On Jan. 4, several thousand students gathered near the entrance of Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University in what was one of the biggest protests Turkey has witnessed in recent years. Mass demonstrations have become nearly impossible to stage as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have ramped up intolerance of all forms of dissent, mobilizing security forces to stamp out protests.
The students were protesting Erdoğan’s recent appointment of former AKP parliamentary candidate Melih Bulu as the rector of Boğaziçi, a public, English-language university known to be among the best and most selective in Turkey. The anger stemmed from the fact that Bulu was not selected in a vote by students and professors but assigned to the post by the president. It marks a significant move in the government’s strategy of increasingly exerting control over higher education. While Erdoğan has vowed to establish a “pious generation” and built scores of religious middle and high schools throughout the country, he has also repeatedly lamented his government’s inability to establish cultural hegemony in Turkey.
Most of the students at the demonstration were under the age of 25, meaning that for much of their lives Erdoğan and the AKP have been in power, and during their formative years they have witnessed the country become engulfed in political turbulence, instability, and violence, while the economy has deteriorated in the process.
“I think this entire generation is just angry, frustrated, and generally upset that everything is terrible without us getting a say about anything. As far as I can remember, nothing has gotten better. All I can remember are things getting progressively worse, with me being unable to do much about it,” said Arda, a current Boğaziçi undergraduate student who joined the protests.
Students were similarly perturbed when Erdoğan appointed the previous rector, Mehmed Özkan, in 2016, even though the incumbent, Gülay Barbarosoğlu, received the majority of the vote. Erdoğan’s ability to hand-pick university rectors was among the powers he assumed amid the state of emergency declarations that followed the failed coup in July 2016.
In subsequent graduation ceremonies, students turned their backs to Özkan during his commencement speeches. And while Özkan was already a Boğaziçi University professor at the time of his appointment, Bulu was appointed from outside. To make matters worse, it was soon revealed that Bulu had plagiarized large sections of his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation.
“This alone should disqualify him from taking this position, and as members of the academic community, we should insist that this very basic criterion is respected. However, the larger issue is of course the fact that he was not chosen by the constituents of Boğaziçi and rather appointed,” said Boğaziçi graduate, Mehmet Kentel.
“In this, Boğaziçi is not alone, and I am happy to see that the protests resonate in other universities and calls for independent academia are rising across the country. Unifying such opposition is the only way to overcome the pressure against Boğaziçi and other Turkish universities,” Kentel added.
While there were some clashes between protestors and police on Jan. 4, students holding ID cards were allowed to enter the campus despite the throngs of riot police standing in front of the gate and the menacing armored vehicles that were deployed to spray water and disperse crowds. In the following days, students and faculty alike assembled at Boğaziçi’s main campus in defiance of Bulu’s appointment.
“I lead a double life: In the morning I teach over Zoom. At noon I put on two masks, go through police in riot control gear, machine guns, and armored vehicles to access the campus of Boğaziçi to stand on the grass to protest the appointment of a political figure as rector,” wrote Lale Akarun, a professor of computer engineering, on Twitter.
Dressed in regalia, faculty members have continued to stand in the same place every day, with their backs turned to the rector building. Freezing temperatures did not stop them from doing so on Jan. 18, when the grassy area was blanketed in snow.
“This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it, as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university,” said Boğaziçi University faculty in a joint statement shortly after Bulu’s appointment.
Though Boğaziçi received the most attention due to its status as the country’s top university, hand-picked rectors were chosen to head a number of other schools in Istanbul and in other cities in Turkey.
“The same day Melih Bulu was appointed, rectors with similar profiles in terms of their relationship to the AKP were appointed to [four other] universities too,” said Boğaziçi graduate Elif Ege. “Considering all this, I believe we can say that this is an indicator of the growing pressure and attempt to eliminate the opposition not just at Boğaziçi but in general in academia in Turkey.”
After the initial protests, some students were arrested in dawn raids in which their doors were broken down, and though they were subsequently released in the following days, a number of them complained of being tortured while in police custody. Erdoğan harshly condemned the protests and called the students terrorists.
Pro-government pundits were quick to brand Boğaziçi as an elitist institution and these so-called elites as being opposed to Bulu’s appointment. Anyone familiar with the school will attest that such assertions are baseless (full disclosure, I studied there in 2008-09 as an exchange student and in 2013 in an advanced Turkish language program). Boğaziçi University is a tuition-free public institution comprising the best students from all over Turkey, many of whom faced difficult obstacles while studying for the university entrance examination, which determines where students are placed. The university introduces students to a challenging and rich atmosphere of academic freedom.
“Both in the curriculum and outside the classroom it was encouraged to be critical to any kind of official discourse. Especially for people like me coming from the smaller cities of Anatolia, who graduated from public high schools by absorbing the official national discourse, this critical academic environment was eye-opening,” Ege said.
The collapse of the peace process between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state in 2015 and the crackdown that was characterized by mass purges following the July 2016 coup attempt has been disastrous for Turkish higher education. A petition signed by thousands of professors in Turkey and abroad calling for peace and condemning state violence in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region enraged Erdoğan, and many who signed it were removed from their jobs and effectively blacklisted from ever teaching at any university in Turkey, public or private. While there is scarce data on the number of academics who have been imprisoned, criminal cases with terrorism charges have been brought against more than 800 of the peace process signatories.
“Talking to a few friends and professors who are still at Boğaziçi, I believe today it is a lot harder to have the same discussions we had in classes and organize similar political activities and interventions on campus,” Ege said. “Most of my professors are gone now, either retired [because of the growing pressure] or living and teaching abroad.”
“I last saw some of them at [Istanbul’s] Çağlayan Courthouse while they were on trial for signing the peace petition. This is not unique to Boğaziçi, of course. This feeling of censorship and fear surrounds us everywhere,” she added.
A 2019 New York Times Magazine article details how the government dismantled Mülkiye, the revered political science department at Ankara University. For decades, one had to be a Mülkiye graduate to be hired for certain government positions, a privilege that came to an end with the AKP’s rise to power. In the purges that followed the coup attempt, Mülkiye was not exempt. With many of its faculty unceremoniously fired from their jobs and others resigning in protest, the once-iconic Mülkiye’s legacy lies in ruins.
The entrance to the main campus of Boğaziçi is located adjacent to the quarter of Hisarüstü, home to a working-class and student population built on one of Istanbul’s many famously steep hills. Down a winding road on the opposite side is Bebek, one of the most upmarket neighborhoods in Istanbul. The path that leads to the lush, forested campus overlooks the Bosphorus and boasts one of the most beautiful views in the city. Needless to say, the university is located on extremely valuable land.
However, that soon may not be the case. While speaking on a television program, Barış Yarkadaş, from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), spoke of claims that Boğaziçi was going to be moved to the distant district of Polonezköy on the Anatolian side of the city and that the main campus was going to be “evaluated” by a major holding company. He added that he hoped the claims were untrue. However, if such a plan is in fact in store, it would come as no surprise because some of the city’s most important green spaces and beautiful areas have been sacrificed for the sake of profitable development in recent years.
The protests show that young people in Turkey are still willing to take to the streets and fight for their rights despite the devastating consequences they could face in this increasingly harsh and repressive atmosphere. Fed up with the only government they have ever known, Turkey’s Generation Z is facing a battered economy, staggering unemployment rates, and a political reality where their peers can be arrested for holding a banner or writing a tweet. But the protests and shows of solidarity have been inspirational for students like Arda.
“I felt a special energy inside me during that first week of protests. A kind of energy that I had not felt for too long. Having spent your entire life under this government does condition you to never really get hopeful, but I felt something maybe even more special than [hope]. I felt that I’m not alone,” he said.
The widespread reaction to Bulu’s appointment also has graduates like Kentel feeling optimistic: “What also gives me hope is the fact that the majority of these dissenting voices are not nostalgic about the state of academia five or 10 years ago, but rather they are building up the hope for a different, more egalitarian and inclusive academic culture.”