Row over rectors rattles authority

August 4, 2000

A political row over the selection of rectors for universities is threatening the future of Turkey's higher education authority, Yok.

A member of the ruling coalition government is proposing legislation to reform the authority while the main parliamentary opposition, the Islamic Virtue Party, has called for the resignation of Yok's executive council and its president, Kemal Guruz.

Mehmet Bekarog, deputy leader of the Virtue Party, said: "The time for the executive council including the president to resign has long passed."

Similar views have been expressed in and out of parliament. The authority has ignored calls for the resignation of its executive council, but the Motherland Party, which is part of the government, has drafted legislation to transfer its executive powers back to individual universities.

The legislation is due to be presented to parliament after the summer recess. It has been triggered by the confrontation between the authority and Turkey's president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, which began over the selection of the rector of Dokuz Eylul University.

The authority ignored the wishes of the university's faculty and put forward its own candidates. Mr Sezer responded by rejecting all of Yok's proposed candidates for 22 state universities. Yok re-submitted the list and the president again rejected the candidates for Dokuz Eylul. An uncompromising Mr Sezer refused to meet with Dr Guruz, despite repeated appeals.

But the authority's tough stance has given politicians the opportunity to move against its centralised powers. Its rigorous enforcement of a ban on Islamic women students wearing headscarves has angered conservatives. Earlier this year, one of the senior members of the coalition government, the extreme rightwing National Action Party, tried to block Dr Guruz's re-election, but that was thwarted by the then president, Suleymain Demirel.

Left-of-centre parties have also called for an end to Yok's iron grip. They see it as a symbol of the constitution introduced by the military following the 1980 coup when it was created to bring higher education under firm control, following years of political unrest.

In the 1980s, Yok presided over a purge of thousands of academics, many of whom were banned from teaching for more than a decade. The army still has two representatives on the executive council.

Istar Gozaydin, an associate professor of law at Istanbul Technical University and founder of the human rights group Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, said: "I have always been against Yok... rectors must be elected by individual universities."

Zafer Uskul of Istanbul University said the authority's stance against the president was possible only with the backing of the army: "The authority is acting so boldly because of the encouragement it gets from the security council."

The military could block reform but the new president appears to have started with universities in his drive to democratise Turkey.

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