“We do not want a trustee rector.”

Not a day passes without people in Turkey witnessing a new anti-democratic attempt. Boğaziçi University, one of the most prestigious universities in Istanbul, has been shocked with a sudden and unexpected appointment of the university rector. The core higher education values such as institutional autonomy and academic freedom is getting worse day by day. The process of disqualifying the university’s main components such as academics from the decision-making power about whom would guide them, has begun after the coup attempt in 2016. The democratic governance of university has already been damaged with the amendments in higher education law according to which rectors are appointed by the president of republic.

The universities gained partial autonomy with the Law on the Higher Education (no. 4936) of 1946 which occurred against the backdrop of the return to the multi-party politics. According to this law, the universities could elect their own rectors and deans along with having autonomy. Nevertheless, the political power continued to intervene with the autonomy of universities during this period and in 1950s. Both CHP (Republican People’s Party) and DP (Democrat Party, 1946-1961) have interfered with the autonomy of universities when they deemed it necessary. Even in 1961 when such autonomy was guaranteed in the Constitution, many academics who were considered dangerous by the regime were dismissed from universities. On the one hand, universities had autonomy in their own administration and internal affairs, on the other hand their expenses were covered by the state budget, which implied that they had no financial autonomy.

At the time of the 1981 university reform which led to the establishment of Higher Education Council/ Yükseköğretim Kurumu (YÖK) through issuing the Law on the Higher Education no. 2547 (6 November 1981), universities lost even their partial autonomy. This law has been discussed since its existence and has been considered a great obstacle for the core higher education values and democratic mechanism of the universities. While the universities law of 1946 (no. 4936) led to rectors’ elections by the universities themselves, the Higher Education law (no. 2547) or the YÖK system established by this law has been deemed as being against democracy since the day it was made within the university reforms because with this law the universities came to depend on YÖK for their internal affairs. However, the right to elect the rector by the university members was revoked by the decree law enacted on October 2016. The 2016 decree law has amended the article 13 of the Law on the Higher Education (no. 2547). YÖK therefore, can propose 3 candidates for rector and the president can only appoint from among these proposed candidates. As a result of such as process, Prof. Melih Bulu who was previously a candidate of Parliament from the AKP was appointed as a rector of the Boğaziçi University on 2 January 2021. On the same day, the university’s faculty members made a statement and pointed out that after the military regime of the 1980s, for the first time, a rector from outside the institution was appointed to the university.

The students and academics of Boğaziçi University have protested and continue to protest the appointment of Prof. Melih Bulu by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Students expressed their concerns about this appointment through their statement on 4 January 2021 in front of the university while making this statement to the press: “We defend the autonomy of our university that will be achieved not by any academic appointed from the top, regardless of his personality and background, but by the election of a rector, democratically determined by members of the University. We regret that the antidemocratic practices that arise when these conditions are not met cause harm to our university.”

When answering one of the students’ question during the 6 January manifestation in the university campus, Prof. Melih Bulu represented his party’s approach to democracy: “It is clear how the rectors will be appointed. There are very few examples in the world where the rector is elected.” A day before, in one of the TV channels he had said that “[i]t is not an efficient method for the person who will administer the institution to be elected. Democracy is a very efficient way to choose power, but you can’t choose a rector or a CEO of a company by voting.” As can be inferred by his comment, in his view a university and a company are comparable institutions and can therefore be presided in the same way. This mentality is obviously far from a scientific and democratic approach representing instead a neoliberal view on education. The top-down rector’s viewpoint of democracy and the university autonomy does not only represent his approach to the mode of governance but also and particularly stands for the project of AKP’s or President Erdoğan’s new Turkey including a new Academia, a project deeply entrenched on anti-intellectualism. New Academia will be a place in which all so-called intellectuals will be ready to obey and to command.

Against this view, students, while issuing the same press statement mentioned above on 4 January 2021, during the demonstration held in front of the entrance of Boğaziçi University supported by other students from other universities, have recalled the principles that were adopted by Boğaziçi University Senate in 2012: the first principle refers to the independency—autonomy—of university from any person, institution, organization, company or political party, emphasizing its scientific importance: “It is indispensable for scientific and social development that universities are not subjected to the influence or pressure of any person or organization and are not used as a political tool.” The second principle is necessary for its autonomy: its democratic character: “To have democratically elected boards composed of academics who have authority in the university is essential for autonomy. Academic managers, such as the rector, dean, director of the institute, director of the college, head of the department, should be determined by election, not by appointment.” Another principle refers to academic and intellectual creativity and free scientific research: “As autonomous constitutional institutions, the determination of academic programs and research programs by the faculty members and/or the university boards is one of the conditions of scientific freedom and creativity.” The main concern of students is about the loss of democratic values, freedom, autonomy and the project for designing a new academia. Both the university’s students and academics point out that this appointment means the transformation of university into a managerial business company and the implementation of neoliberal policies. Another concern is about letting the campus located on the Bosphorus in the hands of construction sectors, who want to transform the site and build a hotel.

Students shouted slogans against this sudden and unexpected appointment as follows: “We do not want a literary pirate” and “universities are ours.” Police responded with violence to the students who protested to the appoint of a trustee rector. After police intervention, several students were taken into custody. While carrying out different manifestations, on 4 January 2021 they sealed the rectorate’s door. At the same day, the police handcuffed the university’s iron door, trying to block protesters from entering the campus. Furthermore, the police entered the homes of students who participated in the demonstration in the early hours of the morning and detained 36 students.

There are very few universities in Turkey who try to fight against AKP’s political design of academia, and Boğaziçi University is one of them. In sign of solidarity, other universities including ITU (Istanbul Technical University), METU (Middle East Technical University) and Istanbul University, political parties and many associations also reacted strongly to this decision. As mentioned above, the debates about the appointment of the rectors are not new in Turkey. In 2016, the appointment of the previous rector of Boğaziçi University, in the first time of its history, was also done by the President Erdoğan. Instead of Prof. Gülay Barbarosoğlu, who broke the record in the history of the University, receiving 86% of the vote during the rector’s election at that time, Dr. Mehmed Ozkan, who was not even a candidate in the elections was appointed.

While continuing their manifestations against this top-down form of appointment, the students and faculty members of Boğaziçi University underline that they will carry on defending the higher education’s core values which lead a country to be creative and develop their democracy. On the 8 January 2021, they made statements on the campus that they will continue their resistance in front of the “kayyimlik” (tutorship) building and doors until Melih Bulu resigns. On the same day, the students demanded the release of their friends who are taken into custody, the immediate resignation of all rectors appointed as trustees, and therefore, the democratic elections which should be held for the rectorate in all universities with the consent of the university components. The moto of the resisting movement for autonomous and democratic elections has become “we do not accept, we do not give up!”

Cover photo: Boğaziçi University main gate, South campus, by Behram Evlice