The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America condemns the ongoing and intensified government assault on higher education in Turkey. We join our voices to the demands raised by faculty and students at Boğaziçi University—one of the premier institutions in the region and the site of the most recent government attacks—that academic freedom, freedom of expression, and academic and democratic norms be respected and the autonomy of the higher education sector in Turkey be protected.
Since early January 2021, students and faculty at Boğaziçi University have been protesting the appointment of a new rector by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The appointment was made unilaterally, without consulting members of the university, in a move that contravenes the university’s tradition of self-governance. Not only had the appointee, Melih Bulu, been a political candidate for the governing party, but also, his academic credentials have been publicly contested.
The government’s response to the ensuing protests has been deeply troubling. Demonstrating students have faced police brutality, protesters have been described by government officials as terrorists, and those detained have been subjected to abuse, including strip searches and sexual harassment. Faculty have also been targeted by both government officials, denouncing individual professors by name, and by the pro-government media, which has published photographs of faculty members describing them as traitors. These same media platforms have also doubled down on the demonization of student protesters as terrorists while using sensational coverage that traffics in sexist, homophobic and transphobic depictions. Two enduring images of the government’s disturbing response to the protests are emblematic: the use of handcuffs on the gates of the university’ campus to lock protesters out and the placement of snipers on the roofs of buildings adjacent to that entrance. Other cities, too, have joined the protests with more than 550 students and protestors detained to date.
The government’s attack on Boğaziçi University has not been limited to these measures taken against students and faculty. President Erdoğan used an overnight presidential decree as the vehicle for unilaterally creating two new faculties at the university. There is little doubt that the decree is designed to alter the structure of the university by creating an opportunity for the newly-appointed rector to recruit a large pool of partisan faculty members, to join the university. Indeed, the decision by the government to create new faculties without consultation suggests an expansion intended to alter the composition and character of the university’s academic personnel in ways that align more closely with the government’s preferences. By targeting one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities in this way, the government appears to be demonstrating its intention to remove the final vestiges of academic freedom and university autonomy in the country.
Indeed, the systematic and multi-faceted attacks on higher education in Turkey that have accelerated since 2016, including the closure of some universities and expropriation of others, suggest that not only political, but even, in some cases, economic interests take priority over intellectual and professional development in the country, to say nothing of academic freedom. There is no doubt that subjecting the higher education sector to ongoing and inappropriate encroachments by the government of the sorts we have been witnessing has the deeply consequential effect of stifling intellectual life, constraining the acquisition of knowledge, and extinguishing the dynamism of the academy and of civil society.
As a scholarly association, MESA declares its solidarity with student and faculty protestors of the recent developments at Boğaziçi University. We urge President Erdoğan to restore the autonomy of universities and the protection of academic freedom—including freedom of expression, opinion, and association—in Turkey’s legal order.
American Anthropological Association
American Historical Association
American Philosophical Association
American Sociological Association
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
International Society for Third Sector Research