MESA issues letter to John Kerry requesting intervention regarding Turkish government actions against universities and academics

The Honorable John F. Kerry 
Secretary of State 
Washington, DC 
via fax 202-647-1811

Dear Secretary Kerry,

We write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to express our deep concern about the measures taken by the Turkish government against universities and academics in the aftermath of the July 15th attempted coup. We ask that you raise these concerns during your upcoming visit to Turkey.

We believe that the Turkish government’s actions against the country’s academics and universities exceed the bounds of a legitimate and targeted effort to detain and prosecute those responsible for the coup attempt. In just over one month, these actions have damaged the structure and autonomy of Turkish higher education through university closures, asset seizures, mass suspensions of faculty and staff, and investigations and detentions of academics. The breadth of these actions creates the appearance of a purge rather than an appropriately tailored investigation.

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 nearly 3000 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.

Since July 15, the Turkish government has closed fifteen private universities and transferred their assets to the Turkish treasury. The Ministry of Education has dismissed over 27,000 employees. The Turkish Higher Education Council announced on Friday, August 12th that 5342 academic faculty and staff across the country are currently suspended and under investigation. The figure includes 4225 faculty members and 1117 administrative staff. In addition, all 1576 deans at universities across the country were forced to resign. A travel ban was imposed on all academics and Turkish academics abroad were required to return to Turkey. The travel ban has since been adjusted, but all faculty still require permission to travel, to be granted by university rectors on a case-by-case basis. Official updates on the detentions of university faculty and staff have not been provided but the number detained is reportedly in the hundreds.

The assaults on academic freedom and higher education by the Turkish government are proceeding on the basis of allegations of links between the individuals and institutions targeted and the planning of the failed coup. Those allegations do not appear to include direct involvement in the planning or execution of the attempted coup but rather suggestions of financial and other ties to the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who the government holds responsible for the coup attempt. Public reports suggest that some academics are under investigation because they took out a mortgage with a bank that is allegedly tied to Gülen or attended a school with links to the cleric’s educational network. Without more evidence of a direct relationship between the attempted coup and the affected universities, academic faculty and staff, the basis for these actions amounts to little more than guilt-by-association. Moreover, blanket policies requiring the resignation of all deans and the imposition of broad travel restrictions have impacted all academics without distinction.

On July 21, MESA was joined by over fifty other academic associations in a statement calling for Turkey’s government to end “moves to dismantle much of the structure of Turkish higher education through purges, restrictions, and assertions of central control.” At that time, Amy Newhall, executive director of MESA, noted that this statement showed unity across disparate academic organizations “coming together around the situation in Turkey because we recognize an existential threat to independent academic freedom across all disciplines.” Since that statement the situation of academics and universities in Turkey has deteriorated, with the numbers of suspensions, investigations and detentions of academics growing at an alarming rate. The existential threat to academic freedom in Turkey has only increased.

We write now to echo our statement of July 21st and reiterate our dismay at the suspensions and investigations of academics, the closure of universities, the blanket restrictions impacting higher education and the cumulative effects of these actions on academic freedom and the autonomy of higher education in Turkey. We respectfully request that you raise these serious concerns during your upcoming visit to the country, particularly in meetings with representatives of the Turkish government, including President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yıldırım.

Respectfully,

Beth Baron                                                                                
MESA President                                                                       
Professor, City University of New York

Amy W. Newhall 
MESA Executive Director 
Associate Professor, University of Arizona

cc:
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski

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