Academics in Turkey say they have won a rare victory for university autonomy after a politically appointed rector was dismissed following six months of protest. The sacking of Melih Bulu, a former ruling party candidate appointed at Bogazici University by the president in January, they hope, could be a turning point in the fight for academic freedom, which has come under intense pressure since a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Prof. Bulu’s outside appointment — under a 2018 law that allows president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to choose rectors — sparked student and faculty protests at Bogazici, a highly selective institution with a strong tradition of democratically picking its leaders from within.
But on July 14, Prof. Bulu was dismissed by the president without explanation. “We have forced them to take a step back,” says Feyzi Ercin, a former Bogazici music lecturer and lawyer who provided legal advice to arrested students during the protests.
Turkey’s increasingly autocratic government has squeezed institutional autonomy since 2016 with widespread arrests and dismissals of scholars following the failed coup. Last year, a former ruling party MP was appointed head of Ankara University, while dozens of rectors tweet pro-government messages, according to an analysis conducted last year. But Bogazici was seen as Turkey’s “last fortress” against this political encroachment, explains Odul Bozkurt, lecturer in international human resource management at the University of Sussex, and a Bogazici alumnus.
Prof. Bulu’s appointment triggered the creation of alumni action groups in the UK, US, Sweden, Spain, Germany and Belgium. “I have never seen this level of resilience and imagination in mobilising an entire community,” she adds.
It is unclear exactly what President Erdogan will do next. It is possible that he “wants a rector that would mediate these protests and calm the campus, so this may be a political move with election concerns”, says Mine Eder, a professor of political economy at Bogazici.
But several campaigners fear the government will take an even harder line against the university. Pro tem rector Naci Inci, a physics professor has already dismissed several opposition figures from their roles. Prof. Ercin says he found out in July end that his course on film music had been cancelled after eight years of lecturing. The decision “had everything to do with the protests,” he says.
Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education
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