Erdoğan undermining academic autonomy, says international committee

The Committee on Academic Freedom condemned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday for curtailing the autonomy of the country’s universities.

In an open letter, the committee, founded by the Middle East Studies Association, said Erdoğan had continued the policy of undermining academic freedom that had begun following the 1980 coup.

“While your civilian government rhetorically distances itself from the military coups that marked Turkey for decades, you and your government have in fact made ample use of the authoritarian tools and institutions established by the military.”

Earlier this month, a new rector to head Boğaziçi University was appointed by presidential decree, circumventing a process by which candidates are selected by their peers.

The last time an outside candidate had been imposed on the prestigious university was under the military junta in 1982, the committee said. 

Protests against the appointment by students and staff continue, with critics calling into question the academic credentials of new rector Melih Bulu amid accusations of plagiarism.

And the committee said Erdoğan’s government had lowered the necessary requirements to apply for the role, with the decision now ultimately resting with the president.

“Even the standards applied…  while Turkey was ruled by a military junta, allowed for a greater degree of public oversight over such appointments.”

These changes had allowed Erdoğan to politicise universities through the promotion of partisan figures, the committee said.    

“In the four years since university elections were suspended and you seized direct appointment authority, you have reportedly appointed twenty former members of parliament, mayoral candidates, MP candidates, and siblings or spouses of MPs - all from your party - as university presidents.”

Notably, this includes Bulu, who stood for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the 2015 general election.

The committee said that the curtailing of academic freedom risked permanently damaging the country’s academic institutions, and reforms were necessary to ensure they remained in good standing.   

“The autonomy of the Turkish higher education sector is directly related to the quality of education and training that Turkish universities provide and the reputation they enjoy internationally, all of which have significantly deteriorated under your government”.