Turkish academics doubt court ruling will limit president’s power

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Academics have offered measured responses to a recent court ruling appearing to nullify the Turkish president’s power to appoint university rectors, telling Times Higher Education that a complete “overhaul” of the country’s higher education system was needed.

Earlier this month, Turkey’s Constitutional Court discarded several provisions of a 2018 decree, ruling them unconstitutional; among them was a provision enabling the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to appoint university rectors. Subsequently, the European University Association called for the Turkish authorities “to seize the opportunity to thoroughly reconsider how university rectors are appointed”.

Taner Bilgiç, an industrial engineering professor at Boğaziçi University and a former member of the institution’s executive board, stressed that the ruling was less a rebuke of the articles themselves than it was a verdict on the legal means by which they had been implemented, with the court concluding that such provisions could not be enacted by decree.

“The Constitutional Court’s annulment decision was based on procedural grounds rather than the essence of academic freedom and institutional autonomy,” Professor Bilgiç said. “Nevertheless, this necessitates that the parliament draft new legislation. Whether the political parties in parliament can negotiate new legislation in good faith remains to be seen.”

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, associate director of Stanford University’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, said that “in practice, Erdoğan has not lost any of his power to shape academia”, adding: “Although this might signal the court’s attempt to ameliorate the heavily wounded rule of law in Turkey, it is not quite significant enough to irk the president or to make him feel threatened.”

Restrictions on academic freedom in Turkey have intensified in the wake of a failed coup in July 2016, after which a series of decrees institutionalised the president’s power to appoint university rectors. Thousands of academics have been sacked in the years since.

At Boğaziçi, which is among Turkey’s most prestigious institutions, protests broke out in January 2021 after the appointment of presidential loyalist Melih Bulu as rector. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, and Professor Bulu was removed from the role after six months. He was replaced by Naci İnci despite widespread opposition from faculty; for the past three years, Boğaziçi students and staff have held a daily vigil in protest outside the rector’s office.

Professor Bilgiç said Turkey “must overhaul its higher education system”, telling THE that “a single, highly centralised higher education law, along with a supposedly autonomous Council of Higher Education whose 21 members are all appointed by the president, has deteriorated the integrity” of the country’s universities.

“The value of degrees obtained at many universities is debatable, and [Turkey] has the lowest employment rate of university-educated adults among OECD countries,” Professor Bilgiç said. “Universities lack the autonomy to determine their own academic and administrative paths.”

Ali Alpar, an emeritus professor at Sabancı University, told THE: “Turkish science and the quality of teaching are deteriorating as some researchers, like other professionals, are leaving the country – not only because of the economic crisis, but also because of arbitrary rulings, deterioration of academic freedom, and the hostile and incompetent ‘administration’ of appointed rectors.”

Dr Yenigün, who was fired from Istanbul Ticaret University in 2016 after signing a petition opposing Turkey’s “deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish people”, said academic freedom in Turkey “has gotten worse and worse” in the years since the coup attempt. “There are even deans who have placed cameras in classrooms and berate academics if they say anything they deem controversial. Students keep informing on their professors. Many important topics cannot be studied at all,” he said.

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