ISTANBUL: Turkey’s Bogazici University, which has survived two world wars and several coups in the 157 years since its founding, witnessed an unprecedented police crackdown on Monday when more than 160 people were arrested during protests over the appointment of a new rector.
Students and faculty members at the country’s most prestigious and Western-oriented university have been speaking out for weeks on the campus overlooking the Bosphorus, urging the newly appointed rector to resign.
Critics claim that Melih Bulu — appointed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jan. 1 as a “New Year surprise” — is a “political figure.”
Bulu’s appointment sparked anger at the university, which traditionally has elected the rector from its own ranks rather than having outside appointee directly affiliated with the ruling government.
Gulcin Avsar, a lawyer and member of the breakaway DEVA Party, said that students and faculty members want their university tradition to continue.
“Electing the rector from their own ranks has been a decades-long tradition. They just want to maintain this established practice and university culture. That’s all,” she told Arab News.
Although the Turkish president was given authority to appoint rectors in 2016, it is the first time that a controversial appointment has sparked public outcry.
“According to the Turkish constitution, everybody has the right to organize peaceful demonstrations. However, yesterday’s police crackdown reminded us once again that we are not able to enjoy all our constitutional freedoms,” Avsar said.
With snipers being positioned on rooftops overlooking the university, hundreds of police attacked and arrested students during the protests.
One protester was taken into custody for refusing to look at the ground and behaving too proudly. The hashtag “We Won’t Look Down” became a trending topic in few minutes.
About 160 students were taken into police custody, with some released early on Tuesday. At least two were placed under house arrest.
The main entrance of the campus was sealed off by police to prevent members of opposition parties joining the protest. Several parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) waited at the gates of the university.
The protests recalled similar scenes when elected mayors in the mainly Kurdish southeastern and eastern provinces were suddenly removed from their posts to be replaced by trustees appointed by the government after March 2019 local elections.
The overwhelming majority of students and faculty members have one condition to stop the protests: The withdrawal of the rector or his resignation.
“We also ask for the release of all our friends immediately in addition to our core demand,” Piril Gumurdulu, a student who has attended the protests for a month, told Arab News.
“The appointment is meant to politicize our university, which has provided the most brilliant minds in this society who have taken up high positions in every sector. They want to take away our academic autonomy,” she added.
Students are also concerned that the protest and police crackdown may legitimize further restrictions on Bogazici University, the first American university outside the US.
“Public authorities were already cutting our financial resources. Several dedicated academics left Bogazici in recent years to conduct their independent research outside. It is an intimidation policy that aims to weaken the academic staff,” Gumurdulu said.
The new rector also has faced criticism for his credentials and has been accused of plagiarism in his academic writings. Bulu has defended himself by saying that he forgot to add quotation marks in dissertations when quoting other people.
“The Turkish government’s tyranny now turns against students of Bogazici University. Many are being arrested for peacefully protesting against the government-appointed rector,” Kati Piri, former European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, tweeted.
Bogazici University students are among those winning the national university entrance exams with the highest scores. Contrary to the claims that it is an elitist institution, several students come from middle-income families and are educated with a liberal worldview.
Academic staff are known for their libertarian stance. They welcomed students in hijab during the days when headscarf-wearing women were not allowed to enter universities.
“As a former student of Bogazici University, I’m highly concerned that the appointment of Melih Bulu is barely compatible with the university’s long tradition of academic autonomy,” Ilker Kocael, a political scientist, told Arab News.
The police crackdown came on the same day that Erdogan called for the drafting of a new constitution with the agreement of his nationalistic coalition partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), triggering concerns about a threat to personal freedoms.
Kocael said that the harsh intervention by security forces in peaceful student demonstrations has only aggravated the situation.
“The authorities have the responsibility of at least getting together with protesters and of hearing the demands of university professors, students and former students in order to find a solution in a way that will avoid harming the most prestigious university in Turkey,” he said.
An estimated 6 million new younger voters will go to the polls in 2023, and recent surveys reveal that this generation is highly frustrated with the deteriorating political climate and restrictions on personal freedoms.