Controversy on campus as Erdogan handpicks Turkey rectors

The direct appointment of university rectors by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since July's failed coup has stirred up tensions on campus and prompted claims of political interference in the education sector.

The state-run Bosphorus University in Istanbul is one of the most prestigious in the country. With its green lawns reminiscent of the Ivy League or Oxbridge, it is the traditional starting point for the Turkish elite. But beneath the gilded surface, tensions are simmering after Erdogan this month appointed Professor Mehmed Ozkan in place of the popular Gulay Barbarosoglu as the university rector. He made the appointment under a measure allowed by the state of emergency which was imposed by the government following the failed bid by a rogue army faction to oust him.

Elections for rectors in Turkey's 181 universities – 111 of them state-run – were suspended after the July 15 coup, with Erdogan picking winners from a pool of candidates selected by the education authority YOK. If Erdogan doesn't pick one of the candidates proposed by YOK within a month, he can choose the rector directly.

Outgoing rector Barbarosoglu won 86 percent of the vote among Bosphorus University academics in the July 12 election, held just three days before the coup.

Ozkan, an academic at the university's biomedical engineering department and brother of a ruling party MP, did not run in the race. After Ozkan's appointment, Barbarosoglu said she was stepping down from her academic career.

"I bid farewell to our university where I have contributed for over 40 years at various levels, as student, academic and administrator and finalise my academic career."

The government has defended the new system, with Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus saying that such elections had polarised universities.

"We know how much that harmed universities," he said, expressing hope that the new rules would not lead to hostility among academic staff.

Academics and students, however, slammed the appointment as a blow to the university's autonomy.

"Am I worried? Very much. Students are also shocked and frustrated," an associate professor at the university told journalists on condition of anonymity.

The academic hailed Barbarosoglu as a dean who always advocated the university's democratic tradition and suggested that she was replaced because she defended staff who signed a January petition criticising the military campaign in the south-east.

An Istanbul court in March arrested three academics, including Esra Mungan of Bosphorus University, on charges of "terror propaganda" after the three read out the joint petition signed by over 1,000 academics urging an end to Ankara's crackdown on Kurdish rebels.

Barbarosoglu "went to the Istanbul chief prosecutor's office and demanded that Esra Mungan be set free," the academic told journalists.

Some opponents compared the president's direct appointment of rectors to the move to install government-appointed trustees in municipalities in the south-east after several mayors were removed over alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

#KayyumRektorIstemiyoruz (We do not want a trustee rector) has become a popular hashtag on Twitter.

The secular Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu blasted the move which he said was reminiscent of the days after the 1980 coup, when the military junta punished universities for their role in the upheaval, dismissing thousands of students and staff.

 "We are facing a ruling party that internalised the spirit of that coup," he said.

There have been sporadic protests at the university since Ozkan's appointment on 12 November, with police briefly detaining two students last week although they were later released.

"We are not making a political fight... but defending academic autonomy so that the universities can remain outside of politics and produce science," said Mert Nacakgedigi, head of Bosphorus University's students' committee. "The university was not consulted... there was no discussion," he told journalists on campus.

Soon after taking office, Ozkan vowed to protect free thought at the university in a message to staff.

"You should never doubt that I will persevere so that you can achieve your academic objectives and lead a university life at Bosphorus in peace and freedom," he said.

But Nacakgedigi was pessimistic, saying the appointment could harm the tradition of students of all political stripes finding a place for themselves at the university.

"At our university, opposition students representing dissenting political views or other different world views could so far find a place for themselves very easily," he said. "We do not know clearly how an appointed rector rather than an elected one will approach students at this point."    (AFP)

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