The head of Turkey’s higher education council has defended the sacking and suspensions of university staff after last month’s failed coup attempt.
In a statement, M. A. Yekta Saraç said that the decision to ask all university deans to resign was one of several “precautionary measures” taken with the “utmost sincerity” to allow Turkey to root out backers of the US-based Islamic cleric Fetullah Gulen, who is accused of masterminding the attempted overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Some 1,500 university deans were suspended in the aftermath of the 15 July putsch, which also saw four university presidents sacked and about 20,000 education staff fired or suspended – an action that attracted criticism from academics, politicians and civil rights groups across the world.
However, Professor Saraç, president of the Council of Higher Education of Turkey, known as YOK, said that there was “no doubt that the recent coup attempt was organized by an illegal organization called FETÖ/PDY which has infiltrated into many state agencies for decades” and that there were “strong signals that the members of this illegal organization may have penetrated into our higher education system”.
“We see such well-organized illegal organizations as one of the biggest threats to autonomy of our institutions and the academic freedom of our faculty members,” said Professor Saraç, adding that YOK must be “vigilant in cutting the ties of any illegal organization with our universities”.
To this end, the council asked university deans – who are directly appointed by YOK – to “step aside in order to protect the confidentiality of the investigation process related to members of the above-mentioned illegal organization”, he said.
It has now begun reinstating university deans following checks, and it was “very likely that most of the universities will reinstate their previous deans back to their duties once the investigations are completed”, he added.
A temporary ban on overseas travel for Turkish academics has also been lifted, with rectors given permission to allow international travel for those going abroad for professional reasons, Professor Saraç said.
While acknowledging the international outcry over its actions, which YOK described as the “cleansing” of the academy of pro-Gulen academics, Professor Saraç said that its “measures are directed towards ensuring and maintaining the academic autonomy of our universities”.
“We strongly believe that a university system taken hostage by an illegal organization can neither exercise its freedom nor its academic autonomy,” he said.
“We assure the free and democratic world that we are also aware of and well understand the importance of academic freedom for the future of our nation,” he added.
Professor Saraç said that YOK was now doing its “best to ensure that academic, scientific, and educational functions of our universities continue without any interruption”, while arguing that firm action was needed in light of this “serious attack”.
“Although [the] Turkish public have courageously eradicated the attack, the risks will remain if the crucial state institutions, including the universities, are not cleared from the perpetrators,” he said.