Turkey: Boğaziçi University Is Testimony to the Power of Collective Action

As academic institutions all around the world are antagonised by authoritarian politicians, the Turkish university is defending autonomy and imagining a better future for higher education.

The Boğaziçi University resistance is bound to acquire a unique place in history for being one of the longest uninterrupted struggles for academic freedom and university autonomy ever to be waged. Hundreds of Boğaziçi faculty members have been resisting the take-over of the university by the Turkish government for over two years now. As academic institutions all around the world (including the US) are antagonised by authoritarian politicians or debilitated by market pressures, the Boğaziçi example stands out as a testimony to the power of collective action in defending university autonomy and imagining a better future for higher education.

Although the Turkish Constitution guarantees university autonomy, universities across the country have been largely subjugated since the 2016 failed coup attempt. Boğaziçi remained partially protected until 2021. This is a highly prestigious, top-ranking public university with an English-language curriculum inherited from Robert College, an American higher education institution opened in 1863 in Istanbul. After banning internal elections at universities and acquiring the power to appoint rectors while the country was still under a State of Emergency, however, Turkish President Recep Erdogan named Melih Bulu rector of Boğaziçi on January 1, 2021. Bulu was not a faculty member and like dozens of other rectors in Turkey, he was affiliated with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In keeping with Boğaziçi’s long-standing democratic governance practices, faculty, students and alumni reacted to the appointment from day one. In the first week of January 2021, the university became the main news agenda in Turkey and abroad when the police cracked down on students and clamped the university gates with handcuffs. The protests have been going on uninterrupted since then.

The treatment inflicted on Boğaziçi brings to light the authoritarian methods used to undermine many other time-honoured institutions in the country. Faced with wholesale opposition at the university, the government’s first strategy in Year 1 of the resistance was to flood the campus with riot police and take students under custody on fabricated charges of belonging to terrorist organisations. Religious discourse was also used to delegitimise the resistance and harness conservative support. Boğaziçi was portrayed by government mouthpieces as alien, pro-American, not “local and national” enough, and an elitist university out of touch with Turkish society. Anti-LGBTQ discourse became toxic during the first weeks of the resistance when “religious sentiment” was used as an excuse to ban the LGBTQ student club and criminalise the rainbow flag. An anti-gender equality stance was also discernable in how all upper administrative positions were filled with male faculty (mostly appointed from outside the university) in contradistinction to Boğaziçi’s egalitarian tradition. Along similar lines, the Coordination Office for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment was closed down on grounds that the coordinator was a “radical feminist.”

But clashes between the police and students attracted too much foreign and domestic attention to Boğaziçi. As a result of university-wide resistance, Erdogan retracted Bulu’s appointment in July 2021. Instead of backing down, though, he chose to appoint vice-rector Naci Inci as rector, despite an overwhelming 95% vote of no confidence against him by faculty. Only three Boğaziçi faculty members were willing to collaborate and Inci, a professor at the physics department, was among them.

In Year 2 of the resistance, the university administration consorted to bureaucratic manoeuvres and unlawful tactics rather than sovereign acts of repression to demotivate professors. Internal elections for administrative units (deans, department heads and institute directors) were snubbed, and formal procedures and democratic decision-making principles were systematically violated. Three full-time and several part-time faculty were arbitrarily dismissed and two professors were suspended on contrived disciplinary charges and banned from entering the campus. Classes of more than 20 retired and emeritus professors were cancelled. Several centres, including the Byzantine Studies, European Studies and Peace Education and Research centres, were driven out of their offices. Scores of academics are currently under disciplinary investigation for having opposed the rector. Against the will of departments and in flagrant disregard for merit-based recruitment processes, the rector started hiring unqualified personnel and teaching staff, all of whom have ties with the government. When the Higher Education Council removed three deans from office in January 2022 without citing any legitimate justification, this allowed the rector to have full control over the Senate and Executive Board.

Withstanding all this, professors have not ceased to unite around the rallying cry: “We do not accept! We do not give up!” Given the level of repression in the country, their main repertoire is symbolic rather than antagonistic. In a show of persistence, they’ve been holding vigil dressed in academic gowns, with their backs turned to the rectorate building in the main campus square every single workday for two years now. All 29 departments and three institutes at the university stand in solidarity in taking legal or administrative action to restrain or thwart the illicit moves of the rector. Supported by a cohort of lawyers, faculty are also fighting a legal battle. They opened more than 50 lawsuits on a wide range of issues, challenging the top-down appointment of the rector, the deans and new faculty members as well as the establishment of new schools and faculties.

Aware that defending academic freedom and university autonomy requires much more than defending a campus, Boğaziçi faculty members also proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the public higher education system. Ahead of the 2023 presidential and general elections, they called on opposition parties to pursue radical reforms aimed at liberating universities from government tutelage.

Although the struggle for Boğaziçi hasn’t been able to trigger similar forms of resistance in other universities in Turkey so far, it has mustered enormous support from the public at large. A recent poll showed that 80% of those informed about the Boğaziçi resistance believed the protests are justified. The support owes in large part to the generalized dissatisfaction in Turkish society. The AKP’s popularity is declining and the economy is in a deep crisis.

When all protests are either preempted or repressed by force, one university that stubbornly continues to defy authoritarianism becomes a symbol of hope for wider societal and political changes.

Zeynep Gambetti is a retired faculty member (Political Science and International Relations Department) of Boğaziçi. Mine Eder, Ahmet Ersoy and Esra Mungan are full-time faculty members at the university (Political Science and International Relations Department, History Department, and Psychology Department, respectively).