The start of 2021 was shocking as mobs attacked the U.S. Capitol, the bastion of American democracy, in an attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election. Simultaneously and far from the United States, a less conspicuous onslaught on another bastion of liberal democratic values unfolded when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arbitrarily appointed a hand-picked rector to run Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University.
Since then, Boğaziçi faculty, students, and alumni — including the authors of this piece — and supporters from the broader public have been protesting and resisting this decision, employing a range of innovative methods. Erdoğan has not yielded but he has not been able to impose his will on the university and bring it under his ever-growing one-man rule. The experience accumulated at Boğaziçi in the past year demonstrates how against all odds, persistence and resilience motivated by liberal democratic practices can still energize solidarities to resist arbitrary rule. It offers lessons for those who struggle to defend freedoms and resist authoritarian rule around the world.
What happened and why
In an overnight presidential decree on the first day of 2021, Erdoğan appointed Professor Melih Bulu as Boğaziçi’s rector. None of the faculty members at the university were consulted in the selection of the new rector. Bulu’s name was put forward by a committee of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) that did not include a single member from Boğaziçi’s faculty and did not seem deterred by his weak resume or suspect academic credentials marked by allegations of plagiarism. His only qualification was his close affiliation with the Turkish president and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). As such, Bulu joined the ranks of an overwhelming share of rectors at Turkish universities that have followed a similar career path, centered on loyalty rather than meritocracy and consensus building.
The decision did not come as a surprise considering that Boğaziçi has traditionally represented Turkey’s Western orientation, seeking to educate young minds attuned to democratic principles and capable of critical thinking. Classes are taught entirely in English. As a public university, it provides tuition-free education to a diverse body of students from all corners of the country, selected on merit alone. Any high school graduate, irrespective of religion, economic, or social background, can become a student at Boğaziçi if they receive the highest scores on a grueling national entrance exam taken by close to 2.5 million young people every year. These qualities do not dovetail with Erdoğan’s vow to raise loyal and uncritical “devout generations.”
Founded in 1863 as Robert College, the school was eventually incorporated into the Turkish higher education network and renamed Boğaziçi in 1971, for its location on a hill overlooking the Bosporus Strait. Boğaziçi became home to students holding diverse political views during a difficult period in the country’s history and stood out for its ability to provide an atmosphere where a culture of tolerance in support of diversity reigned. The tradition of tolerance persisted and manifested itself when the university resisted compliance with the headscarf ban imposed in the late 1990s, upholding the primacy of the right to education. A rector at the time worked with his colleagues to institute the practice of academic institutions electing their own presidents and rectors while valuing “horizontal, transparent, and inclusive” policymaking on campus, decisionmaking practices at odds with the heavily centralized, hierarchical, and opaque presidential system of governance Erdoğan imposed on Turkey in 2017.
A menu of democratic protest and resistance
The most visible face of protest is a daily gathering in front of the rectorate building, maintained by academics, students, and visiting alumni who turn their backs to the building and hold small placards with the slogans “We do not accept, we do not give up.” The practice, held in all weather conditions without disrupting teaching and regular academic life on campus, acquired widespread public recognition and popularity through social media against all efforts of the government-controlled media to ignore or denigrate the protests. According to a January 2021 public opinion poll, 73% of respondents supported the statement that “university teaching staff should choose their own rector” and more than 50% of AKP supporters did not approve of politically-affiliated appointments for such positions. There was, however, limited solidarity shown by other universities due to control exerted by Erdoğan-appointed rectors and earlier purges of critically- and independently-minded academics. No doubt the way the Gezi Park protests of a decade ago — where passive resistance was also deployed by protestors — were crushed and then criminalized by the government-dampened expressions of overt solidarity.
A much less visible method of resistance has been for academics to scrupulously demand the application of the university’s bylaws and resist the rector’s efforts to circumvent them. A case in point, for example, is demanding high academic standards and proper due process in the appointment of faculty to new schools and institutes imposed on the university by additional presidential decrees.
Academics have also resorted to opening court cases to challenge these decrees as well as decisions by the Rector’s Office, such as: the dismissals of faculty members and closing courses or changing course schedules thereby eliminating the autonomy of the departments and faculties; violating procedural rules in the university senate and executive board meetings; and firing high-level administrators and making irregular appointments to fill their posts, most recently sacking deans on false accusations. Currently, there are more than 20 such court cases.
Another practice was to revive the practice of faculty electing their preferred candidate for rectorship. The opportunity arose in July 2021 when President Erdoğan, with a simple stroke of the pen, sacked Bulu, the very person he had appointed as a rector. In a smart move, Boğaziçi faculty, relying on the experience of having organized seven past elections, organized a symbolic “no-confidence vote” that included on the ballot the names of the two vice rectors under Bulu likely to be considered for appointment by Erdoğan. 746 Boğaziçi academics (including part-time and retired faculty) participated in the virtually-held vote. Those two received a no-confidence vote of more than 90% while 17 other candidates all received a vote of confidence. Not surprisingly, Erdoğan ignored the will of Boğaziçi academics and proceeded to appoint one of the two, Naci Inci, as the new rector, once more demonstrating his authoritarian priorities.
Students and alumni have also been active. The former engaged in a rich repertoire of nonviolent protest during the course of 2021, ranging from singing slogans such as “we do not want a trustee rector” and circulating videos on social media to disarm misinformation in government-controlled media depicting Boğaziçi University as a bastion of pro-Western elitism. However, it is police violence against students exercising their constitutional right to protest and the locking of the campus gates with handcuffs that left the government in a very awkward situation in the court of public opinion, which wondered about the wisdom of an Erdoğan-appointed rector allowing this to unfold against the country’s best and brightest students. The imprisonment of two protesting students for more than 90 days for jumping on the hood of the rector’s car coincided with broader government practice of instrumentalizing criminalization to silence opposition and protesters. A public campaign organized by students, alumni, and faculty led to their release earlier this month. Alumni have also supported students whose scholarships were revoked, provided legal assistance, and raised awareness about Boğazici University’s struggle for academic freedom in social and alternative media.
Part of a universal struggle for democracy
That these forms of protest to defend academic autonomy are happening in a country marked by diminished media freedoms, severely weakened judicial independence, and an increasingly repressive environment — Turkey is at the top of the list of countries experiencing the sharpest declines in freedoms over the last decade — is no small achievement. It demonstrates how it is indeed possible to develop democratic forms of resistance to authoritarian and arbitrary rule under the most adverse conditions, as well as how in situations where institutional checks and balances are undermined by the executive it is possible to mobilize a coalition of pro-democracy forces. Only time will tell whether Boğazici’s protests and resistance will survive Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and help open the way for broader peaceful opposition in the future — especially if Erdoğan choses to disrupt upcoming national elections. Still, the experience of Boğazici University should be seen as an inspiring example of the broader struggle in support of democratic values and freedoms across the globe.