Feb 10, 2021 - World

Turkey's Erdoğan cracks down on academic freedom protests

Solidarity protests in Ankara. Photo: Tunahan Turhan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Ankara — The appointment of a political figure with links to Turkey's ruling party as the rector of a prominent Istanbul university has sparked protests and raised concerns about deepening political intervention in higher education.

The big picture: Turkey ranks 135th of 144 countries on the Academic Freedom Index, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in 2016 given the authority to appoint university staff by decree. That was one of numerous steps taken to strengthen his power after a failed coup.

  • Erdoğan used that power last month to appoint Melih Bulu as rector of Bogazici University, known as Turkey’s Harvard.
  • Founded in 1863 as Robert College, the prestigious public university was the first American higher education institution overseas.

Driving the news: The appointment sparked peaceful protests from students and faculty members who called for Bulu’s resignation and for the university to be permitted to elect its own rector.

  • The Turkish police cracked down. More than 600 students have been detained since Feb. 1 and at least ten are still under arrests.
  • In recent days, peaceful protests spread throughout the country in solidarity. 

The state of play: While the protests continue, Bulu is trying to establish his control over the administration of the university by appointing two vice-rectors. 

  • In a surprise move on Friday, Erdoğan bypassed the Higher Education Board to open two new faculties at the university — law and communications.
  • Critics refer to that as a “Trojan horse” move which will allow Erdoğan to appoint additional academic staff. The existing staff had refused to collaborate with Bulu.

What they're saying: The Turkish government claims the protesters are “extremists” who are violating a ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19. Erdoğan and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu both dubbed them “terrorists."

  • Soylu even tweeted that the demonstrators were “LGBT perverts." His tweet was quickly censored by Twitter.
  • State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the anti-LGBT comments by Turkish officials, expressed concern about the broader response to the protests, and said the Biden administration would not remain silent on issues pertaining to fundamental democratic freedoms.
  • During a phone call last week with Erdogan’s top advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration would show a “broad commitment to supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law” in Turkey, according to the White House readout.

What’s next: Decisions on the potential prosecution of the detained students will be given within two months, according to the legal procedures. The protests are expected to continue, with academics reading a declaration each day with their backs turned to the rectoral building.

Go deeper