The freedom to conduct research and teach and the right to be educated have been intensely debated as pressures on universities around the world have increased and their autonomy has steadily eroded.
These contemporary challenges were reported by Scholars at Risk (SAR) in its Free to Think 2021 report which documented “332 attacks on higher education communities in 65 countries and territories”.
Among these countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the RAS has monitored the state of academic freedom, as well as the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. He concluded that these are “under attack” in Turkey. The fundamental values of higher education, such as institutional autonomy and academic freedom, are deteriorating day by day in Turkey.
The deterioration began in earnest after the July 2016 coup attempt. As a result, government pressure forced changes to the country’s higher education system that continue to undermine the autonomy of universities, the academic freedom and their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
The democratic governance structure of universities has been particularly undermined by amendments to the law on higher education according to which rectors are appointed by the president of the republic.
The right of university members to elect the rector was revoked by decree in October 2016. The 2016 decree amended Article 13 of the Higher Education Law (No. 2547). The YÖK (Council for Higher Education) now proposes three candidates for the position of rector and the president chooses from these proposed candidates.
The right to democratic elections
The recent history of Bogazici University fits this pattern. Since January 1, 2021, students and scholars of Bogazici University have been fighting for freedom of expression and the right to have their rector democratically elected.
Melih Bulu, a former deputy candidate for the AKP (President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party), was appointed rector of Bogazici University on January 2, 2021.
Following this appointment, students and scholars of the university protested against this anti-democratic development. After numerous protests, Melih Bulu was finally removed from office by a presidential decree published in the Official Journal on July 15, 2021.
Erdogan always stresses how his party came to power not by nomination but through elections; in other words, he claims that he came to power through a democratic process. Despite this, he chose to continue his undemocratic and authoritarian practices and appointed Naci Inci rector of Bogazici University on August 21, 2021.
As soon as Inci took office, he fired some academics from their posts.
In addition, Prof. Dr. Özlem Berk Albachten, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Professor Dr Metin Ercan, Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences; and Prof. Dr. Yasemin Bayyurt, Dean of the Faculty of Education, were removed from the deans to which they had been elected by their colleagues.
The three deans took their dismissal and subsequent administration appointments to court on the grounds that they were illegal and flawed in procedure.
Freedom under threat
During the protests that followed, involving both students and scholars, scores of students were detained, arrested, and prosecuted. Therefore, civil society faces suffocation under this continuous pressure. It is not possible to speak, to express oneself and therefore to exist. People can be taken into custody simply for expressing their opinion on social networks.
The system that President Erdogan wants to create is based on a clear chain of command with a top-down design following a patriarchal-hierarchical order.
The academy is or should be the place where knowledge is produced and shared freely without any outside pressure. It is also a place where intellectuals assume their responsibility towards society.
The desire to exercise this responsibility faithfully has sometimes led academics into difficult situations, both in authoritarian and democratic countries. These intellectuals face different types of oppression: being detained, accused, imprisoned, or humiliated, either for publishing research that poses a threat to the government, or for criticizing government practices and policies.
The attack on Bogazici University, an institution internationally known for its academic achievements and quality and which remains the most important university in Turkey, does not simply represent an attack on this single institution in particular. The university is made up of students, teachers, administrative staff, alumni, people who believe in its scientific, academic and social contributions and in its relations with foreign universities.
In short, it is not only this internationally respected institution that is affected by the serious attacks against it, but a whole chain of different actors with far greater implications for academic freedom and the freedom of expression in general.
Sevgi Dogan holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy. She is a collaborator in the internationalization office of the Scuola Normale Superiore as head of the Scholars at Risk network in Italy.