Rich entrepreneurial vision

Abdullah Atalar reveals the secrets of Bilkent’s rapid advancement

June 20, 2013

Bilkent University is a private not-for-profit research institution located in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It was founded in 1984 by Ihsan Dogramaci, a visionary entrepreneur and philanthropist who convinced lawmakers to change the Turkish constitution to allow for the creation of not-for-profit universities similar to those in the US.

Bilkent has acquired a worldwide reputation in a relatively short time. The roots of this success can be traced to its founder’s vision: create a world-class international university by choosing English as the medium of instruction; recruit top-quality faculty members and outstanding students; and provide them with abundant resources.

Bilkent has been able to recruit top-level academics from around the world, including Turkish expatriates who in many cases left tenured positions in the US to return home. To build its faculty, the university offered globally competitive academic salaries. It also provided free on-campus housing plus an international school for faculty members’ children, charging reduced fees for programmes such as the International Baccalaureate.

More than 70 per cent of Bilkent’s academics have PhDs from abroad, mostly awarded by leading research-intensive universities in North America and Europe. One-third are non-Turkish, most of them hailing from the US, Canada and the UK.

Academics’ contracts are renewed based on their performance in research and teaching. Bilkent’s promotions and appointments system is similar to those seen in other leading research-intensives, with some extra features to remove any potential for bias: confidential overseas reference letters form the basis of evaluations, with final decisions being reached by the blind votes of a standing committee. The committee is made up of senior professors at the university, excluding those from candidates’ departments. Faculty salaries have a merit component to encourage continuing and consistent performance: this component is determined annually and may go up or down depending on academics’ records over the preceding five years.

This approach is paying off: Bilkent faculty members continue to publish in top journals and are being highly cited. Within Turkey, the university enjoys the highest acceptance rate for research proposals submitted to the national funding agency.

From the beginning, Bilkent has been able to attract the best students thanks to its emphasis on high-quality education and generous merit-based scholarships. These scholarships not only cover tuition fees but also include free accommodation in dormitories plus a stipend for top students. In the university’s first year, 47 of the top-scoring 100 students on the nationwide university entrance exam (taken by more than 1 million students that year) chose Bilkent. In the second year, the number rose to 79 out of 100. Currently, about 40 per cent of 13,000 Bilkent students are on scholarships. Many of the university’s graduates are offered full scholarships for postgraduate study by leading universities throughout the world.

Bilkent receives no direct government support and is funded through an endowment that provides about 40 per cent of its operating budget. This endowment has a unique structure: the university directly owns several companies donated by its founder, which operate in diverse fields including construction, printing, furniture, recreation, tourism, security and defence. It also owns two shopping centres and is a shareholder of a firm in charge of 12 airports in the region, plus a maritime transport company operating ferries and sea buses in Istanbul. Additionally, the university operates one of the largest “technoparks” in the country, housing about 150 companies and providing incubation opportunities for high-tech start-ups.

Bilkent is comprised of nine faculties (science; engineering; business administration; economics and social sciences; law; humanities; architecture; music; and education) and two schools (applied languages and applied technology and management). In addition to four-year undergraduate degrees, the university offers master’s and PhD programmes in many areas, supported by the presence of research-oriented faculty members.

The performance of teachers on all courses is evaluated by students, with the results published on a publicly available web page. Undergraduate research is encouraged: it is not uncommon to find students with indexed papers before graduation, with their later careers benefiting from such early development. For example, three Bilkent graduates, now professors in US universities, are among the cited co-authors of Alvin Roth, joint winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics. Such accomplishments are the result of the university’s guiding principles: employ outstanding faculty members, attract talented students and offer excellent instruction in a rich academic environment with the administrative flexibility of a private institution.

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