On the Margins of the University: Academics in the Face of Power in post-2016 Turkey

By Alihan Mestci

Culture is a battle that “has not yet been won” – this has been iterated on numerous occasions by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ever since late 2016, the year of the July 15th coup attempt. The state of emergency has given a legal blank check for thousands of dismissals in the civil service as well as for the criminalization and marginalization of dissenting voices from the media and civil society. Added to this are the universities, which are hotbeds of the “cultural battle” and whence new forms of resistance are emerging in contemporary Turkey.         

On Monday, 4 January 2021, the police barred the doors of Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University in Istanbul in order to block hundreds of students who were demonstrating against the Turkish president’s appointment of an academic from outside the university and a member of Erdoğan’s party, Melih Bulu, as rector of this prestigious institution (an appointment which had taken effect at midnight on January 1st). In today’s Turkey, at a time when anti-establishment movements are being silenced, the Boğaziçi faculty regularly gather on the southern campus attired in their robes and turn their backs on the office of Mr. Bulu, a 51-year-old engineer who only obtained his professorship in 2016 and who is accused of committing plagiarism in his academic publications.  

The movement is growing. Within it, LGBT activists along with feminists and female college students in headscarves are collectively expressing themselves. This composition, reflecting the cultural diversity of the demonstrators, also serves the function of belying the campaign to discredit them led by the powers-that-be and the pro-government media. A wave of protests emerged, violently suppressed by the police with the arrest of students and accompanied by statements on the part of Mr. Erdoğan and his interior minister Süleyman Soylu accusing the mobilized groups of being “terrorists” as well as “depraved” and “anti-national.” This rhetoric was also utilized against the “academics for peace.”

Just as with his appointment by a midnight decree announced in the official newspaper of the Turkish republic and accompanied by the president’s signature, Mr. Bulu was removed from his post by another midnight decree on the fifth anniversary of the July 15th coup attempt. As an indicator of the context of authoritarian rule in Turkey, Mr. Bulu was not notified of his eventual removal, as evidenced by his Instagram story posted that day to refute the “rumors” of his dismissal: “So does anyone know about this? Like me for example? :) Don’t be duped!”

In an interview from last February, Mr. Bulu stated that the “resistance should not last more than six months.” Having been silenced since July 2021, he was replaced after six months by his assistant Naci Inci, an academic with greater scientific capital, a 56-year-old physicist who has been a professor at the Boğaziçi University since 2005. This was a measure taken to appease those protests of academics and students that had attained an “unexpected” duration. And that resistance continues.

The Bosphorus University has once again become a flagship symbol of the struggle against political tutelage vis-á-vis academic freedom. It was at this English-language university that the system of appointing rectors by the central government, established under the 1980 military regime, was challenged and circumvented by having members of the university hold informal elections for their rectors. The electoral model forged by Boğaziçi’s teachers was to be formalized by the right-left coalition government in 1992, thus replacing the old one with an insufficiently democratic system of appointment; in effect the amended law imposed a double control mechanism on the appointment of rectors by internal vote.

In reality the academics only had authority over the appointment of six candidates. The Council of Higher Education arbitrarily reduced this number to three and forwarded them to the President of the Republic, which finally appointed one of the three as rector of the public universities. Nevertheless, from the very first official elections, the Boğaziçi academics invented a new practice in order to achieve their administrative autonomy: the five candidates who participated in the election rejected the official proposal of the rectorship in favor of the first one placed by them. As has been the case with all elected rectors since 1992, this was a tacit agreement between the capital and Bosphorus until the system of intra-university elections was abolished on 29 October 2016, the 93rd anniversary of the republic’s founding, by a statutory order issued by the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) council of ministers during that state of emergency which would last until July 2018.

The statutory order decreed that the Council of Higher Education should become the sole authority capable of designating the names of candidates to be forwarded to the president without any prior consultation with the academics. Refusing to appoint the rector elected by Boğaziçi in July 2016, Erdoğan instead chose Mehmed Özkan, a university professor who was an advisor to the previous rector and the brother of an AKP deputy. With this first rector parachuted in without any consideration for the internal electoral process, it was a game of compromise between the academics and the government.

At a time when everywhere throughout the country there were firings of academics who had signed the petition “We will not be a party to this crime!”[1] – which called for an end to human-rights violations during military operations in the Kurdish-majority region and which was made public with more than two thousand signatures in January 2016 – the new rector did not resort to any disciplinary measures against the Boğaziçi petitioners. A new agreement was born: protection of the petitioners in exchange for administrative autonomy.

Despite this agreement, two petitioners out of 117 were dismissed from Boğaziçi in February and March of 2017, one by statutory order and another by non-extension of his contract at initiative of the Council of Higher Education. In July 2018, on the eve of the end of the state of emergency, one of the last statutory orders gave all authority to appoint rectors to the president, even nullifying the procedure of nominating candidates by the Higher Education Council. The appointment of Melih Bulu as head of Boğaziçi in January 2021 thus symbolized the loss of any degree of autonomy for academics vis-à-vis the central power in Turkey.

As for the petitioning academics who were dismissed from their universities in 2016 and 2017, this proved to be a very bitter experience. Many of them proceeded to create alternative spaces for their academic production. During the state of emergency, 822 signatories were prosecuted for disseminating “propaganda for a terrorist organization” and four others for “degrading the Turkish nation and the state of the Republic of Turkey and the organs and institutions of the state.”[2] In August 2016, before promulgation of the September 1st statutory order decreeing the first mass dismissal of academic signatories, 105 petitioners lost their jobs due to layoffs, retirements and forced resignations.[3] 406 petitioners were gradually removed from the civil service by 11 statutory orders out of 37 issued by the Council of Ministers, which had been bestowed this power in the context of the state of emergency declared by the government after the attempted coup of 15 July 2016. Although the constitutional court rendered a verdict in July 2019 that called the conviction of academics a “violation of their freedom of expression,” currently the State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission, an administrative mechanism that ought to be bound by the Constitutional Court’s judgments, refuses to reinstate at least 90 of the 406 dismissed signatory academics.[4]

In reality, as its members have clarified, the Peace Academics group had formed in November 2012, even before the public launch of the peace-talks process between the Turkish government and the Kurdish party. Up until 2016 they had engaged with the issue either by organizing conferences or as authors of other petitions, reports and editorials dealing with the topic. But the violent reactions against publication of the famous petition in early 2016 attested to the fact that such interventions would no longer be tolerated.

On the one hand this curtailing of possibilities results from cessation of the peace process, evinced by the armed struggles between the military forces and Kurdish guerrillas in the cities of southeastern Turkey in the summer of 2015 and, on the other hand and in parallel, from the alliance that has formed between the AKP leadership and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In the aftermath of the publication of this petition, Erdoğan accused the petitioners, whom he labeled “so-called intellectuals,” of having committed high treason. These virulent statements made them the targets of far-right groups and organizations as well as of other citizens, legitimizing the use of violence against them, violence that was confirmed by investigations led by a dozen dismissed academics.[5]

As for the signatory academics who are still working in Turkish universities, they state that they practice self-censorship in their academic activities and that they no longer have any “motivation.” This is also confirmed by a study comparing the number of publications from Turkey in international journals between 2016 and 2017. The global decrease in Turkish publication output was 28 percent in all research fields, but the most dramatic decrease occurred in the social sciences where it dropped to 44 percent.[6] With regard to the consequences of this repressive campaign among academics, their testimonies evoke the loss of illusio in their academic commitment, illusio that Bourdieu defined as “the fact of wanting to enter the game,” a loss linked to this rupture in their academic trajectory.

Resistance and solidarity in post-2016 Turkey: Academics facing the power on the margins of the university. Photo: Jean Simmoneat. Adaptation: Alihan Mestci, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

As for the dismissed academics who can no longer find work at universities, some 30 percent of them are now playing an active role in the formation of alternative teaching and research bodies outside the institution of the university.[7] They form alternative teaching bodies know as “solidarity academies” or “street academies” where they can continue to pursue their professions. Their practice of resistance is underpinned by a desire to regain their autonomy, which is manifested not only by the persistence of those who are prohibited from exercising their intellectual activity at the university level but also by the fact that by way of these alternative circuits they are equipping themselves with means of production and circulation that are more autonomous in relation to the demands of the outside world.

Those organizations that remain active today have all been institutionalized as formal entities and can therefore become beneficiaries of European subsidies. They are all situated in the major cities (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir) and their neighboring towns (Kocaeli and Eskişehir) except for the House of Culture in Mersin (southern Turkey), which constitutes the sole example of a business company in this network of institutions.

The House of Culture (Kültürhane) was founded in June 2017 and functions as both a café and public library with its collection of five thousand books belonging to dismissed academics pursuing their scholarly lives abroad and “organized along lines of the Library of Congress classification system.” Kültürhane has since become the liveliest cultural center in the city.[8]

Organizing a small number of academics as a “business” in this city, which is relatively far from the country’s major centers, was more convenient for them at the administrative level. In other cases it took at least a year to establish legal status because of the excessive bureaucratic precautions that prevented these academics from rapidly transforming their organizations into associations or cooperatives. 

For example the first of the solidarity academies, KODA, was founded in late 2016 by the dismissed academics of Kocaeli University in the industrial city of Kocaeli (one hundred kilometers from Istanbul) and was formalized as a legal association in December 2017. Ever since the autumn of 2016, KODA has regularly disseminated the proceedings of the numerous workshops they have organized, thus complementing regular seminars on local and urban issues such as artistic and cultural life in the city, workers and occupational safety, local politics, the struggles of women and urban transformation.    

Included among the books are The School of Life Sciences of Kocaeli Solidarity Academy as a Praxis of Resistance, which highlights the experience of the School of Life Sciences, maintained for two years within the Academy framework; A Life in the Struggle for Democracy and Human Rights: Tahsin Yeşildere, which was based on sessions held at the Oral History Workshop on Freedom of Thought and Expression; and City, Trade Union and Struggle: The Union of Kocaeli Trade Unions, edited by the Oral History of Labor and Organization Group, which focuses on the trade-union movement in Kocaeli.

These three books appeared in 2020 and tend to deal with local topics. They were accompanied by two articles and a collection, KODA’s First Long Year, which treated of the academics’ experiences subsequent to their dismissals. This publication is both a self-history and a compilation of articles taken from presentations made by KODA members within the framework of the 2016–2017 seminar program.   

Exactly like KODA, the Eskişehir School assumed the form of an association in October 2018 with the slogan “Science Means to Dare!” Within the school some fifteen dismissed academics from the city’s two public universities – Anadolu University and Osmangazi University – organize workshops on topics that include the philosophy of law, science and history, literary theory, critical-discourse analysis, sexuality and semantics.  

For its part the Ankara Academy of Solidarity (ADA) is organized as a formal cooperative in the Turkish capital and within ADA there are numerous teleworkshops held within the framework of two programs – labor studies and cultural studies. In Turkey’s third largest city, at the Izmir Solidarity Academy, founded in November 2016 and formalized in August 2019, academics focus on urban and gender issues while conducting research on their own experiences outside the formal academy; its current name is the Izmir Solidarity and Scientific Research Association.[9]

The dismissed academics are also to be found in the two bodies, which bespeaks a continuity relating to associative activities well before the purges and which will allow their adherents to adapt more easily to this new state of post-dismissals; added to these are the School of Human Rights in Ankara and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) in Izmir, and all of which are funded by the same European Commission program, which goes by the name of European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).  

Off University, founded in 2017 as an association and the sole solidarity academy to have been created abroad, is moreover the result of the growing integration of petitioners into European solidarity networks, thus leading to the emergence and strengthening of a transnational academic field, as in France via the launch of PAUSE to assist academics in danger and likewise in Germany with the Philipp Schwartz program. It is within this organization that some fifty academics give lectures via remote teaching programs.[10] These latter also initiate joint projects with solidarity academies in Turkey, which permits local agents to go beyond the national academic domain in their knowledge production and its dissemination, for instance the organization affiliated with the seminar “Gender and Society” in partnership with that association of feminist academics “Aramizda” (Between Us).[11] Named after the concept coined by Hannah Arendt, this latter is a special case in focusing solely on research and monitoring activities in the field of gender and queer studies. Lastly the association “Bir-Ara-Da” (Together) was conceived as an entity that would coordinate the solidarity academies by bringing together all their members, of which there are presently 180. The association’s establishment in May 2018 was based on funding provided by the international human-rights organization Civil Rights Defenders.

As for similar groupings launched in other cities far from Turkey’s metropolises such as Dersim, Mardin and Antalya, these have been disbanded largely due to the fact that their initiators have relocated to the country’s three major cities or gone abroad.

Within these networks and institutions the academics give regularly scheduled courses, organize workshops, conferences and summer schools, and they publish articles in their respective fields of research. At the same time they also report violations of their rights in the form of press releases and academic investigations. Thus the concern here is to turn academic production outside the university into a weapon, and certain of these academics even contend that the “street academy is a form of political action” – in other words, a form of politics from below. 

While the “academics for peace,” as a solidarity collective, are busy posting statements in both Turkish and English on their website regarding the issues of the day, those who take to the streets are simultaneously investigating and publishing detailed reports on the process of their dismissals. This is evidenced, among other things, by the publication of two volumes of investigations in November 2019 by a group of dismissed academics in Izmir (TIHV).

The first of these is entitled Turkey’s Academy under the State of Emergency: A Study of the Destruction of the Academic Environment. Within a historical-analytic framework it evaluates the legal regulations of the academy during the state of emergency, the practices within universities, and the transformation of the political regime that refashioned the academic environment. The second volume is entitled Academic Purge in Turkey: Human Rights Violations, Losses, and Empowerment, which documents the testimony of “academics for peace” in also discussing the effects that their dismissals have had on them.      

These investigations, conducted as part of the project “Supporting Academics as a Human Rights Actor in a Challenging Context,” are being funded by the European Commission. This is yet another indication of their transnationalization. In the introduction to the second volume, the researchers state that “the research team hopes these reports will function as a kind resistance through documentation and at the same time as an intervention in the context of political violence and repression, while also seeking to give individuals hope for survival through our reinforcement.”     

These undertakings thus allow for the reconstitution of an autonomous scholarly community on the margins of the university and they create a space for the dissemination of research imbued with that critical spirit inherent in the ethos of researchers when their academic freedom and freedom of expression has been violated. Its organization and preservation are based on a movement of solidarity and resistance at both the national and transnational level, which it is necessary to perpetuate.


References

[1] See the full text of the petition online.

[2] Anonymous, “Judicial Proceedings against Academics for Peace”, Academics for Human Rights (no. 3), December 2018, pp. 5-6.

[3] Cem Özatalay, “Purge, Exile, and Resistance: Rethinking the Conflict of the Faculties through the Case of Academics for Peace in Turkey”, European Journal of Turkish Studies (30) 2020, p. 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.6746. For the relevant statistics, see Anonymous, Academics for Peace: A Brief History, Izmir, TIHV Akademi, March 2019, p. 17.

[4]Academics for Peace: Report on the Current Situation”, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, 19 November 2021, p. 3.

[5] Lülüfer Körükmez, Akademisyen İhraçları – Hak İhlalleri, Kayıplar ve Güçlenme Süreçleri [Academic Purge in Turkey: Human Rights Violations, Losses, and Empowerment] Izmir, ed. TIHV, November 2019.

[6] See the report, “The short-term effects of the large-scale purges carried out by the AKP government on the research output of Turkey-based academics”, published by Freedom for Academia, a London-based online platform, on 1 June 2017.

[7] According to the survey headed by Lülüfer Körükmez, Akademisyen İhraçları – Hak İhlalleri, Kayıplar ve Güçlenme Süreçleri [Academic Purge in Turkey: Human Rights Violations, Losses, and Empowerment] Izmir, ed. TIHV, November 2019, p. 176.

[8] Noémi Lévy-Aksu, “Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I)”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14 April 2021.

[9] Noémi Lévy-Aksu, “Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (III)”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20 May 2021.

[10] See: https://off-university.com/

[11] Noémi Lévy-Aksu, “Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II)”, TRAFO Blog for Transregional Research, 21 April 2021.


Alihan Mestci is a PhD student in Sociology at the Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique (CESSP) and the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). His thesis focuses on the sociology of Turkish intellectuals taking a stand on the current cultural policy debates. His research interests also include strategies of resistance and (re)conversion operated by those expelled from the academic institution.


Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021

Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, 07 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I), 14 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II), 21 April 2021

Sari Hanafi, The Pen and the Sword: The Narrow Margin of Academic Freedom in the Arab World, 05 May 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (III), 19 May 2021

David Armitage, Threats to Academic Freedom — A Comment, 26 May 2021


Citation: Alihan Mestci, On the Margins of the University: Academics in the Face of Power in post-2016 Turkey, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31925, 18.01.2022


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