The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students and faculty at top Turkish university battle Erdogan’s attempt at control

Turkish police block the entrance of Bogazici University in Istanbul, on Feb. 1, 2021. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — The Turkish government's appointment of an outside rector to an esteemed Istanbul university has led to weeks of demonstrations, hundreds of arrests and some of the most vocal and sustained complaints in years against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's expansive powers.

The protests began in early January, after Erdogan’s government appointed an academic
with ties to the ruling party as rector of Istanbul’s Bogazici University, one of the country’s most competitive schools and a bastion of liberal ideas. Students and faculty members complained that the­ appointment trampled a ­decades-long tradition of Bogazici’s rectors being selected by the university and that the appointee, Melih Bulu, a former politician, was unqualified for the post.

The crisis has focused attention on Erdogan’s commanding sway over state institutions since he started gathering sweeping powers after a coup attempt nearly five years ago. The debate sparked by the rector’s appointment — over democracy, freedom of expression and the government’s reach — has come at a moment when the Turkish leader is trying to smooth over ruffled relations with European countries and the United States, including by pledging to enact far-reaching democratic reforms.

Why Erdogan is calling Turkish students ‘terrorists’

So far, though, the authorities’ response to the protests has been heavy-handed and familiar. Police have raided student homes and barricaded the campus of Bogazici. Peaceful protests have been met with overwhelming force. Government officials have branded demonstrators as terrorists, and stoked a polarizing and toxic culture war by targeting the university’s LGBTQ students as instigators of unrest and deviants who violate Turkish values.

“There is no such thing as LGBT. This country is national, spiritual and walking toward the future with these values,” Erdogan said in an address to his party’s members on Feb. 3. Recent tweets by Turkey’s interior minister denigrating the LGBTQ students were found by Twitter to have violated its rules about “hateful conduct” and were marked with a warning label and partially hidden from public view.

The attacks were aimed at galvanizing the government’s conservative Muslim supporters and splintering the protest movement, students said. Their ferocity suggested official alarm at the burgeoning support for the demonstrations, including from opposition parties, students from other universities and Bogazici’s wide and influential alumni network.

Residents in some Istanbul quarters have taken to banging pots and pans at night in solidarity with the protests. During a demonstration Feb. 2 in the ­waterfront Kadikoy district, drivers honked their support as students and opposition politicians confronted a battalion of police.

“I guess they underestimated what the response would be,” said Can Candan, a lecturer at Bogazici who has participated in faculty vigils protesting the rector’s appointment and is the faculty adviser to the campus LGBTQ student club.

“We are surprised, as well — by the response of our students and how this protest against this appointment has been received publicly. There is a lot of support. It’s seen as a very clear attack against a high-quality institution of higher education. Bogazici is very precious,” he added.

The university was established in 1863 as Robert College on the European shore of the Bosporus by two Americans: Cyrus Hamlin, a missionary and educator from Maine, and the New York philanthropist Christopher Robert. It was renamed Bogazici (Turkish for Bosporus) in 1971, when it became part of the state system, and in the decades since, it has established a reputation as one of Turkey’s finest universities. Graduates include former prime ministers, industrialists and notable artists.

Despite its state affiliation, the university has also been known for its embrace of diversity and independent thought, students and faculty members said. In a frequently cited example, the campus held demonstrations in 2008 protesting a ban on women wearing headscarves at universities, two years before the ban was lifted.

“Individuals who think very differently can live in harmony in the environment of the university,” said Emre, a 19-year-old student who supported the protests against the rector. “Students always approach each other with tolerance.” He and other students who were interviewed spoke on the condition that only their first names be used for fear of retaliation.

Since 1992, the university had held internal elections to select candidates for rector, a process that was formalized by the university senate two decades later, Candan said. But in 2016, in the months following the coup attempt, Erdogan issued an emergency decree that transferred the authority to select rectors from universities to the president’s office.

Another decree ordered the dismissal of more than 1,000 professors from dozens of universities, part of a massive government purge of perceived enemies at state institutions. Officials defended the decrees and other measures as a response to security risks laid bare by the coup attempt, while critics and human rights groups saw an accelerating effort by Erdogan to seize more power.

In 2017, Erdogan prevailed in a referendum that changed Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential system and granted the Turkish leader largely unchecked authority over the levers of state. In the years since, Erdogan has eagerly exercised that authority while extending the state’s reach to once independent institutions, including media outlets and professional associations.

The government’s actions since the coup attempt have sparked protests, but few as sustained as those seen over the rector’s appointment in January. Recently, protests have been held in Ankara, the Turkish capital, and the coastal city of Izmir. Faculty members have largely focused on the government’s intrusion into the university’s affairs, while several students said in interviews that Bulu’s “values” were alien to the university, citing accusations he had committed plagiarism in some of his academic work.

Bulu has called the accusations “slander” and said he had forgotten to add quotation marks to work he quoted. This week, he said he was not considering resigning and intended to make Bogazici one of the top 100 universities in the world.

In a statement Feb. 4 about the protests, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said that “certain groups that are not from the university and are affiliated with terrorist organizations attempted to infiltrate into and provoke the events.” The ministry did not elaborate. Freedom of association and expression are safeguarded by the constitution, the statement added.

Faculty members started their demonstrations in early January, a few days after the rector’s appointment was announced, saying in a statement that it violated academic freedom and democratic principles. Every weekday, they stand in front of the rectorate building, wearing their academic gowns, with their backs turned to the rector’s office, and on Fridays, they read out a bulletin detailing events of the week, Candan said.

Student demonstrations have been more creative and have included blaring Metallica at the office of the rector, a self-
described fan of hard rock. A student art collective called for submissions related to the appointment. One of the works placed rainbow flags around an image of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, setting off a storm of criticism that the government seized upon and amplified.

Members of the campus ­LGBTQ club, who had struggled for years to regularize the club’s status at the university, were wrongly blamed for the artwork, Candan said. The club’s room on campus was raided by police on Jan. 29, and on Feb. 1 the rector announced that the club had been terminated and its “candidate” status revoked, Candan added. He called the actions a “very calculated attack” aimed at criminalizing and demonizing the LGBTQ students.

Outside the Bogazici campus — resembling a garrison, surrounded by metal police barricades and armed officers — a student named Asli said Feb. 2 that the focus on LGTBQ students was meant to divide the protests.

“They’re making it seem like a problem with the LGBT club, but this is not the case,” she said. “Today, for example, we see on the news they are talking about LGBT as terrorists.” But “all the students are against the rector,” Asli added. “This is about human rights.”

Correction: The name of the final student quoted in this story has been corrected to Asli.

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