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.
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 added to the cemetery of confiscated/closed universities — Istanbul Sehir University.
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Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, currently a teaching fellow at San Jose University and former alumni of Bogazici, was unreserved when he offered an unsparing criticism of the palace coup against his alma mater:
My alma mater Boğaziçi University is a sister school of AUC and AUB. They survived dictatorships and civil wars. Boğaziçi, too, had survived military coups and countless political turmoils. This has been the most egregious assault against a 150-year-old academic institution, by the Erdogan regime.
This past weekend, Melih Bulu, an official from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was picked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a caretaker to administer Bogazici University, widely seen as the beacon of Turkey’s westernized, secular, and elite education in academia. But this does not necessarily mean that the college is off-limits to pious students or some staff members. It means that the college has predominantly been shaped and populated by secular figures for most of its history. Yet, this complexion never compromised the level of its quality. It is this near-impeccable record of success that confer considerable prestige upon the college. The Bogazici alumni include former PM Tansu Ciller, former PM Ahmet Davutoglu, and the new Rector. Among them, the latest has been the subject of intense public controversy over his unremarkable academic career.
What aggravated the sentiment among respected members of academia is the existence of allegations of plagiarism about Bulu whose academic credentials are now under close scrutiny.
In a detailed email statement, Yenigun told me the following:
Melih Bulu’s academic credentials are a different issue but not totally irrelevant. The main problem with this appointment is how Erdogan can now install almost anybody he wants to impose his will on what are supposed to be autonomous academic institutions. In 2016, by defying the will of the faculty that predominantly elected G. Barbarosoglu, he had appointed Mehmet Ozkan, a Bogazici faculty as the transitionary caretaker. Now he has brought his operation to its logical conclusion by installing a total outsider, except that he is an alumnus, in a coup-style midnight operation.
Social media is abuzz with samples of plagiarism attributed to Bulu.
“As for his academic credentials, with obvious cases of his plagiarism, he is definitely not to be in an academic institution, let alone a university president,” Yenigun wrote on his Facebook account.
Yet, there is more to this than meets the eye.
Yenigun, whose personal story serves as a microcosmos to the larger predicament of Turkey’s academia, is one of the academics who signed a peace memorandum in early 2016 to maintain the fragile Kurdish peace process amid the revival of armed clashes between the security forces and the Kurdish militants in urban areas across cities in southeastern Turkey. Yenigun was forced to leave his post at Istanbul Ticaret University and eventually was purged in 2016.
He offers a bleak depiction of the decline in academia through the lens of the recent scandal.
“But this fact also in itself stands for the larger story of current Turkey. Many of the university presidents, it is reported, have very few to none peer-reviewed academic publications. As it stands, the “model university president” in current Turkey is whoever is academically incompetent but can be a party loyalist, installed from outside singlehandedly by Erdoğan to keep the universities in the party line.” (Halil Ibrahim Yenigun)
The replacement of meritocracy with loyalty has become the defining feature of new Turkey where party allegiance trumps everything else.
Perhaps of all, a single picture captures the essence of the entire story — the tragedy that befell Turkey’s colleges. The police handcuffing of the iron gates of the university speaks volumes for itself. It represents the government’s view of colleges like prisons and students as prisoners. Both must be strictly kept under control.
In a series of tweets, Hasan Kosebalaban, an expert on Turkish foreign policy, reflected on the image that embodied what unfolded in front of the Bogazici University on Monday and what has been transpiring in Turkey for the past several years.
He recalls that the recent episode represents a U-turn in the AKP’s policies regulating higher education. When it came to power in 2002, the party vowed to allow universities to hold their elections to select a Rector in a bid to curb the legacy of the military-era 1982 constitution, which reserved enormous sway for the political authorities over governing the universities.
By picking figures as mediocre and politically-embedded as Bulu with a presidential decree with little regard for the court of opinion at the college, the government now recourses back to an authoritarian model designed by a military junta four decades ago.
The only difference is that today’s appointed trustees in the positions of Rectors do not wear military boots; they are more like party apparatchiks with party badges on their shoulders in Soviet-style.