A conservative tragedy unfolding: Istanbul’s Şehir University

A promising private university in Istanbul which was founded by a leading foundation from Turkey’s conservative intellectual circles has found itself caught in the crossfire of a battle between the country’s ruling Islamist party and breakaway members.

Established by the Foundation for Sciences and Arts (BSV) in 2008, Istanbul’s Şehir University faces possible closure over financial and legal problems. But observers say these problems have come to the fore due to a dispute in the ruling party between supporters and opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

A Turkish court has ordered a freeze on the assets of the university after the country’s state-owned Halkbank asked for an arrest of funds citing the inability of the university to pay back the $70 million credit it owed. 

The university’s administration and students are concerned that the financial deadlock and subsequent inability of Şehir to pay its staff will cause the institution to fold.

For many observers, the issue is a political matter, with the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) grinding its axe against its former member and the main founder of Şehir University, Ahmet Davutoğlu.

The ex-prime minister and former ally of Erdoğan has become increasingly critical of the government, and this year quit the ruling party to begin a new political movement to rival the AKP. Davutoğlu has a considerable following among AKP members who have become disillusioned by the party and its embrace of one-man rule under Erdoğan after 17 years in power.

The university soared in popularity during Davutoğlu’s time with the AKP, but disputes began to emerge over plots of land used by the university after Davutoğlu stepped down as prime minister in 2016, according to Şehir’s rectoral advisor Mehmet Aytekin.

Mehmet Aytekin
Şehir University’s rectoral advisor Mehmet Aytekin.

Halkbank froze all of the bank accounts belonging to Şehir University citing an ongoing court battle over land which the university had used as security for its loans.

An administrative decision had granted the land to Şehir, but in March, a lower administrative court issued a stay of execution on the donation of one of the seven lots presented as security.

Figures from the university see this as a politically motivated attack through the courts, since the remaining parcels of land are valuable enough to cover the loan two or three times over.

"There were 16 different cases filed against the university between 2009-2015 over the land in question. Fifteen of those ended in favour of Şehir. These cases coincide with Davutoğlu’s time with the AKP,’’ Aytekin explains.

Unless the current problem is resolved, the danger that banks could interrupt the activities of a university over debts will hang over non-profit universities in particular like a Damocles Sword, he said.

Halkbank has denied that its action against the university is politically motivated, citing Şehir’s failure to make payments as the reason for the move.

Columnist Ergün Yıldırım, whose newspaper Yeni Şafak frequently supports Turkey’s government, in an article on Sunday called Şehir a project to create academic disciples for the former prime minister. However, the intellectual wealth of the institution and its students must be protected, he wrote.

Galip Dalay, a columnist for Islamist daily Karar, tweeted that the silence of Turkey’s conservative segment had contributed to the university’s current state, accusing conservative intellectuals of turning a blind eye to issues that could harm their careers.

An academic at Şehir University, Mehmet Fatih Uslu, echoed Dalay’s thoughts, saying conservatives in Turkey had adopted the government’s line.

Şehir University

This has left the university, which he called a rare example of a conservative institution that allowed for diverse viewpoints, facing serious problems.

"The university’s current situation points to Turkey’s conservative segment increasingly becoming trapped into a singular narrative,’’ Uslu said.

"Academic circles have given quite a meagre reaction to Şehir, while right-wing conservatives are playing the three monkeys,’’ he said. "As for the left-liberal wing, they are thinking ''let these religious folk have it out with one another.’’’

One factor that is not often discussed in Şehir University’s crisis is Murat Ülker, the former CEO of Yıldız Holding and sole sponsor of BSV, and a key figure in the founding of Şehir, according to an administrator from the university who spoke to Ahval on condition of anonymity.

When Ülker appointed his de facto communications director Ali Atıf Bir as the rector of the university, it began to receive bad press, the administrator said. This eventually resulted in Ülker withdrawing all his financial support from Şehir. 

Other heavyweights in the AKP circle, such as Daily Sabah columnist Burhanettin Duran and Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, also cut their ties with BSV, and by extension Şehir, he added. “Sehir University was supposed to be Ahmet Davutoglu’s legend, and that is why the Palace wants to destroy it.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.