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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

Feb 9, 2021 - Science

Erdoğan says Turkey will reach the Moon by 2023

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaking in Ankara, Turkey, on Feb. 9. Photo: Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Tuesday a 10-year space program that includes missions to the Moon and the development of new satellite systems.

Why it matters: Erdoğan said his country plans to send its citizens into space with international cooperation, build a spaceport with other countries and create a "global brand" of satellite technology, according to AP.

Updated Feb 10, 2021 - World

UN calls out "use of disproportionate force" in Myanmar as police crack down

Police fire water cannons at protesters as they demonstrate against the military coup in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations on Tuesday stressed the organization's concern over "the use of disproportionate force" against anti-coup demonstrators in Myanmar.

Why it matters: Hours after the UN statement, a woman was critically wounded after being shot in the head as police fired live rounds, rubber bullets and water cannon during another massive anti-coup rally in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, per the BBC.

Scoop: Leaked HHS docs spotlight Biden's child migrant dilemma

A group of undocumented immigrants walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol station after being apprehended. Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fresh internal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show how quickly the number of child migrants crossing the border is overwhelming the administration's stretched resources.

Driving the news: In the week ending March 1, the Border Patrol referred to HHS custody an average of 321 children per day, according to documents obtained by Axios. That's up from a weekly average of 203 in late January and early February — and just 47 per day during the first week of January.