ANKARA: A high-profile appointment at a Turkish university has triggered protests as far afield as Australia and Canada, amid growing anger over government attempts to infiltrate higher education institutions.
Melih Bulu was a candidate for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the previous general and local elections, and his appointment as rector of the prestigious Bogazici University in Istanbul has led to clashes between students and police in the Turkish city and stoked fears that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is tightening his control over campuses.
Bogazici graduates, students and lecturers living in Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Eindhoven and Toronto staged protests in response to the appointment of Bulu, who comes from outside the university’s community and was appointed by presidential decree.
Aybala Bulut, one of the protesters, said Erdogan’s actions “trespassed” on the university’s traditions.
“What we are protesting is the appointment of a rector to our university by the president, a practice that trespasses the democratic principles highly valued and prioritized for more than 150 years,” she told Arab News.
Traditionally, the candidate with the highest share of votes in university elections became the rector of Bogazici University.
“Bogazici has such a democratic tradition when it comes to electing administrative staff,” she added. “The appointment of a rector from outside of the university without an election, a practice reminiscent of military rule in 1980s’ Turkey, by itself is unacceptable for us and enough reason to protest.”
Hundreds of professors joined the protests on campus, shouting: “We do not accept. We do not give up.”
They also released a joint declaration criticizing the appointment of someone outside the Bogazici community as rector.
“It is a must for the universities to take the decisions themselves through councils elected with democratic methods,” the declaration said.
At least 36 bar association heads also gave their support to the Jan. 7 protests, criticizing the “anti-democratic” ways for rector appointments and pointing to the gravity of police violence against the demonstrations.
Dozens of university students in Turkish cities were met with tear gas and plastic bullets. They were also taken into custody, although many of them were released. There have also been reports about students being strip searched and beaten, causing more anger.
On Friday Erdogan criticized the protests for the first time, saying that “terrorists” were involved. He also said that Bulu was the “most suitable” person for the job.
Bogazici University, which overlooks the Bosphorus, was founded in 1863. It was 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.
“Bogazici academics object to this appointment first and foremost as a matter of principle, independent of the person who is appointed,” Dr. Mert Arslanalp, a political scientist from Bogazici University, told Arab News.
Arslanalp said that a centralized top-down appointment system was anti-democratic and undermined university autonomy.
“Bogazici University has a bottom-up governance model that spreads decision-making powers across a vast number of commissions, committees, and deliberative bodies, which ensures the free development of numerous disciplines, centers, and student clubs. We think that the democratic governance model is valuable because academic freedoms, critical thought, and pluralist campus life that are necessary for scientific, intellectual, and moral development of academics and students can only be preserved in the long-run under such a model. Otherwise, it depends on the goodwill of individuals. This governance model has also ensured that faculty appointments are made on the basis of merit, which is essential for reaching high quality research and education.”
He added that an externally appointed rector would not be accountable and may use the position’s extensive legal powers to undermine the democratic governance model.
“Appointing someone outside the university is also an insult to the entire faculty body of one of the best universities in Turkey. It implies that this university, which has educated some of the top leaders in many fields and has successfully governed itself for decades, now lacks the human capital to govern itself. I find such an insinuation extremely disrespectful and profoundly antidemocratic.”
There are other ethical concerns about the new rector, including allegations that his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation involve plagiarism, and question marks over his academic prowess.
“Students doubt that he could even be a part-time professor at the university let alone being the rector of it,” Bulut said.
Erdogan has appointed 27 rectors over the past year.