The sidewalks of the street that leads to the Bosphorus University are fenced. The subway entrance, guarded. In each of the surrounding cafeterias, policemen in plain clothes or with the bib that identifies them sit. Sheltered in the crossbeams are several trucks with pressurized water cannons.
Pairs of officers patrol up and down, some with automatic weapons on their shoulders. The doors of the University are protected by an anti-riot line: entering is prohibited except for teachers and students with a center card. And that there have been no face-to-face classes for months.
Since January 4, successive demonstrations have been played every day: at noon, dozens of teachers, wearing their robes, stand in front of the rectory and turn their backs on it.
Then the students arrive and, for three hours, they sing and chant slogans against the new rector. Last day 1, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appointed the rectors of five universities, including the one on the Bosphorus, where he appointed Melih Bulu, until now rector of the private Haliç University, who was a candidate of the Islamist party AKP (in the Government) in the 2015 elections and was accused of plagiarism.
The rest of the centers did not protest, resigned since 2016 to see how their leaders are not chosen in elections as usual, but are handpicked from the presidential palace.
“At the University of the Bosphorus we have a bottom-up management culture, in which the rector must take into account the university Senate and the departments. This guarantees the principles of our university: freedom of expression, academic autonomy and meritocracy, rare qualities in Turkey today ”, explains Zafer Yenal, who has just resigned as advisor to the rector in protest at the appointment of Bulu.
“The independence of the universities is essential for there to be research and critical thinking . Unfortunately, the affiliation of the new rector to the ruling party and his vision endanger the integrity of the University ”.
Founded in 1863 as Robert College, one of the first American educational centers outside the United States, and converted into a public institution in 1971, it is the most prestigious university in the country. Several prime ministers, big businessmen and prominent intellectuals have come out of their classrooms.
He has always been characterized by the quality of his studies and by his open thinking. For example, in the years when Islamists were persecuted, on the Bosphorus they could freely debate their ideas.
“What is happening in recent years is the culmination of the recentralization process initiated by the military regime of the eighties and that ends university autonomy,” says Tarik Sengül, professor of Political Science at the Middle East Technical University of Ankara .
Indeed, the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), an institution created by the coup military and once criticized by Erdogan, has been used to short-circuit the universities. Now, anyone sends their candidacy for rector to the YÖK, which screens the candidates before the final election of the president.
It is a not very transparent process, in which no one consults the university “, laments the outgoing vice-rector of the Bosphorus, Naz Zeynep Atay Gök:”
It is true that the previous rector was also appointed by Erdogan, But at least he had been Vice Chancellor and had been working at the Bosphorus University for 30 years. During his tenure he has respected the norms and traditions of our university. On the other hand, the new rector has never worked on the Bosphorus ”.
The demonstrations promise to continue and, in fact, there have been protests in other cities in solidarity with the one on the Bosphorus. But there have also been some 40 arrests: several of them at dawn, at the homes of students who were searched for by members of the heavily armed special police units, as if they were terrorists.
And, indeed, that is what Erdogan has called them: “Those who participated in the protests were not students from the Bosphorus but people linked to terrorist groups.”
A student from the Faculty of History, who requests anonymity, believes that what the Government intends is to present the protest as a provocation by “external agents”, since it has gone precisely for those students who came from other centers to show solidarity with the University of the Bosphorus.
It is the thesis of Melih Bulu, who alleges that the majority of university students accept him (the rector has refused to answer the questions of EL PAÍS, and the AKP has not responded to the request for interviews either). “However, the reality is that even the student clubs closest to the government parties are against the new rector,” adds the student.
“We are afraid, of course. How not to have it if they can come to stop you at your house at dawn? But what are they going to do? Put all the students in jail? ”Says Ekrem Emir, a translation student.
Several scholars consulted have agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. “The spirits among the teachers are quite low,” responds one, citing the uncertainty about the situation.
The YÖK has refused to authorize some of the new contracts proposed by the University and there are foreign professors whose annual permits have not been renewed, as was usual: “We don’t know if he wants to get rid of foreign professors or is a retaliation against the countries from which they come. But it seems that there is a political intention ”.
“In parallel with increasing political and social polarization, the academic climate has changed dramatically. There have been many dismissals of teachers for signing the manifesto call for peace [against Ankara’s policy in the Kurdish southeast], and expulsion from the university is a real threat, so academics think twice about speaking in public ”, Sengül assures.
Education is one of the sectors where the Erdogan government gets the worst grade . In all surveys on the country’s biggest problems, education ranks high alongside economic issues. “There have been brutal budget cuts.
The number of students per department, imposed on us by the YÖK, has increased in recent years at the same time that we are not authorized by the new contracts we are proposing ”, Atay Gök complains.
In the almost 20 years of AKP rule, the number of university students has gone from 1.13 to 7.56 million, but the number of professors has not increased at the same rate (the ratio of students to teacher has almost doubled).
The number of universities has gone from 93 to 207, as the Government has promoted their opening in all provinces, and also in a multitude of private centers, in many cases linked to businessmen close to power.
According to an investigation by the digital medium Inside Turkey, plagiarism has increased in thesis and doctoral theses, while Turkish universities have fallen in international rankings, as well as references to Turkish research.
“The quality of education has declined, because many of these new universities do not have good conditions, lack facilities and have few academic staff,” explains Sengül. The number of unemployed with a college degree has risen from 100,000 to more than a million in the last 15 years.
The YÖK tightly controls everything that is done in the universities, from authorizing who supervises each thesis to who governs each center, complains Ekrem Emir. “The University of the Bosphorus has lost places in the rankings and many of our professors have left the country ” due to political pressure.
The History student who does not want to give his name will also take that path: “I want to continue in the academic world, so I will go abroad, because in Turkey it is impossible to carry out any significant research, especially in the field of Humanities or the Social Sciences ”.