Boğaziçi students and staff fear reprisals after deans sacked

Alumni say the removal of staff-elected deans at top Turkish university may open the door for fresh attacks on dissident students and staff

January 31, 2022
Students wearing face masks hold placards during the demonstration to illustrate Bog˘aziçi students and staff fear reprisals after deans sacked
Source: Getty

The sacking of three elected deans from Boğaziçi University could signal a renewed attack on institutional autonomy and freedom of speech in Turkey’s universities, scholars have warned.

The dismissal of Özlem Berk Albachten, Metin Ercan and Yasemin Bayyurt by Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YOK) follows a tumultuous year at the leading Istanbul university, which has been riven by student protests since a loyalist to the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was installed as rector in January 2021.

Since the appointment from outside Boğaziçi of Melih Bulu, a member of Mr Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party who was accused of plagiarising his PhD, more than 600 student protesters have been arrested, and some of them face jail sentences of more than 30 years.

It is believed that the deans were made redundant because of their support for academics who criticised the appointment of Dr Bulu – who was later dismissed. Scholars have held a daily vigil to protest against his successor, Naci Inci, another Erdoğan supporter.

Their dismissal follows a sustained attack on academic freedom within Turkish universities in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup. In the years since that putsch, more than 6,000 academics have been sacked and about 3,000 schools and universities have been closed over alleged links to the movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Several émigré Turkish scholars told Times Higher Education, however, that the most recent sackings at Boğaziçi were particularly troubling because they signalled that even mild political dissent would not be tolerated within universities.

“This latest event makes many educators like me hesitate to return and work in Turkey,” explained Boğaziçi graduate Elif Balin, now an assistant professor at San Francisco State University.

“This constant attack on institutional independence, academic freedom, job security and the right to peaceful protest, along with filling administrative and academic positions with non-elected and partisan members, makes many people – especially young people in Turkey – question the quality of their education and diminishes their hope for the future.”

“It is utterly heartbreaking and depressing to see my alma mater being attacked, dismantled and slowly torn into pieces,” said Devrim Umut Aslan, a lecturer at Lund University in Sweden.

Staff and students at Boğaziçi have protested against the latest dismissals, which Taner Bilgiç, a member of the executive board, described as seeming “more like a punishment given out to a university that has been standing up for its academic freedom and institutional autonomy for the past year”.

Zeynep Gambetti, associate professor in political science at Boğaziçi, said the removal of three deans who had fought to ensure that scholarly excellence trumped party loyalty would give the new president a “free hand in filling the university with below-par academics and in dismissing or crowding out critical faculty members”.

“Boğaziçi is sure to lose its stature as a centre of excellence and will become, like other universities in Turkey, an institution where fear and self-censorship are rampant,” he said.

“Things are looking very grim at the moment,” added Olcay Atik, a chemistry undergraduate, who is facing disciplinary action for protesting.

“With the removal of the three deans our academicians voted in, we are expecting a huge number of students to be wrongfully punished with little to no evidence…as deans get to make the final decisions.”

However, Gürkan Kumbaroğlu, vice-rector at Boğaziçi, contested the version of events put forward by the deans, stating that the university was “committed wholeheartedly to academic freedom and will always be in the vanguard of its defence”.

“However, academic freedom is not coterminous with pursuing a clandestine political agenda” and “with any freedom, there comes responsibility”, he told THE.

The three deans did “not hold their positions by virtue of a popular democratic mandate”, contended Professor Kumbaroğlu, who said that “by law, they are appointed to their post on the basis of a contract with the university by [Turkey’s Higher Education Council]”, which decided that “they had committed serious infractions resulting in clear breaches of their professional and academic obligations”.

The academics declined to take part in an investigation and did not submit representations in their defence, he added.

“They have, therefore, not been removed due to a putative assault on academic freedoms; indeed, we contend there is no evidence for this,” said Professor Kumbaroğlu. “They have been dismissed due to serious failures on their part in fulfilling their duties – it is unfortunate and inaccurate, therefore, that they wish to frame this as a political grievance.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (2)

Thank you for sharing our voices. Even though it was included due to space restrictions, I want to add the rest of my message to recognize the resilience of the ongoing uprising against these attacks: "...On the other hand, the resilience and solidarity among the Bogazici University students, faculty, and alumni give me so much hope. The people of Turkey are aware of the value and significance of strong institutions such as Bogazici University. By gathering our privileges, resources, and hope positioned in various geographical locations, we will continue defending Bogazici University. "
Working in education, I visited Bogazici during a recent trip to Istanbul. I saw a grand total of three protestors who were sitting on a bench, sharing a packet of fags and doing not much else. I didn't even realise they were protesting until my lunch partner pointed them out. Maybe the low turnout and lack of fire was down to the cold weather but, just this morning, I saw a livelier and indeed more spirited protest outside my local Waitrose after the announcement that the free newspaper is being withdrawn for members. I salute the Women's Institute or whoever those old ladies were because they really did put on quite a show. The giveaway in this article, hidden a bit too neatly right at the bottom, is that the sacked deans were allowed to submit representations for the purposes of an investigation but didn't. How young Jack then turns this into the article he did is more than a bit of a stretch. As an Irishman, I recognise the sleight of hand and pot stirring from my younger days reading the UK press. My lunch partner pointed out that the reason they didn't submit a defence was because their actions were indefensible. The reality is that everyday politics in Turkey is like the worst days of Brexit in the UK. You think you really know someone until you say something perfectly reasonable like...well, there was a coup that attempted to overthrow a democratic mandate that any UK government ever would give up a thousand Downing Street parties for so maybe Erdogan is a little justified in seeking just a tiny bit of oversight in return for all that state funding... and that face you thought you would always recognise becomes twisted with seething anger and resentment. "No, we want to have the right to attempt a coup" as if that was a thing anywhere in the world. And that is all it is really. Everyone is free to protest at Bogazici, even when there are more than three of them like during my visit. And everyone is free to pursue their academic interests just like before. A few idiots with hidden agendas got violent last summer but quite rightly spent a night or two in the cells afterwards just like they would anywhere else in the world. Just don't expect to read about their ulterior motives in the TES. Don't get me wrong, Erdogan has his flaws. But he gets a fair bit right too, including the ability to maintain a functioning stable democracy which the Turkish working and middle classes have benefited from in the past couple of decades, much to the resentment of a corrupt elite who would like to further their own interests. The lengths they would go to is the real story here if only Jack could spot it.


Featured jobs