during the demonstrations was singled out and displayed, by the authorities, as being disrespectful of religious values and police entered the campus. Students were subjected to violence, they were harassed and detained overnight and the campus was closed to visitors. Although the majority of the students were later released after a court hearing, some are still under arrest, detained for questioning, for having merely exercised their freedom of expression. Currently demonstrations are continuing at BU with strong support from educational and research institutions in Turkey and abroad while the campaign by the government and its supporters also continues unabated with a view to clamping down on the protesters to break their resistance.

In my opinion the BU unrest has to be considered in the context of the bigger picture of  changes that have taken place in Turkey since the ruling AKP came to power in 2002. AKP,  which gets support from the conservative religious and ultra-nationalistic segments of Turkish society, has systematically steered the country away from its secular constitution, dismantling  established fundamental pillars in the state such as the judiciary, military and educational institutions. AKP leadership has repeatedly expressed that its aim is to create a devout Muslim youth, and in the process it mobilizes groups to generate axes of polarization in the country. Their use of language, particularly in political speeches, pitches “Turks” against “Kurds”, “rural populations” against “minority groups”, “Sunnis” against “Alevites”, and populist masses against “Elitist White Turks”. The so-called reforms in education introduced over the last 15 years have sadly reinforced the polarization between the conservative and the progressive groups in the country; it has also cost the country dearly having resulted in reducing the secondary education system to an inconsistent patchwork. State high schools, which used to provide a strong science and general education, including foreign languages, across the country have been replaced by undistinguished religious high schools staffed by inadequately trained teachers.

“Reforms” were also implemented in the higher education realm. New universities in Anatolia were opened albeit without proper plans for facilities, staff and financing; since 2003 the numbers have increased from 96 to 207. The 1981 university law, which abolished the sovereignty of universities, was further amended in 2015 to give the president uncontestable authority to appoint rectors as well as all personnel in state universities.

It is not a surprise that well established institutions, such as the Middle East Technical University in Ankara and BU in Istanbul, which have a tradition of academic excellence as well as academic freedom, are reacting strongly to political interference. The events at BU, and those that have occurred in the recent past at METU, are just the tip of the iceberg: these protests in fact constitute a fight for academic sovereignty and quality of education across the country.

Where are the recent developments leading to? With the interventions and prevalence of mediocrity in the educational system, Turkey is fast losing its next generations of well trained,  enlightened and critical thinking individuals. However, certain clues for positive changes may be discerned in this highly strung atmosphere. Turkish society is agile and young enough to learn from past lessons. Several cases, including Gezi Park events, the repeat of municipal elections in two of Turkey’s biggest cities (Istanbul and Ankara) following allegations of rigging, resistance to construct a highway through the METU that was zoned as forest area, reactions to discrimination against women and minorities and reactions to unlawful imprisonment of thousands of people have made indelible marks in the younger generations’ memory. Despite induced polarizations, I believe a collective wisdom will emerge in the society regardless of where the fault lines may be. A collective wisdom will shine through layers of ignorance and hubris and show the way for the adoption of universally accepted values. The peaceful resistance at BU, together with others that have already taken place, will be remembered as a milestone towards a better future for Turkey.

Written by Zehra Sayers, Sabanci University, Istanbul Turkey and 2017 Rammal award winner

Disclaimer: Opinions, views and thoughts expressed in this text belong solely to the author and not to Sabanci University where she is currently working.

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