Erdoğan attack sparks fears over future of Turkish universities

President’s broadside against Boğaziçi University raises questions over Islamisation of institutions and international links

January 18, 2018
Sitting on a statue in Turkey
Source: Getty
National issues: Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused one of its top universities of failing to ‘lean on national values’

Experts fear that the crackdown on academic freedom in Turkey will be followed by a drive towards the Islamisation of campuses, after the country’s president accused one of its top universities of failing to “lean on national values”.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s claim in a speech that academics at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul are against “Turkish values” and the Turkish state has drawn criticism from student groups and from the institution’s former rector, and it has also prompted some observers to suggest that the president expects to reshape a sector already reeling from the dismissal and arrest of thousands of academics for alleged sympathy towards Kurds or the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is blamed for a failed 2016 coup attempt.

Umut Özkirimli, a guest professor at Sweden’s Lund University who has written on Turkey’s academic crackdown, said that the comments could be a “harbinger” of a broader purge at the university, where some faculties are perceived to be sympathetic to Turkish Kurds.

Some of the most prominent members of Academics for Peace, a group that in 2016 publicly condemned a Turkish government offensive in Kurdish areas of the country, have come from Boğaziçi – and have been subsequently arrested.

“We were expecting this to happen,” Professor Özkirimli said of the president’s speech. “He has a strategy in his mind…there’s an order in what he’s doing.”

Mr Erdoğan’s rhetoric is still couched in nationalist rather than religious terms to avoid alienating overseas allies, but the president “very clearly” has an Islamist agenda, Professor Özkirimli added. The anti-intellectual tone of the Turkish government is “driving the brightest minds out” of the country, he said.

In practical terms, Turkish universities could even see the introduction of prayer spaces, gender-segregated canteens and restrictions on women’s dress, as well as more teaching of theology and the banning of Darwinism and evolution from campus curricula, he speculated. The teaching of evolution has already been cut back in secondary schools.

Mr Erdoğan also commented that Boğaziçi and the francophone Galatasaray University, also based in Istanbul, were being held back by largely failing to teach in Turkish.

Faruk Birtek, professor emeritus at Boğaziçi’s department of sociology, said that the institution’s state funding had already been reduced, leaving no funds for student services – the student cinema club has “run out of money”, for example. “We are starving,” he said. The university “is becoming much weaker and…losing its prestige”, although it still remained highly respected, he added.

The government has already set up 20 to 30 Islamic or nationally focused universities, Professor Birtek said, which “creates slots for their people” to gain faculty positions.

“He [Mr Erdoğan] doesn’t have to destroy universities [like Boğaziçi], but he creates his own scheme of universities and professors,” he said. “It’s a battle against secular Turkey.”

This speech is not the first sign of increasing government control of Turkey’s top universities. In November 2016, the president claimed the power to directly name university rectors, and in the same month he appointed Mehmed Özkan, the university’s vice-president, to the role at Boğaziçi.

But not everyone sees a wider strategy for higher education in the president’s recent comments. The statements are typical of the governing party’s “bullying approach”, said Kumru Toktamis, a Turkish human rights researcher and associate professor at the Pratt Institute in the US, and are used to “send a message” to higher education institutions and to pacify dissent.

According to Gulcin Ozkan, an economics professor at the University of York and a critic of Turkey’s academic “purge”, many of the government’s recently founded universities also teach in English, so the president’s comments were unlikely to presage a switch to Turkish. Instead, they “need to be seen in the wider context of the current climate in the country with much curtailed civil liberties and no tolerance for dissent”, she said.

Mr Erdoğan has said that he wants to raise a religiously “pious generation” and has shifted the school curriculum away from secularist content. Janroj Yilmaz Keles, a research fellow at Middlesex University with a focus on Turkey and Kurds, said that the president wished to impose these ideas on universities and academics as well.

If universities are forced to lean on “national” or “Islamic” values, “then how can these universities be a ‘global brand’?” as Mr Erdoğan intends, he asked.

The president’s “ideological attacks” on universities and “religious-nationalist approaches” can “only damage the reputations of the good universities” in Turkey, Dr Keles said, which had in any event been weakened by the earlier mass dismissal of academics.

In addition to dismissals and arrests, the government has closed several universities and imposed travel bans on many academics in the wake of the failed coup.

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