Turkey’s president has claimed greater powers over the appointment of university rectors, a move that in effect “eradicates university autonomy” and aims to suppress dissent, according to critics.
The Turkish government issued a decree on 29 October stating that rectors of public universities will now be appointed by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, from a list of three candidates nominated by the Council of Higher Education (YÖK).
The decree was issued under the nation’s state of emergency, in place since July’s attempted coup against Mr Erdoğan.
The president will be able to appoint a rector directly if he does not select one of the names on YÖK’s shortlist within a month and the body does not present a new candidate, according to reports.
Previously, rector candidates were ranked in order of preference in university staff votes, with names then passed to the president for approval via YÖK. In most cases, the choice of appointee was respected.
The president will also appoint private university heads from a list of three candidates nominated by the institution’s board of trustees and approved by YÖK.
YÖK, which describes itself as an autonomous institution, required all university deans to step down in July pending an investigation into supposed university infiltration by members of an “illegal organisation” blamed for the attempted coup.
The executive board of Turkey’s Science Academy, formed in 2011 as an independent academy, said in a statement that the decree “is tantamount to the eradication of university autonomy to a large extent…University autonomy is not some abstract concept, but the sine qua non for the scientific and technological output of a country, its socio-economic development, and its ability to strengthen its democracy under the influence of new ideas.”
Academics at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University held a demonstration in protest against the decree.
Ayşe Buğra, professor in the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Boğaziçi, read out a collective statement by academics at the protest.
Summarising the collective statement, Professor Buğra said: “Although [the decree] is not related to the events that have led to the current state of emergency, it was introduced in the context of the legal setting of emergency measures without the approval of the parliament and without prior discussions involving representatives from the universities.”
Boğaziçi staff elected a new rector on 12 July, with notification passed on to Mr Erdoğan.
“When the decree of October 29 passed, Boğaziçi still did not have its president appointed and it is possible that the appointment will now be made according to the new decree,” Professor Buğra said, summarising the statement.
Sinan Ciddi, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, said the decree “fundamentally, and quite possibly irreparably, curtails academic freedoms”.
Mr Erdoğan, who became prime minister in 2003, has “never felt comfortable with the notion of being criticised by any person or body, least of all the press and academia”, Dr Ciddi added.
He predicted that there would be “continued dismissals and/or detainment of scholars in the near future by new university administrations loyal to Erdoğan’s cause”, along with “more academics wanting to leave Turkey and find jobs overseas, where they can continue their work without fear of intimidation”.
Times Higher Education contacted YÖK, but it did not provide a comment in time for this article’s deadline.