Erdogan’s War on Academia Extends to Turkey’s Top University

The picking of a loyalist as caretaker to lead Turkey’s most prestigious university reveals Erdogan’s longstanding push to totally subdue the academic landscape.

Abdullah Ayasun
5 min readJan 5, 2021

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Anti-riot police use tear gas to disperse protesting students in front of Istanbul Bogazici University on Monday. (Photo Credit: AP)

The appointment of Melih Bulu by the president as the new rector of Istanbul-based Bogazici University, Turkey’s most elite college, and the subsequent mayhem that followed on Monday has once again revealed that the war on academia is far from over. The battle between students and the anti-riot police in Istanbul, when seen from the prism of the country’s recent political context, had indeed a prologue. The fall of Bogazici University is predestined when the new executive presidency went into effect (in summer 2018) after the enactment of a constitutional referendum that bestows the president with Sultan-like powers that include appointing and removing rectors, regardless of the procedures followed by college councils to nominate or elect a rector.

What afflicted Bogazici was set out long ago when Turkey’s current system turned the president into some form of an elected monarch with near-absolute powers, with some limitations imposed by the dynamics of Turkey’s internal realpolitik. It was a presidential decree that sealed the fate of former Robert College and elevated a mediocre figure above the more deserved professors.

In this respect, Monday’s brazen takeover of a prestigious college, reincarnated from the foundations of the Robert College initially founded by an American missionary in 1863 in Istanbul in the late Ottoman era, should not surprise anyone at all. The sense of appellation by many former Bogazici staff and alumni mistakenly conveys the impression that all this happens for the first time in Turkey. Indeed, it is not the first and it will not be the last. All waves of purge that directly targeted members of academia during the entire republican history in the pre-2016 era pale into insignificance when we compare with what we’ve seen since 2016. For the sake of brevity, it should be borne in mind that at least 7,000 academics have been sacked even without a modicum of due process, while 15 universities had been shut down five days after a botched putsch. In spring 2020, another university was…

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Abdullah Ayasun

New York-based journalist and writer. Columbia School of Journalism. 2023 White House Correspondents' Association Scholar. Twitter: @abyasun