Turkey purge: why the government is clamping down on universities

The Turkish government's actions in relation to higher education are understandable, argue Sedat Gumus and Bekir Gur

July 26, 2016
Turkey flag
Source: iStock

Turkey experienced an unsuccessful coup attempt on 15 July. Although the attempt was defeated, more than 200 civilians were killed and hundreds of people were injured. 

After this bloody coup attempt, the Turkish government immediately took several measures to deal with the junta, and announced a nation-wide state of emergency for a period of three months. 

In the meantime, Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK) has also taken several decisions related to academia. 

All university deans were asked to resign from their positions, and four rectors were dismissed by YÖK. Some international media outlets have argued that these measures are an attempt to purge dissenting academics from universities. 

Moreover, some people have been trying to present this situation as an attack on academic freedom in Turkey. We feel that international academic community needs to be fairly informed about the background of the current coup attempt, and the current state of the Turkish higher education system, in order to better understand what is really happening in Turkey and what can be done about it. 

It should be said that much of the Turkish public at large – as well, of course, as political leaders – still are concerned about a possible new coup attempt, civil unrest, terror attacks and assassinations, which can undermine what is a democratically elected government. 

There is evidence of a relationship between Fethullah Gulen, a retired Islamic preacher living in the US, and the military coup attempt in Turkey. This has been demonstrated by reports in the Turkish media of confessions by some junta officers. 

So-called “Gulenists” have infiltrated many important state institutions such as the military, the judiciary, the police department and universities. Therefore, there are concerns among the Turkish public because Gulen reportedly called those who stood against the coup “fools”

The Turkish government is now attempting to determine which people from different state institutions, including universities, might have relationship with the junta, and might be involved in any actions directed by Gulen. 

As a precaution, suspects have been temporarily suspended from their jobs during an investigation period. Any staff members who are suspended will continue to receive two thirds of their salary until the investigation is completed. 

Given this background, let us look at what have happened so far in Turkish academia, and how the international media perceives it. 

We doubt if many of the people writing media reports fully understand the situation in Turkey, and know the structure of Turkish higher education. 

The biggest reaction has been given to the resignation of 1,577 deans. This number represents the all university deans in Turkey. There  was no discrimination. YÖK invited all deans to resign in order to secure the confidentiality of the investigation process. 

This might be seen as odd by some of the international community, but it should be known that Turkey has a very centralised higher education system, and YÖK is a constitutionally independent body that acts as a nationwide board of trustees for all higher education institutions in Turkey. 

All university deans are appointed by YÖK, so it is not unusual for YÖK to ask for the resignation of people, or even dismiss them. In addition, all these deans can continue their jobs as academics in their universities, because deanship is just a temporary position carried out in addition to scholarly duties. 

Therefore, unlike the picture presented in some of the international news, no dean has lost his or her job so far. In addition, according to official announcements, suspended state officers, including academics, who are not linked with the junta and its network will continue their jobs after the investigations are completed. 

What should be done? 

We would also like to remind everyone that the recent coup attempt directly targeted democracy in our country. All four major political parties in Turkey have condemned the coup attempt. 

As academics, we believe that our first priority is defending our democracy against new coup attempts. However, we also understand the concerns of the international higher education community about the current suspensions of academics. 

We would like to emphasise that Turkey has a long history of democracy, and has a well-established justice system fully compatible with international law. In addition, Turkish academics are fully committed to academic freedom and are closely watching the current developments. 

There is no doubt that we, as well as other academics living in Turkey, will warn the government and YÖK if any unethical and unfair decisions are taken, and we hope that the Turkish justice system would correct those mistakes. 

We invite international academic community to watch the situation in Turkey closely, and continue to defend academic freedoms. But we also strongly encourage them to get the correct information.

Sedat Gumus is an associate professor at Necmettin Erbakan University in Konya, Turkey. He was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia from 2015 to 2016. 

Bekir Gur is an assistant professor at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara, Turkey. He also currently serves as a member of the executive board of Turkish Fulbright Commission. Previously, he was a visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Reader's comments (2)

Unfortunately the authors don't understand what academic freedom means. Even if I keep two thirds of my salary I don't keep this freedom when I am friendly"invited" to retire. The situation reminds me to what happened in Germany in 1933 - bitter individual injustice and an enorm loss of intelectuell capacity for the country.
The author has not established the link between academics and the coup. Were the academics involved in the coup? In any case it will take a very brave assistantt professor in Turkey willing to write a public article against the arrest of academics. That in itself tells you whether academic freedom still exists in Turkey.

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