Turkey’s academic freedom under spotlight with new appointment

Turkey’s academic freedom under spotlight with new appointment
The Bogazici University South campus, Istanbul, Turkey. (AFP/File)
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Updated 02 January 2021

Turkey’s academic freedom under spotlight with new appointment

Turkey’s academic freedom under spotlight with new appointment
  • Erdogan appoints party man to head Istanbul university and extends control over education

ANKARA: Academic freedom in Turkey was dealt a huge blow with a politically motivated appointment to one of the country’s handful of independent universities, Bogazici University, which is more than 150 years old.

By presidential decree the current rector of the university was replaced on the first night of the year with a political figure who was a candidate standing for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the previous general and local elections.

The new rector, Melih Bulu, was a founding member of a district branch of the AKP. Over the past year, 27 rectors have been appointed by the president.

Bogazici University, overlooking the Bosphorus, was founded in 1863, the first American higher education institution to be established outside the US. It has more than 15,000 students and six campuses on the European side of Istanbul.

This latest appointment symbolizes the increased politicization of Turkish universities, along with an alarming trend of keeping the critical voices in media, civil society and academia under the control.

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his control over the higher education system in Turkey,” Berk Esen, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul, told Arab News.

As Erdogan has repeatedly stated that his party has not yet gained hegemony over education and culture, Esen thinks that such moves can be seen as deliberate attempts to change this situation.

He said Erdogan's decision to appoint Melih Bulu as rector is especially worrisome for several reasons.

“Bogazici is one of the best universities in the country and employs some of Turkey's most respected academics in various fields. In the past, President Erdogan refrained from appointing outsiders as rectors to prominent universities in the country,” he said.

“Our country needs free academia, free scientists and productive students. This freedom and productivity cannot be achieved by appointing trustees. We want a free academia,” tweeted Ali Babacan, the leader of breakaway DEVA party.

Students of the university, who are known for their high political awareness, protested under the Twitter hashtag #KayyumRektorIstemiyoruz (We don’t want a trustee rector).

In 2018, several anti-war students were arrested after a police raid in their houses and dormitories after they staged a peaceful demonstration in the university campus against Turkey’s military campaigns in Syria. They were criticized by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as being “communist, terrorist youth” in a public speech.

“It is impossible to have competitive universities on a global level and students who express themselves freely if you bring rectors to the universities in a top-down fashion. You cannot get success with such a mentality,” said Burak Dalgin, a founding member of DEVA who is also a graduate of Bogazici University.

Dalgin studied at Bogazici University in the mechanical engineering department between 1995 and 1999 before starting to work in the investment sector.

“Despite the shortcomings of Turkish democracy in the past, the school was still a safe haven for personal liberty,” he said.

Traditionally the candidate with the highest share of votes in the university elections became the rector of Bogazici University.

As the outgoing Bogazici rector is a professor at the university and briefly worked as vice-rector before taking on the top job, Esen said this recent move breaks with such precedent.

“Melih Bulu comes from outside the ranks of the Bogazici University and many have questioned whether he even has the academic credentials to work at Bogazici, let alone become rector. Also, his close connections to the AKP Istanbul branch will call into question his impartiality towards critics of the government among the academic staff and the student body,” he said.

According to Esen, this latest decision to appoint a political crony will further contribute to the culture of fear that has permeated the higher education system in Turkey and significantly harm academic freedoms.

“There is now widespread fear that universities will turn into sites for Erdogan to reward his party stalwarts,” he said.

Another presidential decree last year led to the closure of Sehir University, a private university in Istanbul linked to former prime minister and political rival Ahmet Davutoglu, making jobless all its academic staff, many of whom had taken a critical political stance over recent years.


Facing Biden, Erdogan extends olive branch to EU

Facing Biden, Erdogan extends olive branch to EU
Updated 17 January 2021

Facing Biden, Erdogan extends olive branch to EU

Facing Biden, Erdogan extends olive branch to EU
  • While Erdogan speaks of turning “a new page,” the list of European grievances is long
  • His direct military interventions in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts raised hackles in Europe

ANKARA: Facing a potentially hostile US administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to break his isolation by mending EU relations, torn by what the bloc views as his bellicose foreign policy.
Ties between Ankara and Brussels have plunged to a nadir not seen since Turkey formally opened talks to join the bloc in 2005, a process which is now frozen.
And while Erdogan speaks of turning “a new page,” the list of European grievances is long.
Most recently, Brussels began drawing up a list of sanctions over Turkey’s hunt for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, which triggered a naval standoff with Greece last year.
But older suspicions simmer.
Erdogan’s direct military interventions in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts raised hackles in Europe, while his vocal backing of Azerbaijan in the six-week Nagorno-Karabakh war upset Armenia’s allies across the West.
Erdogan’s threats to send millions of Syrian and other refugees Turkey is hosting to Europe if the bloc fails to provide more funding are a constant menace.
And he has made the animosity personal by attacking French President Emmanuel Macron’s treatment of Muslims, which Europe counters by pointing to Turkey’s grim record on human rights.
Some believe this standoff is unsustainable for Erdogan.
“Ankara cannot afford an escalation with both the US and Europe, especially with an economy this fragile,” a European diplomat told AFP.

'Looking for friends anywhere'
Turkey’s heavy dependence on Europe is borne out by the numbers.
EU member states accounted for 67.2 percent of foreign direct investments in Turkey between 2002-2018, according to official data.
With foreign sentiment dented, the Turkish lira lost a fifth of its value against the dollar last year, forcing the central bank to burn through most of its reserves trying to prop up the currency.
Then Erdogan parted ways with his powerful son-in-law, who served as finance minister and bore the blame for Turkey’s economic woes.
A few days later, Erdogan first mentioned reforms and “turning a new page” in relations with Europe.
“Erdogan is looking for friends anywhere and everywhere,” said Ilke Toygur, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and Elcano Royal Institute.
To this end, Erdogan held a meeting on Tuesday with EU ambassadors — described as “positive” by some of those who took part — while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will visit Brussels on Thursday.
Macron and Erdogan have also exchanged letters that Cavusoglu said could help reboot their relations, leading to a possible video conference call.

Mounting domestic pressure
US President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, who once called the Turkish leader a “good friend,” appears to be at least partially responsible for Erdogan’s shift in tone.
“Biden’s victory has reshuffled the cards. Turkey expects the next US administration will be less inclined to let it off the hook,” the European diplomat said.
Certain appointments by Biden are likely to raise hairs in Ankara, none more so than Brett McGurk’s naming to the National Security Council, where he will oversee the Middle East and Africa.
McGurk has been an outspoken critic of Turkey’s policy on Syria, where the US supports a Kurdish militia that Ankara blames for attacks on its soil, and will play an important role in shaping Washington’s relations with Erdogan.
“This seeming call for a rapprochement with the EU can be interpreted as preparation” for Biden, said Sinem Adar, an associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies in Berlin.
Erdogan was once part of a select group of leaders who could dial up Trump directly on the phone, but Adar said the loss of this privilege with Biden is not the only factor behind the attempted rapprochement.
He faces “mounting domestic pressure due to economic woes accentuated by Covid-19” and a “decreasing vote share” for his ruling party and its nationalist junior partners, Adar said.

Demonstration of goodwill sought
Erdogan could demonstrate his goodwill by easing the pressure on his political opponents, some of whom are facing high-profile trials.
“For any signal from Ankara to mend relations with the EU to be perceived credible by the union, Ankara is expected to shift gears” on the rule of law and human rights as well as Turkey’s confrontational foreign policy, Adar told AFP.
Analyst Toygur said she did not think any specific action could provide a “demonstration of goodwill” from Erodgan.
But she said the sides could find points of contact on managing illegal migration, since it is “an issue of utmost importance for the stability of the EU.”
Ankara is also hoping to update the sides’ Customs Union, although Toygur said the bloc was likely to be “more demanding” on this front.
But while Europe wants to avoid further strains with Turkey, Western diplomats point to a low appetite for a rapprochement in some EU corners.
“Turkey’s charm offensive has left many European countries skeptical,” the European diplomat said.