Resistance at Bogazici University Instils Hope for the Future

Students, academics, and communities’ resistance to the political appointment of an incapable rector at Turkey’s prestigious Bogazici University shows that there is still hope for Turkish academia, and the country at large, despite persistent government oppression.
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As a first-generation college student and a woman from a small city, I didn’t only receive my education at Bogazici University; I also internalized its values. Bogazici is synonymous with celebrating diversity, expressing yourself confidently and without hesitation, standing up for truth and your beliefs, and thinking critically. Without being elitist or nepotist, Bogazici alumni have embodied these values, allowing them to excel to preeminence in their fields.

Nonetheless, the incumbent Turkish government and its supporters renounce these values; instead, impelling polarization, loyalty, and obedience. They praise ignorance, in the words of Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University Vice-Rector Bulent Ari, “the ignorant will keep the country alive”. As one of the last bastions of pluralism, meritocracy, and liberalism, Bogazici is often attacked by the current regime’s supporters. But alas, the regime appointed Melih Bulu, a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a trustee rector (kayyum) on midnight of the first day of 2021.

Naturally, this appointment has not been welcomed by the students or faculty of the university. And the regime has responded to their resistance with harassment, pressure, and even violence. Yet, in the face of such suppression, neither the students nor the faculty have backed down from peaceful protest. From Monday to Thursday, faculty members protest daily in rotation by turning their backs to the rectorate building as a symbol of their defiance. On Fridays, they stand together and read their weekly announcement. At the same time, students organize and attend peaceful and creative protests, whether by holding symbolic elections on campus, organizing open lectures, shooting videos, or live streaming the protests themselves.

Three Pillars of the Resistance

First and foremost, a government-appointed rector in and of itself stands in direct opposition to the university’s institutional autonomy and threatens its academic freedom. Prof. Mine Eder and Prof. Ustun Erguder note that the governance model of the university is structured around a horizontal, transparent, and collegial system that elects deans and the rector. Prof. Zeynep Atay further clarifies that the institution shuns a top-down approach in favor of a highly decentralized decision-making process. This is the case not only when it comes to appointments but also with respect to the relatively granular decisions made on matters such as which departmental courses to offer. After being vetted by internal discussions and commissions, final decisions are remitted by the University Senate to the Higher Education Council (YOK).

This system aims to build consensus among the university’s shareholders and refrains from endowing the rector with inordinate power. At Bogazici, a rector acts as a facilitator. Thus, for Prof. Eder, the top-down appointment of Bulu is considered a “direct intervention” into the university’s model of governance that could catalyze further violations of Bogazici’s traditions.

Secondly, Bulu was brought in from outside of Bogazici. Even though Bulu is not the first rector to be appointed at Bogazici, he is the first “outsider” to be appointed since the 1980 coup d’état. Relying on the October 29, 2016 decree-law that prevented the election of university rectors, Erdogan appointed Mehmet Ozkan as rector in 2016 instead of Gulay Barbarosoglu, who was elected with 86 percent of the vote, the highest tally in Bogazici history. Nonetheless, Prof. Ozkan was Bogazici faculty. But this didn’t stop students from pejoratively referring to him as kayyum due to his government appointment. They protested his appointment for years, and graduates turned their backs to the rector during his commencement speeches. Still, Prof. Ozkan, as Bogazici faculty, kept his promise to never overrule the university’s commissions or system of governance.

Under the new kayyum, on the other hand, Bogazici is witnessing a reshuffling of the administration. New deans and faculty members are being appointed without the consent of commissions or departments. Furthermore, two new departments, law and communications, were hastily opened by presidential decree without any demand from the university. The forced establishment of these new departments is being seen as an attempt to recruit new faculty members who are loyal to the government and the kayyum. All of these developments indicate inherent malevolence and a deepening threat to the institutional autonomy of the university.

Lastly, the academic competence and integrity of the kayyum is highly questionable. Facing credible accusations of plagiarism within his doctoral dissertation, Bulu appears to have much in common with the ruling regime, whose elites are accused of holding fraudulent diplomas and plagiarizing their theses. Bulu’s defense (and admission) is deplorable, arguing that he just “forgot to use quotation marks”.

Scapegoating Legal and Peaceful Protests

Since day one, Bulu has aggravated protests by allowing police to enter the campus. The police handcuffed the university’s gate to prevent the movement of student protesters, the regretful imagery of which has now become the symbol of the regime’s opposition to academic freedom.

Moreover, the government has tried to remove these peaceful protests from the national/international agenda entirely, regressing to cliché accusations and vilifying, belittling, and demeaning protestors. If one were to believe the official narrative, “they are not even students” and “there are terrorists among student protestors”. The aim here is to delegitimize students who are exercising their legal rights. As Prof. Binnaz Toprak points out, the government went “beyond calling them terrorists” by comparing the students and faculty to “venomous snakes whose heads need to be cut off”. The threat of violence to the protestors remains real, with regime supporters expressing, “we’ll go out one night, do our job, and go to work in the morning”.

Furthermore, Erdogan directly targeted Prof. Ayse Bugra, accusing her of provoking the protests. Prof. Bugra is the wife of political prisoner Osman Kavala, who is accused by Erdogan of masterminding the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Following the same line of reasoning, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu launched an attack on Prof. Ustun Erguder, a prominent political scientist and the first-elected rector of Bogazici. The aim of such aggression against the former and current faculty members of Bogazici is to marginalize the protests while deepening polarization.

Prof. Ersin Kalaycioglu elaborates on how the ruling government wants to demean Bogazici in the eyes of the public by making it a scapegoat synonymous with “communism, atheism, homosexuality, Kurdish nationalism, or any combination thereof”. Similarly, Prof. Mine Eder interprets the actions and rhetoric of the government as an effort to use the university in its attempts to polarize, securitize, and criminalize certain segments of Turkish society.

Significance of the Resistance at Bogazici

Symbolic peaceful protests, containment strategies, and legal actions are crucial in creating pressure points that will be instrumental in countering the government’s autocratic measures. Asymmetric power is omnipresent, and it is known that the kayyum does not have the capacity to resign. Despite this gloomy picture, history shows that certain opportunities may be afoot.

Following the 1980 coup d’état, YOK captured the power to appoint rectors to universities. Nevertheless, Bogazici did not accept this imposition. Here, the faculty held an unofficial election and sent the elected names to Ankara, at which time, Prof. Erguder was appointed as rector in 1992. Bogazici’s approach created a de facto practice. As happened before, today’s resistance can thrive and lead to long-awaited changes. These protests may not reverse the course of events, but adamant and resilient opposition can slow down the further autocratic steps.

Above all, the protests put on full display the academic solidarity among students, faculty, alumni, other universities, citizens, and the international community. They generate new horizontal ties and push for further discussions on alternative electoral systems for rectors. In short, the perseverance and resistance of Bogazici students and faculty signify hope for the future of the university and the country at large.

*All quotations from Bogazici professors are taken from the panel organized by the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association on February 15, 2021

**Photo credits: Can Candan and İvme Hareketi.