Dozens of Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan rectors have no research record

More than 50 rectors with no international publications continuously tweet pro-government messages, reflecting country’s waning academic freedom

December 15, 2020
Fans of Turkey roll out the Turkish flag in support of their team
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Dozens of Turkish university rectors have no international research record but tweet prolifically in support of the Ankara government, scholars have warned, raising further concerns about academic independence as the country has moved towards autocracy.

In its annual review of academic freedom, Turkey’s Science Academy, a breakaway group formed in response to perceived government influence over the country’s established academy, pointed to a flurry of news reports raising questions about the academic qualifications of some rectors.

This follows a 2018 legal change that transferred complete power to appoint university heads into the hands of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, replacing a system in which academics played at least a partial role in electing their rectors.

The academy pointed to one particular study that has garnered attention in Turkey. It found that almost a quarter of rectors do not have a single published article in the Scopus database of research literature. In addition, 72 of Turkey’s 197 rectors have an h-index of zero. The h-index is a metric of scholarly influence that measures both papers published and how often they are cited.

But what these rectors lack in research prowess, they make up for on Twitter.

There was a correlation between a weak research record and social media activity, and more than three-quarters of rectors with an h-index of zero were tweeting more than 100 times a day when the study was conducted last year.

“The content of these posts includes their visits, hospitality services to government members and others, and activities with associations close to government, as a means to promote the university,” reported the paper “Academic (dis)qualifications of Turkish rectors: their career paths, h-index, and the number of articles and citations”, published in the journal Higher Education. “These posts also contained statements showing their support and loyalty to the government and to President R. Tayyip Erdoğan, who had appointed them as rectors.”

These rectors are leading universities that lag behind in international rankings and measures of research prowess, found the study, authored by Engin Karadağ, professor of education at Akdeniz University.

In one controversial appointment, made this August after the study was carried out, Necdet Ünüvar, a former MP for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was made rector of Ankara University.

Although he does have a background in medical research, some of his statements as rector have been stridently nationalistic. In late September, after fighting broke out between Armenia and Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, he declared that the university “will always stand behind Azerbaijan” during a solidarity event between the two countries.

Mehmet Ugur, professor of economics and institutions at the University of Greenwich and a critic of Turkey’s government, said “low academic performance” rectors had appeared on state and social media to “demonise” Academics for Peace – of which he is a member – a group of scholars who in 2016 called for a cessation of military operations in Kurdish regions of Turkey, leading to their arrest and detention.

The study also found that 17 Turkish universities are newly led by theologians, up from none in 2014, possibly a result of the government’s turn towards a conservative Islamic agenda.

Just one in 10 Turkish rectors is a woman, it also found, despite 44 per cent of researchers being female, far higher than the European Union average.

Turkey’s Council of Higher Education did not reply to a request for comment.

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