Murder of female academic sparks discussion on violence in Turkish universities

The Turkish Ministry of Interior and the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) are set to establish a joint commission to develop measures against violence in Turkish universities following the murder of a 23-year old research assistant by a student in Ankara on Wednesday, state-run Anadolu Agency reported

The head of YÖK Yekta Saraç in a written statement on Saturday said that following the murder and other violent incidences which have taken place in recent months in universities, they have decided along with the ministry to develop a special action plan. 

Ceren Damar Şenel, a research assistant working at Çankaya University’s Department of Law, was killed in her office by her student who beat, stabbed, and shot her twice after being caught cheating during an examination.

Hasan İsmail Hikmet was carrying a gun belonging to his father, a retired police officer.

Hikmet admitted the murder to the police during interrogation, accusing Damar Şenel of behaving ‘’adversely’’ toward him. 

“I had to cheat in order to pass the exam. This is why I prepared in advance notes for cheating,” he said. 

Hikmet said that he had been caught by Damar Şenel when he had taken out his notes to cheat. The research assistant took his exam paper and filed a complaint. 

The student said that he had visited the research assistant’s room several times during the day but that Damar Şenel had refused his requests

“Then I went home, took my father’s pistol. I had taken a knife earlier. Then I could not help myself when I went to Damar Şenel’s office once more to talk to her,” Hikmet said.

Some students of the university told journalist Melis Alphan on Friday that this was not the first violent incident in campus.

According to students, a 70-year lecturer was attacked by the students in 2015. In another incident in 2016, some students broke the door of a lecturer’s office

Sources in the university administration told Alphan that they had heard about those incidents for the first time.

The death of the young woman has created public outcry in the Turkey, with many people shocked at the fact that a university student entered into a university campus with a gun. Some insidious remarks made by other male university students against Damar Şenel exacerbated the reactions.  

The prosecutors in Ankara on Wednesday launched an investigation into a university student’s comments on the murder on social media. “I hope this exemplary action will affect our exams too,” he said.

Debates on social media show that Turkish people believe the murder is the outcome of several critical problems in Turkey.

According to some, the killing of the research assistant is linked to an extreme increase in private universities in Turkey over the last two decades. 

In 2002 there were 53 state and 23 foundation (private) universities in Turkey. Those numbers have reached 129 and 72 respectively, according to YÖK’s statistics. The Turkish government has also signed off on the opening of an additional 15 universities in 2018

The rapid expansion of higher education institutes has not only decreased the quality in education, but also had transformed the relations between the academics and students into a relation between customers and clients, according to some social media users.

Many complained that ethical rules have been disregarded as plagiarism and cheating have become common practice

Universities have transformed into profit-maximising business organisations, which is what has lead to the murder of Damar Şenel, a Turkish lawyer said on Twitter.

“Universities are now not a tool that provides knowledge, shapes perspectives, and provides basis to question life, they are stores selling diplomas. They are now places that have no respect to academics’ work, that treat them as obstacles between students and diplomas,” Nur Betül Çelik, an academic sacked from her job through a government decree following the July 2016 coup attempt, said in Turksih news site Gazete Duvar. 

For some others, the incident is another horrifying example of raising violence against women in Turkey. Some female academics working in different universities have taken to social media to share examples of the aggression and violence they have been exposed by their students. Male academics also confirmed that women in Turkish universities were being targeted by students.

Zehra Çelenk, a former academic and a scriptwriter, said on Twitter that the murder should be regarded as an example of femicide.

“The killings of women are politic. They include all sub-types of hatred in the society being strengthened and protected in every way. It is the summary of the situation we are in that ended with one very young person losing her life, said Çelenk, who is also a columnist with Gazete Duvar.

“I remember that during an academic board meeting, while the teaching assistants were being preached about what they should do during exams, how female assistants complained about the behaviours of male students against them,” Can Irmak Özinanır, another academic dismissed by the Turkish government said on Twitter. 

Yasemin Sarıkaya Levent, an academic, said that the murder was one extreme example of what had been going on in universities.

“It is essential to examine the insults and threats the students make towards academics among themselves, face-to-face, and via social media, before the situation reaches that point,” she said.

The Turkish government’s crackdown on academics following the 2016 coup attempt, as well as, its rhetoric that condemns intellectualism are also being analysed as part of the tragedy. 

Some analysts have recalled that no legal action was taken against Turkish crime boss Sedat Peker, who threatened academics in 2016 for signing a petition asking Turkish government to deescalate the conflict in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey. 

“Let (the academics) blood flow down streams and watch (them) drown in it,” Peker said.