Post-coup crackdown has crippled Turkish academia - study

A study by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), conducted by 12 academics, has shown that 6,081 academics were dismissed from universities in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt in 2016.

The impact this has had on the country’s academia has gone far beyond those dismissed, creating a climate of fear that has smothered academic independence and freedom of thought, the study said.

Fifteen private universities were shut down and all their assets were transferred to the foundations directorate and treasury by a presidential decree issued on July 23, 2016. 

The decree said the universities in question were “determined to belong to, have connections to, or be in contact with Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), which has been found to pose a risk to national security.”

Turkey’s government maintains that followers of Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and an Islamic preacher who lives in the United States, were behind the coup attempt. It says Gülen leads a secretive terrorist organisation, commonly referred to in Turkey as FETÖ, though the preacher and his followers deny being part of any illegal organisation.

The shut down universities employed 3,041 academics – 13 percent of all the academics in Turkey – and had 65,216 students, 12 percent of all university students. 

“With this, over 6,000 people lost their jobs in universities, half of them academics. These people were not compensated, they were not placed in equivalent job positions and no legal action was taken to preserve their rights as employees,” said Nilgün Toker Kılınç, one of the academics who conducted the study.

An academic who lost their job in one of these private universities and who wished to remain anonymous said: “Nobody wants to work with us. Not just the universities, we face the same thing in the private sector. When we apply for jobs, they see where we used to work. We are thus profiled.”

The study has found that alumni of these universities have faced similar profiling, calling this an unforeseeable social cost imposed on staff and alumni from institutions that operated legally for a long time.

According to the study, the two-year state of emergency called after the coup attempt has resulted in the biggest mass expulsion in the history of Turkish academia.

“A total of 6,081 academics and 1,427 administrative staff were expelled from 122 universities. The academics were barred for life from working in universities or the public sector in general. Three hundred and one PhD candidates who were receiving grants to study abroad to work in Turkish universities after their studies were also expelled,” it said.

Sixty percent of the expulsions happened in the first three months after the state of emergency was declared, with the rest spread over the two-year period.

The biggest groups of academics who were expelled were associate professors and assistant professors, the study found.

“The group of academics who had completed their doctorates and were at the midpoint of their careers, making them the backbone of research and lecturing in universities, were the ones expelled the most,” Serdar Tekin, one of the study’s authors, said. “This could be cited as a factor that aggravated the depredation of academia.”

Executive decrees issued during the state of emergency dismissed 820 professors, 967 associate professors, 1,679 assistant professors, 662 lecturers, 1,671 research assistants, 194 teaching assistants and 88 experts.

Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and the Social Sciences University of Ankara were the only two public universities that had no expulsions, Tekin said. “We can say that all public universities took direct part in the expulsion of academics, and were affected directly by them at the same time.”

Istanbul’s Galatasaray University expelled one academic, while the Süleyman Demirel University in the southwestern province of Isparta expelled 271, according to Tekin.

While some universities like Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Istanbul only lost a tiny fraction of their academic staff, the University of Health Sciences in Istanbul lost nearly 70 percent of its academic staff, and the Alanya Alaaddin Keykubat University in the southern province of Antalya lost 37 percent.

Lülüfer Körükmez from TİHV Academy said executive decrees had regulated academic and administrative practice in universities, and had amended several provisions in the Higher Education Act.

“With these, university administrations were made subject to the government,” Körükmez said. 

“The determining step in universities submitting to the government officially, not just in practice, was presidential decree No. 676 dated Oct. 29, 2016, which removed rector elections,” she added. Erdoğan issued a decree permanently transferring to himself the sole authority to appoint university rectors in July, 2018.

Körükmez said academics were now unable to study or teach delicate topics and many were being used by the government to help it exert control over universities. 

Kılınç said more than the expulsions, the atmosphere of fear they created had contributed to self-censorship and the subversion of Turkish academia.

“An arguably more important question than how many academics were expelled from universities is this: How many academics in Turkish universities under the state of emergency thought they could also face expulsion for their worldview, academic studies, public statements or what they said during lectures?” she said.

“How many worried that their students and colleagues were surveilling them for the government, or that they could be considered in contact with terrorists? How many avoided the studies they wanted to conduct, or refrained from saying what they needed to say in lectures?” she asked.

Political pressure on academics is not out of the norm in Turkey, according to Toker Kılınç. “After all, our history of universities is a history of political eliminations.”

“But the political pressure atmosphere that completely surrounded Turkey’s universities during the state of emergency constitutes one of the darkest points in this history, not just for the mass rights violations, but for the harm it caused in academia as well,” she said.

© Ahval English

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