Are Istanbul's Boğaziçi University protests an expression of exceptionalism? 

“Election Campaign” by Travel Aficionado licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Turkey has been rocked by renewed protests since January when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed a less than qualified individual as the rector of Istanbul's Boğaziçi University.

Considered to be the “Harvard of Turkey,” Boğaziçi University has long-standing traditions of academic excellence and world-class research, and the “political” appointment of Melih Bulu, an alleged plagiarist, was ill-received. The administration, faculty and student body of the university were not consulted in the appointment decision, and they opposed the imposition of what they considered to be an illegitimate and unacceptable appointment, and this lead to the protests.

From the protesters’ perspective, the appointment of Bulu represents the denigration of academic standards, liberal thought, and a long tradition of the university coming to a consensus of who the rector should be. Many members of the university believe that this is precisely what President Erdoğan was aiming to accomplish: supplanting the leadership of one of the few remaining bastions of critical thinking, an institution that takes pride in developing Turkey’s liberal and globally aware intelligentsia—two traits that Erdogan has been wrestling to quash since the onset of the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

In December 2015, Erdoğan stated that despite his government’s numerous achievements in the economic and political realms, it had failed to replicate these achievements in the cultural and educational arenas. The move to appoint a blatantly unsuitable person to lead Boğaziçi University is a clear signal that he is ready to browbeat the remnants of Turkey’s remaining pluralist and liberal minds. What does this say about where Erdoğan is taking his home-grown brand of authoritarianism? 

The short answer is, nowhere good. President Erdoğan has largely achieved his conquest of the educational and cultural realms he so desired. Boğaziçi University was an outlier where Erdoğan’s prerogative to determine whom he wants to lead which state organization was largely left untouched, until now.

Throughout the 2010s, under Erdoğan’s leadership as Prime Minister, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments assaulted the cause of education in Turkey, altering fundamental aspects of the primary education system, including removing the teaching of and references to evolution theory. This has been compounded by interfering in the appointment of university administrators across public universities. From faculty members, deans, vice-rectors, all the way to rectors, Erdoğan has made a point of personally appointing those he deems fit to lead close to 200 public institutions throughout the country. Even the conditions under which a scholar is granted tenure and promotion have been tampered with, so as to facilitate the academic appointment of individuals sympathetic to Erdoğan, who under normal circumstances would not be appointed.

One is left wondering, why, when these assaults on the educational system have been taking place, stronger voices have not been raised? Another way to put this: is it the case that what is happening to Boğaziçi University now is more protest-worthy? Is Boğaziçi University more special than the remainder of Turkey’s public educational establishments which have been brutalized by the AKP?

On February 15, a panel of former and current Boğaziçi University faculty members was convened to inform wider domestic and international audiences about what is happening on the university's grounds. Listening to the panelists reflect on the turmoil befalling their university, one could be forgiven for leveling the charge of exceptionalism. The online discussion, three and a half hours long, overwhelmingly focused on what the implications of Bulu were for Boğaziçi and what could and should be done by those inside and outside of Turkey to help the institution overcome this tragedy.

As the discussion wore on, one could not help but think this is exactly where Erdoğan wants Boğaziçi and its supporters: focused on the institution and fighting to overcome an illiberal and draconian imposition. He is a mastermind of manipulating dissident groups such as academics and journalists to dwell upon individual and case-specific grievances that befall them in the immediate moment. This narrows the scope of opponents that Erdoğan and the AKP have to delegitimize and swiftly eliminate. In the case of the Boğaziçi protestors, he has already achieved this by referring to the student and faculty protestors as “terrorists” and filling the campus with an overwhelming police presence. In days and months to come, many of these protesting individuals will likely be prosecuted, lose their jobs, livelihoods and dismissed as students from the university. Is their cause just and the right path to pursue?

After nearly 20 years of AKP rule, having the right answers is hard to claim. Their cause is just but possibly mistakenly channeled. Perhaps, when confronting the curtailment of academic freedoms, a concerted effort would make more of an impact. What would make Erdoğan's life increasingly difficult would be for academia as a whole in Turkey to unify around a single platform and pursue vociferously a rigorous set of demands focused on academic freedoms.

This should not be a pursuit of one institution’s rights and privileges, and a means to rectify the ways in which Boğaziçi University has been wronged. As in many forms of popular uprising, focusing on boutique causes siphons strength and momentum from the larger goal. It may, however, be too late. Erdoğan's mission to re-structure primary and secondary education is largely complete, having co-opted the lion’s share of public university administrations to implement his vision. Boğaziçi University was simply a castle waiting to be toppled.

In approaching the Boğaziçi University affair as a singular problem to overcome, the future may be bleak for Turkey’s democratic and pluralist movements. Erdoğan may have come to the realization that the current protests, unlike those for Gezi Park, are too singular and narrow, likely allowing him to neutralize them.

For academic freedoms to survive in Turkey, it will take more voices to deter Erdoğan than those bent on saving their one, beloved institution. It has to be bigger than one university and be embraced by academia nationwide. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that events such as the Boğaziçi University protests quickly spiral out of the original issue and immediately become “X aggrieved group” vs. Erdoğan. In such a case, and once the protest begins to focus on Erdoğan, this is when all resources of the state are mobilized to disproportionately eliminate the threat posed. Erdoğan cannot and will not countenance another countrywide protest movement such as Gezi Park. That presents an existential threat to his incumbency, which he has learned to thwart.

Erdoğan's regime has morphed into a cancer for the country, the region and the cause of democracy around the world. For it to be challenged and ultimately defeated, the need for concerted action is more important now than at any point in Turkey’s history as a republic. 

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