Keeping students away

Handcuffed gates

Students are resisting the academic cronies imposed on them by the Erdoğan regime. Esen Uslu reports

The current coalition government enables president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stay in power with the support of the most reactionary forces: Islamists, nationalist-fascists and militarist forces ingrained in the state.

Near the top of their agenda is keeping academics and students in check and under control and they regularly appoint their cronies as university rectors. Previously university academics would propose a few possible candidates and the state president would appoint one of them. However, with Erdoğan tightening control, the Council of Higher Education began nominating candidates without any regard for the wishes of academia, let alone the students.

To maintain their grip on the universities successive Erdoğan governments have set up a multitude of new higher-education institutes all over Turkey - without any regard for the quality of education. While those institutions have provided four more years of studentship for unemployed and unemployable youth, they have also opened the door to administrative positions for Erdoğan’s cronies.

All this has enabled him to maintain a much tighter grip. However, Boğaziçi University (BU) - one of the top-tier higher-education establishments in Turkey, which was established on the hills overlooking the Bosporus back in the days of the Ottoman empire and has its roots in the US-based Robert College - has been one of the thorns in Erdoğan’s flesh.

In 2016 he appointed a BU academic as rector against the wishes of the staff. This sparked a wave of protests, but this quickly died down. Encouraged, Erdoğan became bolder and he has just appointed a professor who was not a member of the BU academia. Moreover, he is known for his plagiarism when writing theses, which is quite common amongst the new, Erdoğan-era academicians. He is also a regular on state TV propaganda programmes (disguised as discussion and debate). In one of these he proposed that a missile should be fired at a passing ship to prove the prowess of the Turkish navy to the Europeans.

Erdoğan knew that the appointment of such a person as rector would inevitably lead to protests. But that suited him fine, since it would enable him to strengthen his crumbling base in the face of the Covid crisis and the ensuing economic hardship among his core urban supporters. He correctly calculated that he could represent the protesting students and anyone siding with them as “terrorist supporters” - he was fully aware that the main parliamentary opposition had been crippled by accusations of support for Kurdish and leftwing opponents of the regime.

The protests of BU academics and students were met with brutal tactics on the part of the police. On the first day the student demonstrators were corralled by the police, who locked the campus gates using a couple of handcuffs. The photo of the handcuffed gates became a symbol of protest and police stupidity.

Heavy-handed tactics were also employed against students who tried to organise protest meetings and marches. Public-transport buses used by students to travel to and from the campus were halted and students were not allowed to board ferries to cross the Bosporus at the time of protest meetings. Any resistance was met by the using usual combination of pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and baton charges. Students were warned: “Don’t look at us - look down.” Scores were detained, charged and then released. A new slogan emerged as a result of the police action: “We shall not bow our heads - we will never look down.” The students also responded with humour, singing and dancing to old Alevi protest songs with improvised wording.

Erdoğan and his minions attempted to bolster support in their own camp by utilising every dirty trick to present students as LBGT supporters, anti-Islam feminists and associates of political prisoner Osman Kavala. They hope to make gains by creating more tension within society as a whole. The BU students, who were among the first to support the right of female students to wear headscarves in the early 2000s, countered these slurs by presenting headscarfed students as their spokespersons. For their part, the academicians also staged protests on the campus by turning their backs on the rector’s office and standing in silence, while holding up placards supporting the detained students.

But none of these positive aspects should distract us from us the reality: the protests were very small. Only a tiny minority of BU students were able to take part, while many academics did not want to do so - a few have accepted senior positions, such as vice-rector, much to the chagrin of the students. Similarly, there was not much solidarity from students at other universities despite some declarations of support. But, of course, gatherings in towns or cities across Turkey are likely to be brutally suppressed by the police.

Amongst all this, Erdoğan suddenly proposed a totally new constitution. He said that, despite the various changes made over the years to the version devised by the military junta following its coup, it remains the construct of that coup, with its character defined by that original sin. A new, “totally democratic” constitution should be drawn up, said the president. Not unexpectedly, the parliamentary opposition immediately rose to the bait. While Erdoğan has not made any concrete proposals regarding the content, the opposition has taken to the idea with enthusiasm.

But the BU students responded cleverly by publishing an open letter (a redacted version follows this article). Many liberals now think that its spirit and demands could provide a starting point for the formulation of the opposition’s own constitutional proposals, and there is a movement in support of it.

Open letter to the 12th president

Previously we responded to the appointment of Melih Bulu as rector with the poem, ‘Satirical attempts by a provocateur’. It is pleasing to see that you now acknowledge that you yourself are the person responsible, and have responded accordingly.

Up until now, you have been demanding secret meetings with us via the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation, but now you are trying to start an argument with us through the media. We do not like go-betweens: we prefer speaking out clearly to all and we hope that you will proceed accordingly.

First, let us remind you of our demands and of the reasons underlying our protests. You appointed a trustee rector to our university with utter disregard for the students and faculty. Is what you did legal? Yes, as you like to mention every chance you get, but it is not legitimate. This appointment makes anyone who has even the tiniest sense of justice revolt with indignation.

To top it off, you open faculties and appoint deans through an overnight presidential order, so as to intimidate the whole institution and all its students, teachers and workers. Your attempts to pack our university with your own political sympathisers is the symptom of the political crisis you have fallen into. Victims of that crisis are growing in number with every passing day!

We use our constitutional rights to make people from all segments of society aware of the injustices we are subjected to. These are our demands:

You uttered a sentence, starting with “If they have the guts ...” in your statement. Is it a constitutional right to call for the resignation of the president? Yes! Since when is the use of a constitutional right a matter of courage?

Do not mistake us for those who obey you unconditionally. You are not a sultan, and we are not your subjects. But, since you mentioned courage, we shall also respond to that briefly.

We have no immunities! You, however, are the one who has been storming around, hiding behind your legal and political immunity for the last 19 years.

The interior minister is spreading lies to play on religious sensitivities. We say that we will not practise self-censorship.

You call our LGBT+ friends deviants. We state that LGBT+ rights are human rights.

Members of your party kicked miners in Soma. We actively stood in solidarity with the mineworkers, and we will continue to do so.

You unlawfully keep the co-chair of the Peoples Democratic Party imprisoned, alongside journalists and union members. We declare that we stand united with those who fearlessly speak the truth, and we are against all government-appointed trustees.

You encourage crowds to boo Berkin Elvan’s mother at rallies. We declare that we stand with Berkin Elvan.

You target and attack Ayse Bugra, without even mentioning her name, saying, “Osman Kavala’s wife is among these provocateurs.” In a vulgar manner, you restate the sexist fallacy that the only significant feature of a woman is her husband. We state: “Ayse is a dignified professor and an esteemed academic.” We say: “We will take any charge against her as a charge against us.”

(We know very well that you will file dozens of lawsuits against this letter on the grounds that it is praising crime and criminals or insulting the president, but we also know that we will never give up speaking the truth!)

Since you lack the power necessary to keep the trustee-rector you have appointed, you resort to petty tricks like opening new faculties and appointing sham personnel, which does not appear to be an act of courage.
That is why we disregard your words about courage.

We are aware that Boğaziçi University is not Turkey’s most significant institution, nor is the appointment of Melih Bulu Turkey’s most significant problem. We would not consider calling for your resignation based just on this issue.

You ask why. If you were ever going to resign, you would have done so when Hrant Dink was slaughtered! You would have resigned when 34 Kurds were killed in the Roboski massacre! You would have resigned when 301 miners were murdered in Soma! You would have resigned after the Corlu train derailment! You would have resigned in the face of the livelihood problems of thousands of citizens, who were left unemployed or could not find a job! You would have assumed responsibility for the economic policies which condemned the people to poverty.

The examples are plenty, but you have not resigned. You preferred to present yourself as naively deceived, instead of, in your own words, “having the guts”. So now why would we call on you to resign? As long as Melih Bulu sits on that seat, we will continue our protests by strengthening our struggle with all those who join the resistance.

Whether or not you do what must be done is your own business. We stand with those who are robbed of their democratic rights and freedoms - in the hope that you realise you cannot silence the oppressed of these lands by shouting and threatening.