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Late at night on January 1, 2021, by presidential decree, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed new rectors to five universities in Turkey. One was Professor Melih Bulu, who became rector of the prestigious Boğaziçi University. This liberal and pluralist institution hosts dissident students and faculty, including many connected to Academics for Peace, an association that  demands a peaceful resolution to Turkey’s war on the Kurds. Constituents of Boğaziçi immediately rejected this fait accompli as illegitimate, and began to protest. On January 4, police attacked hundreds of students: an image of Boğaziçi’s gates locked with handcuffs went viral.

To this day, the campus remains under heavy police surveillance as the AKP and associated dominant social groups use both consent and coercion to impose their ways on social and political life. This process, called hegemony, plays out in the education sector today.

Melih Bulu was unwelcome at Boğaziçi University for many reasons. A dean and a rector at two other universities, in 2015, he ran in the general elections as a candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP.) In the first few days of his appointment at Boğaziçi, Bulu was credibly accused of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Dismissing the charges as forgetfulness in using quotation marks, he tried to win students over by claiming that he supports LGBT rights – only to close down the LGBTI+ Studies student club as one of his first executive decisions.

Since the day of Bulu’s appointment, students and faculty members at Boğaziçi have been protesting him, as well as the anti-democratic intervention in the university’s internal operations by President Erdoğan. The Boğaziçi resistance, however, is more than a struggle over the future of one university: it is a much larger struggle for academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democracy in an increasingly authoritarian Turkey.

Students and faculty have mobilized creative protests despite the likelihood of a further crackdown. On March 1, over 70 Boğaziçi faculty members applied to the Council of State, demanding the reversal of Bulu’s appointment as it violates the Constitution and the law. By the end of March, more than 800 protesters around Turkey had been taken into custody. Twenty-nine are now under extended house arrest, while six remain in pretrial detention. Faculty members continue to turn their backs on the rectorship every day, and students are boycotting the first six days of the new semester to honor six friends in detention.

This is clearly an assault on academic and political freedom. But the Boğaziçi resistance also sheds light on why the Erdoğan government may be courting controversy with the nation’s public universities – and why this particular university has taken center stage in the struggle for democracy in Turkey.

The AKP is a culturally conservative and economically center-right party that has been in power since 2002. The first few years of the Erdoğan government saw democratic advances: lifting of the ban on headscarves in public institutions and an end to military interference in politics. Over the course of two decades in power, however, the AKP has ruled through authoritarian and neoliberal governance.

These events are neither new nor confined to the education sector. It is only one leg of the AKP’s ongoing political project to transform both state and society. This involves reconstituting higher education to mirror the AKP’s control of state institutions, governance structures, civil society, and the media. The AKP has seized control of the judiciary, parliament, the military, and the police. It has criminalized all opposition. It has imprisoned, purged, or silenced journalists, teachers, academics, lawyers, and others. It has bought off the media. It has removed democratically-elected mayors in the Kurdish southeast and appointed new ones.

This has all taken place legally, through the constitutional amendments of 2010 and 2017, and the laws by decree that were issued during the two-year state of emergency between 2016 and 2018.

But the infringement on institutional autonomy and academic freedom is older than the current regime. The Council of Higher Education (YÖK), established after the 1980 military coup, was established to curb the autonomy of universities by controlling university structures, their governance, staff, and intellectual output. Between 1992 and 2016, candidates for a rectorship were voted on first by university departments and faculty before being nominated for appointment by the YÖK. But after a law by decree was issued under emergency rule in 2016, the YÖK was put in charge of appointing rectors. Since 2018, President Erdoğan appoints them.

The government, its media, and the President used their usual combination of divide-and-conquer techniques on the protesters in a bid to cordon them off from support by the population at large. Boğaziçi students and faculty members, as well as other students and supporters of the protests were characterized first as “elitist,” then as “LGBT deviants,” then “disrespectful of national sensibilities,” and then as “terrorists.”

The inclusive politics that the Boğaziçi resistance showcased prompted Erdoğan to resort to even more populist tactics, to remind the nation that “lesbians and the like” (“lezbiyen mezbiyen”) should not be listened to, and that “the pillar of the family is the mother,” falling back on the age old conservative “our customs and values!” rhetoric. More broadly, these instances lay bare the differences between the kind of politics that the AKP and the student movement adhere to, suggesting the type of politics – inclusive, diverse, intersectional – that is well-positioned to burst through the cracks of the current system. 

The regime, unable to legitimize its appointed rector at Boğaziçi, seems poised to empty out the university and appoint loyalist deans and staff by using forms of clientelism that are common to AKP rule. Two new faculties were established on February 6. On March 1, Bulu appointed his vice-rector Professor Naci Inci, a physicist, as the director of the Institute for Graduate Studies in Social Sciences. Re-staffing Boğaziçi will ease the process of governing the university, leaving the structure of the institution (if not its procedures) intact, and maintaining the appearance of legitimacy. 

Why is establishing ironclad control of universities necessary to the AKP? Because institutions of higher education mold individuals into citizens, workers, social and political beings. By exerting control over education, the AKP is not only demolishing public space but also ensuring the reproduction of “acceptable” citizens and publics who consent to these practices. At the same time, through establishing its control over education, the AKP is attempting to overturn the decline in support from the youth, as well as the educated and professional classes and re-establish what it calls the  “national and religious” youth.

Universities are also an economic and political project for the AKP: they are money-making, personnel-providing, vote-generating machines. Universities, many of poor quality, have popped up all over Turkey since the party came to power. Erecting a faculty building in a small town or city employs a lot of people. It also provides hope for social mobility, and attaches that hope to voting for the AKP.

This process cannot be separated from the transformation of universities into institutions that provide a workforce, and where only profitable, depoliticized professions have value. This is the essence of what we mean by a neoliberal transformation of education. The decline and defunding of social sciences and humanities departments is discernible both in and outside of Turkey. Subjects that create space for studying economic, social, and political systems, promise to create politically engaged, critical individuals. It should, then, not come as a surprise that Melih Bulu, once appointed, declared that his mission and vision for Boğaziçi was, instead, to boost the university’s “sectoral cooperation, entrepreneurship, innovation ecosystem,” and put it in in the Times Higher Education (THE) and the QS first 100 rankings.

Students of Boğaziçi have since made it clear, as one banner read, that they do not want a corporation but a university.

Nevertheless, political encroachment into higher education continues. In its 19th year of rule, as it loses legitimacy and struggles to generate consent, the AKP increases coercion by repressing dissent everywhere. Higher education is no exception: trade unions, professional associations, political parties, publishing houses, and media outlets have been targeted too.

These attacks on the university and academic freedom are yet another step by the AKP towards establishing authority over what little space remains for public debate and free expression. Indeed, the boundaries of the state, the government, and the public are already blurred in Turkey. When Bulu stated, in reaction to mounting pressure for his resignation, “touching me would mean touching the state” Erdoğan agreed: if the protesters “had the guts,” he said, they would ask him to resign.

This conflation of Bulu’s authority with that of Erdoğan and the Turkish state reveals the stakes of the Boğaziçi resistance. Protesters denying the appointed “trustee” (“kayyum”) rector’s legitimacy at Boğaziçi also deny legitimacy to all kayyums in the Kurdish southeast. Refusing to accept Bulu’s appointment at Boğaziçi is also a refusal to accept the AKP’s anti-democratic politics. Reclaiming LGBTI+ identity also reclaims Muslim women’s rights. Freedom to establish or join a student club is a matter of freedom of assembly and expression.

The students’ bold and incisive open letter to President Erdoğan eloquently expresses these entanglements and the intersectionality of their politics. Placing their struggle at Boğaziçi University within workers’ and minorities’ struggles, and within struggles against injustice, sexism and gender inequality, and the targeting of their fellow friends and professors, university students sum up what this resistance stands for. Their example should illuminate a way forward for an international left politics that commits to democracy and justice for all.

For recent developments, follow bogazicidireniyor on Instagram and use the hashtags #bogazicidireniyor, #KabulEtmiyoruzVazgeçmiyoruz, #WeDoNotAcceptWeDoNotGiveUp, #WeWillNotLookDown and @unibogazici_en on Twitter.

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Birgan Gokmenoglu is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.

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