[Academics and students at Boğaziçi University responded with protest when President Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu as the new rectorate. The protests of students were repressed violently and eleven students were imprisoned, and others put under house arrest. Since the 2016 coup attempt, this has been the largest and most influential popular protest in Turkey, gaining support from other universities, student bodies, and oppositional groups. Jadaliyya Turkey Page co-editor Ayça Çubukçu interviewed Boğaziçi Universtiy faculty Dr. Seda Altuğ and Dr. Saygun Gökarıksel in Istanbul to gain a better understanding of these developments.]
Ayça: I want to begin by asking about what is happening at Boğaziçi University now. What are the protests about?
Seda: It all started on the first day of the new year. Almost 60 days ago, when we woke up on the 2nd of January we found out that a new rector named Melih Bulu was appointed to our university by president Erdoğan. Us, the faculty, had no idea who this person was as there was no previous consultation between the faculty senate and YÖK [the Council of Higher Education], nor with any others in advance. We all knew that this appointment was made possible thanks to a presidential decree issued immediately after the failed coup d’état attempt in mid-2016, which provided an already-powerful Erdogan with extra power and authority.
So, we had Melih Bulu as the new rector, a loyalist and former AKP (Justice and Development Party) candidate for the parliament, with a suspicious academic record and no previous experience of working in a public university. This is what the initial protests are about: namely the central appointment of a university rector without the consent of the constituents of the university and his loyalist character. This was followed by yet another top-down decision of opening up two new schools within the university, Law and Communication, without ever consulting with the university council, and the appointment of another loyalist, this time as the dean of the Law faculty. In the meantime, while the faculty and students were protesting under heavy police presence on campus, the new rector was actively seeking out provosts and advisors from among the faculty in order to be able to build up a base and rule the university (yet he was able to recruit only two professors, who he immediately appointed as a provost and an adviser). Very recently, this adviser has been appointed as the new director of the Social Sciences Institute, pitted against its democratically elected director. Subsequently, the new rector declared that all elections at the university are cancelled until further notice. The latter emergency measure is imposed with the pretext that the ongoing protests are actually a sort of mobbing against the rectorate, signifying the absence of an atmosphere fit for free elections.
Saygun: What we have been seeing witnessing at Boğaziçi University is part of the global trend of a right-wing, authoritarian, and neoliberal offensive against education institutions of higher education, from India, Hungary, and Poland, to France, Britain, and the USA. We are currently in the ninth week of Bogazici protests that started with the Turkish president’s top-down, anti-democratic appointment of Melih Bulu as the university’s new rector—in the same fashion as what we call “kayyum” in Turkey. Obviously, the authoritarian offensive against public (education) institutions and democratic life in Turkey has not started with Bogazici University, nor will it end there. But Bogazici, in a short time, has become a publicly visible site to observe that authoritarian offensive in the country and articulate popular discontent with it.
Seda: Actually, the word “kayyum” or qayyim, in its original Arabic form, refers to an appointed trustee governing as a legal personality. The word has become popular since 2016, following the systematic dis-appointments of Kurdish majors of many municipalities by the Ministry of Interior, where elected mayors are replaced either by some centrally appointed loyalist men or by existing governors of these provinces. These dis-appointments were justified on the grounds that the elected mayors were members of the pro-Kurdish organization, the PKK, and that electors voted under PKK pressure, while the new appointees are argued to serve the general will. Thus, the concept of “kayyum” as a technique of governance became part of the popular glossary, denoting all kinds of situations that hijack personal or collective will.
Saygun: So this rector appointment was largely understood in those terms, both by the university community and beyond. The top-down, anti-democratic imposition of Melih Bulu was an outright violation of our university’s autonomy and the will of its faculty. This was the first time since the military regime of the 1980s that someone from outside Bogazici faculty was appointed as the rector. Since the failed coup attempt of July 2016, the AKP government abolished elections at universities all over the country. Boğaziçi was one of the last universities that was relatively—only relatively—untouched by a wave of oppressive interventions into higher education, including the normalization of emergency powers and counter-insurgency operations, the erosion of public institutions and the shrinking of democratic life, as well as the incarceration and forced exile of academics, students, lawyers, journalists, and politicians. The rector appointment meant that Bogazici University finally became a direct target of Ankara, like many other public institutions had become before. The university community—students, alumni, faculty, and public employees—rightly understood this appointment as a threat against democratic, pluralist campus life at Bogazici, fashioned by minorities of different kinds (ethnic, religious, sexual), as a threat against critical education and research, and against the relative autonomy of university life with its decentralized structures run by commissions and elections.
Our aim has been not only to push back against the rector appointment at Boğaziçi, but also to work toward the democratization of university government and education more generally. Just as Bogazici is not in the unique position of experiencing this blow, the response, whether in the form of protests or proposals for change, we believe, needs to be articulated in solidarity with other institutions of education.
For the last nine weeks, as faculty, we have been trying to publicly express our viewpoint through different means such as media interviews, public forums and statements, and symbolic performances. Overall, these two slogans have been organizing the horizon of our protests: Kabul Etmiyoruz/We Do Not Accept (refusal), and Vazgeçmiyoruz/We Do Not Give Up (perseverance). In response to certain events, we also employ or develop different slogans such as Aşağı Bakmıyoruz/We Don’t Look Down (disobedience). This last slogan counters the police order of “Look down!,” and registers a long history of state violence targeting the “usual suspects” of Turkey.
With different activities, we have tried to “flesh out” these words, sometimes literally so. One particular form of protest that became very popular was the silent vigil organized by the faculty. Since January 5, every weekday, tens and sometimes hundreds of faculty stand for half hour in their academic gowns, turning their back to the rector’s office as a symbolic gesture of refusal and perseverance. They conclude the vigil by clapping together for a minute. On Fridays, we also read a weekly digest to inform the public about recent developments and actions taken by faculty and students. These vigils have become one major site for making visible our collective will with our bodies, and for nourishing relations of solidarity. Students, and increasingly alumni, join us, and sometimes organize events after our vigil. As you might guess, this is also a place where we exchange information and socialize with each other, often under the watchful eyes of the undercover police that have been taking our pictures. In these pandemic emergency conditions, the vigils give us the possibility of forming a material, embodied world of resistance, recognition, and public appearance. Depending on weather conditions and the heat of the moment, this drama of protest has also taken on different intensities.
Seda: I think it would not be an exaggeration to argue that it is through the protests that the faculty and students have turned into a real community with a collective will asking for university autonomy and freedom. We got far more informed about the institutional and administrative structure of the university as well as our role as active agents to turn these abstract rules and administrative structures into bottom-up decision-making mechanisms.
Photo by Can Candan.
Ayça: Why do you think these protests have resonated beyond the campus of Boğaziçi? Why have they become widely supported by the public at large?
Saygun: Our demands resonated widely, partly because from the very start, it was obvious to many people that this “kayyum” rector appointment was part of a general trend of centralization and the monopolization of power, the normalization of executive decrees, the redesign and hollowing out of public institutions, and the curtailment of democratic rights and freedoms—or whatever is left of them in the country, especially since the second half of 2015. The magnitude and form of violence that the protests met was somewhat a familiar episode. Bogazici’s relatively prestigious position in the national and international field of public education brought visibility to the deepening of authoritarianism in the country.
But there is also another reason for the wide resonance and relevance of Bogazici protests. These protests against the intervention of state apparatuses of security and law also made clear the interconnection of different social struggles, and the interdependence of democratic rights and freedoms. That is how the Boğaziçi protests for university autonomy and democracy could easily give space, both within and outside the campus, to related social struggles concerning labor, gender, and sexuality. The government grasped it quickly (the fears of another Gezi uprising) and tried hard to contain and isolate Bogazici protests from the rest of society.
To do so, the authorities barricaded the campus, launched multiple checkpoints and armory vehicles, and stationed hundreds of police officers. This physical presence of security forces—which were accompanied by undercover officers inside and outside the rector’s office—worked together with the criminalization of protesters by the media, smear campaigns against protestors that target sexual minorities, particularly LGBTI+ students, as well as left-leaning groups. The usual conspiratorial script was run: the protests were allegedly provoked from outside. It was the work of hideous national and international actors that wanted to stir things up in the country.
All in all, as a result of these criminalizations and security operations, more than 500 people were detained at the protests, including activists and students from other universities. As of today, 9 Bogazici students are still under prison arrest and 25 under house arrest.
Seda: I agree with what Saygun has just said yet would like to add another point. Bogazici protests have created a sense of delight and glow in the midst of the pale silence of street politics in Turkey, following the violent crack-down on the opposition over the last five years. This has to do with the timing of the protest, namely they came at a time when politics and public space were almost monopolized and controlled by the ruling coalition of Islamists (AKP) and ultra-nationalists (MHP), and where any kind of protest was highly criminalized. Therefore, Bogazici’s refusal, perseverance, and disobedience resonated with an affective dimension not only in student circles and faculty all over the country, but also among variously silenced, yet anti-authoritarian sectors of the society.
Ayça: Your slogan, “we don’t accept, we don’t give up, we won’t bow down,” certainly resonated with this affective dimension.
Seda: Absolutely. The fact that the protests take place in one of the most prestigious institutions of the country, and by a culturally privileged group of scholars for their academic freedom and in order for the university institution to be kept autonomous from interventions by the ruling power had an important role in the resonance of the movement. The recent history of Turkey has witnessed far more violent crack-downs in academia, but mainly outside it, against Kurds, leftist activists, and various minority groups. Yet unlike the Bogazici protests, the aforementioned injustices and grievances hardly reverberated in the mainstream opposition. Bogazici protests on the other hand resounded along a wide range of people who were frustrated by AKP’s dismantling domination over institutions, law, economy, politics, and so on.
Ayça: From the outside, it looks like Boğaziçi protest managed to translate a general frustration with the AKP government’s authoritarian means into support for the movement on and beyond campus. SoI would like to ask you to please reflect on the wider, greater political significance of the protest at Boğaziçi for academic freedom, for politics in Turkey more broadly. How do you perceive the greater significance of these events?
Seda: One of the things I could say as a historian is that the Turkish state’s will to control the university has not started with the ongoing political interventions at Bogazici. It has a long and a miserable history. The foundation of Istanbul University, the first higher education institution of the new Republic, owes its existence to a university reform law (1933) regarding a previous higher education institution (Darulfunun) where the “reform” in question was the elimination of Darulfunun professors who were not advocating for the new regime. The new university was made possible only after 60 percent of its previous faculty was purged. Similar state attempts to discipline the university were made in later decades as well. The most recent one, as Saygun has mentioned, is the purging of the signatories of a peace statement in 2016. So, there is a lineage of repression and resistance to that repression, and perhaps it’s best to situate the Bogazici protests within that lineage of struggle.
Saygun: There is yet another concern about the rector appointment, which has an important, political significance. It concerns the imposition of a particular model of a university—a particular form of knowledge production and perception of education, which is partly embodied by the political and professional career of Melih Bulu. Bulu never made it a secret that he saw the university as a firm, and himself as a CEO. An entrepreneur and politician from the AKP, he has been trumpeting what he has called “an innovative ecosystem,” a buzzword that no one exactly understands. With the recent executive decree that stipulated the establishment of two new schools, of law and communication, in one night, the university model espoused by Bulu became clear. It is what might be called the military-industry complex, governed by neoliberal, nationalist, and conservative concerns for profit and state security. The faculty of law is to specialize on the international law of war and security, the law of sea, corporate law, and energy. This faculty seems to be designed more like a think-tank for the government to produce information to meet its strategic targets.
Seda: One small addition to Saygun’s words, this is surely a trend not only in Turkey, but all over the globe and surely in the Middle East in at least the last 30 years. What we see in higher education institutions in the region—for instance at AUB, AUC and many other universities in Egypt or Lebanon—is both neoliberalization and increasing precariousness, yet also the intensification of state control in academic knowledge production processes. The Turkish case can at best be compared to Sisi’s Egypt with respect to the crackdown on academia and research, all of which cannot be disentangled from the exponentially narrowing political spaces and the repression of oppositional academic or non-academic voices in the public sphere.
Saygun: This entire attempt of a crackdown also reveals something about the changing meaning of the public today. It points to the privatization of public goods, in this case, education, and the weaponization of public education by the government to pursue its own partisan interests and agendas. That also entails a transformation in the understanding of knowledge and its utility. Bogazici University claims to educate students with critical thinking and critical knowledge, and the faculty also have enjoyed some relative freedom of critical thinking and speech. We have been organizing conferences that could challenge official state history and initiate discussions on difficult subjects, from the Kurdish struggle to the LGBTI+ movement to the Armenian issue. Now, we see the process of a direct intervention from Ankara, trying to establish the purview over Bogazici of the Ministry of Interior. Not just the introduction of different police forces—secret or not—but also of different forms of policing and pressure, which include deciding on appointments, the distribution of research funds etc.
Seda: Relative freedom in academic discussions at Bogazici is labeled as elitism, which is an effort by the pro-AKP media to ghettoize or exceptionalise. But critical thinking has nothing to do with elitism. When you look at the student profile of Bogazici, it is obvious that it is not an elite university, but actually, a public university where students are accepted according to their success in the central university entrance exam and where education is free. We are all aware that that kind of success, too, has a very significant class dimension; but the public nature of education plays a key role in the socioeconomic diversity of students. The faculty, too, is rather mixed in terms of class background and does not view education as a vehicle for elite reproduction.
Saygun: There is a certain kind of irony to these accusations of elitism by the government. It is that the current mode of government—whether you would like to call it authoritarianism, fascism or totalitarianism—is such that the very claim of democratic autonomy is seen as a privilege of the few. You would expect that this must be, in a democratic country, the norm or a shared expectation, but when you say, “No, I don’t want to do what you tell me to do,” it is understood as a sort of elitism or privilege that only a few can enjoy. Ankara presents it as against the will of the nation. This actually reveals something fundamental to this government, which often praises itself to be democratic in national and international arenas.
Seda: Exactly. Centralization is a significant trait of Turkish political history and culture; while the concept of decentralization or autonomy of any kind is approached with suspicion and usually viewed as a threat to the unity of a collectivity. Owing to the fact that Turkish academia is founded within the confines of the state and submission to its official ideology, any demand for institutional autonomy is viewed as resistance to submission.
Ayça: Is that why the AKP is targeting Boğaziçi now, along with other universities? They can’t “tolerate” the appearance of autonomy even as an exception or even in small pockets? Or how do you interpret the reason why the AKP is doing this now?
Seda: I think as we have just said, the recent move was not unanticipated. It was coming. I have briefly mentioned the early foundations of academia in Turkey. The foundation of a new Higher Education Institute (YÖK) after the 1980 coup d’état was another very significant step in the curbing of autonomy of the university. And at the expense of repeating myself, Bogazici and every single university in Turkey had their rectors being appointed by Erdoğan since 2016— thanks to the presidential decree endowing the right to appoint university rectors solely to the president of the country. However, I think we had not anticipated the level of aggression and the speed of change—nor, personally speaking, had I anticipated the determination to resist.
Saygun: Definitely. There is that acceleration, or this will and determination, no matter what. They escalate matters, raise the stakes, and display their sovereignty through foundational, somewhat excessive acts of violence through shock and awe methods in different locations inside and outside the country.
But at the same time, they are fearful of the emergent opposition, the streets they cannot control like the case of Boğazici protests. Thus, they tried hard to recycle and imprison spreading struggles into the well-established binaries, into “national-religious sensitivities” versus deviant, immoral, irreligious inclinations. This is in spite of the fact that many protesters at Bogazici are pious Muslim students. Thus, students produced videos to clarify that the problem is not about being Muslim, but about the violation of university autonomy, democracy, and pluralism, and about the demonization of people with different views, opinions, and ways of living as a threat to society. Thus, once again we see in Bogazici protests the political instrumentalization of Islam by the state form dominated by the AKP. For this reason, one needs to see this conflict not as taking place between national, religious people versus liberal, cosmopolitan elites, as a “culture war,” but as an instance of the populist weaponization of religion (the Turkish Sunni variant) operating as a conservative nation-state ideology.
Moreover, the sense of fragility on the part of the AKP government also informs its current offensive against Bogazici University. As Seda said earlier, universities are always crucial sites for the establishment and reproduction of the cultural hegemony of ruling powers. As my colleague Bülent Küçük has written in many places, its lack of hegemony is precisely what drives AKP’s attempt to conquer and rebrand Bogazici as its intellectual center. Instead of building new institutions, the auhtorities prey on existing prestigious ones to increase their reputation and intellectual capital and form their own cultural and political elite.
Lastly, this fragility, if you will, crisis, also has a material dimension. A number of students who had been arrested explained how disorganized the state apparatus was in reality; that there were striking divergences between different security agencies, doctors, and judicial agencies. Influenced from outside by the central government, the agencies on the ground were confused and paralyzed. Police forces did not know exactly what they were supposed to do; the doctors in detention centers likewise; the judges also had their troubles. Perhaps, this sense of crisis in the state apparatus also makes authorities employ brutal methods of repression and destruction to display and perform their sovereign power to the eyes not only of students and of us faculty, but also to other state agents, serving as a mechanism of consolidation.
Ayça: All of this sounds like a military model because if you study the discourse of government officials in relation to Boğaziçi, they are talking about perverts, they are talking about terrorists, they are talking about the protestors as law-breakers and order-destroyers. How do you interpret the discourse of the government vis-à-vis the protest if I may ask?
Seda: Yes you are right, it has a militarist and masculinist dimension. When you look at the ways in which the protests have been framed by the government, it is obvious that they frame it within existing cultural and political conflicts and the axis of polarizations in Turkey. For instance, the LGBTI+ issue, or the controversy around the Kaaba painting, fit well within the contours of cultural/religious conflicts in Turkey. The identity of the protesters are represented within a nationalist framework and owes to the nationalist vs the terrorist/foreign dichotomy.
Ayça: So it looks from the outside as if it serves an internal function to consolidate AKP’s own base against these elites who are sitting at Boğaziçi University. And the discourse sounds as if it’s a discourse of military conquest.
Saygun: Exactly. I also want to emphasize one more thing about student protests and the way the government seeks to frame them. This conspiratorial framing of them as a provocation from outside also seeks to deprive students of their political agency. It infantilizes students as essentially young people who could not form their own views, who could not appreciate the value of university autonomy and democracy, who could not have a problem with increasing authoritarianism that undermines public institutions and the prospects of their lives in the country.
Ayça: Finally, how do you see the level of international solidarity with the Boğaziçi protests? What could be done from your perspective to give support to your struggle for academic autonomy and democratic rights?
Seda: It absolutely makes us feel empowered when we receive solidarity messages from outside. Yet as I have just said, this is just one of the many other struggles that have been going on in Turkey and in the region at large. As the region is in a state of turmoil and going through all kinds of devastations, there is somehow a normalization of such violence as well as anticipation by locals and outsiders. When you compare the government’s attempt to take over Boğaziçi and ongoing struggles with what has been going on in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, of course this seems like one struggle among others. In a sense, it is so. That’s why, in addition to solidarity messages, I would also love to see messages that call for more interaction and coordination between Bogazici and others to work for common projects.
Saygun: International solidarity is very important for the future of this struggle. It would be useful, I think, to form public platforms, whether these are media blogs, coverage, conferences, or campaigns, that would give sustained publicity to the struggle, which will certainly be a long-term one. We can think of ways of cooperation—not just Bogazici students and faculty receiving aid and support from outside, but actually working together. Moreover, there is the prospect of criminalization and persecution. Some students and faculty might suffer some blows. It would be good to think about ways of accommodating the expelled or persecuted people.