Discouraging collaborations between SOAS and the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK)

Baroness Valerie Amos
Director, School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
Fax: +44 (0)207 898 4019

Dr. Meera Sabaratnam
Chair, Academic Senate, SOAS
ms140@soas.ac.uk

Ms. Marie Staunton
Chair, Board of Trustees, SOAS
ms162@soas.ac.uk

Dear Baroness Amos and Drs. Sabaratnam and Staunton,

We write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and its Committee on Academic Freedom to express our relief that SOAS cancelled its sponsorship of a panel discussion, due to take place on 11 June 2019, in conjunction with the Turkish Council of Higher Education (known by its Turkish acronym as YÖK) on the integration of refugee academics and students into Turkish higher education.

Established in 1982 to oversee the Turkish system of higher education, YÖK, in recent years, has played a key role in the harassment and dismissal of thousands of Turkish university faculty and staff on the orders of the Turkish government, in egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom. In this context, the panel’s proposed title -- “Refugee Crisis and Carrying the Academic Heritage to the Future through Higher Education” – was shocking. Given YÖK’s complicity in the purging of Turkish faculty and academic staff on purely political grounds, we do not believe that SOAS or any of its departments and programs should collaborate with it or treat it as a legitimate academic entity.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 2500 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom and other organizations, including Scholars at Risk and  Human Rights Watch, have thoroughly documented the Turkish government’s relentless campaign against faculty, staff and administrators at its country’s institutions of higher education and its wholesale violations of academic freedom. We call your attention to our committee’s numerous letters denouncing the ongoing assault on Turkish academics and universities, beginning with the dismissals, since the July 2016 attempted coup d’état, of more than 6000 university personnel by the Turkish authorities with the active collaboration of YÖK (see example  http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20170715061722938). 

Few of those dismissed have been restored to their former positions, and most are permanently barred from employment in the public sector. The government’s claim that all of these faculty and university administrative personnel are guilty of conspiracy against the state has been widely discredited; nonetheless, many face criminal prosecution simply for failing to conform to the views of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president and ruling party. In our most recent letter, dated 11 June 2019, we detail the continued prosecution and imprisonment of scholars who are signatories of the Academics for Peace Petition and note that since its publication in January 2016, 610 academics have been required to appear in court on various charges associated with having signed it. Of these, 192 have already been sentenced to prison terms and another 35 are at imminent risk of imprisonment. A particularly worrisome recent development is that signatories who are living outside Turkey are beginning to be indicted and many of those who were forced into exile are now being sentenced.

It is therefore outrageous that reputable institutions of higher education would associate themselves with, and thereby lend legitimacy to, YÖK, which has lost whatever independence and credibility it may once have had. Today this entity serves to provide cover for the Turkish government’s campaign to destroy the autonomy and integrity of Turkey’s institutions of higher education and to violate the academic freedom of its scholars and educators. We therefore call on SOAS to issue a statement publicizing its moratorium on any future collaboration with YÖK until the positions of terminated dissident academics are restored, disciplinary and legal investigations against the signatories of the Peace Petition are dropped and academic freedom is protected in Turkey. We also urge SOAS to vigorously reaffirm its commitment to the defense of academic freedom, in Turkey and elsewhere.

Thank you for your consideration. 

Sincerely,

Judith E. Tucker
MESA President
Professor, Georgetown University

Laurie Brand
Chair, Committee on Academic Freedom
Professor, University of Southern California

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