Turkey’s leading university is accused of politically motivated retribution against a lecturer who supported student protests in what critics say is the latest example of academic freedom being curtailed in the country.
Feyzi Erçin, a lawyer and part-time lecturer, had his course canceled by the university at the end of May. His supporters say this was due to his very public support for students protesting against a government-appointed rector.
Erçin told The Media Line that Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University claimed it canceled his course because he was giving out inflated grades, an accusation that he said was blatantly false.
“The only reason could be that I (as a lawyer, fulfilling my public duties) responded to my students’ legal aid needs and assisted them in the unfair accusations and trials they have been through,” he wrote in a message.
Erçin visited students at court after they were detained following protests at the university that broke out in January against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of rector Melih Bulu.
Bulu is a member of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party who had once ran as a candidate in a national election.
Students and much of the faculty said the process for his appointment was undemocratic and lacked transparency.
The arrests of students garnered criticism from the US and the demonstrations drew similarities to the 2013 mass anti-government Gezi Park protests, which were followed by a large crackdown on civil society and the press.
More protests were staged this week, with students setting up tents to stay on campus overnight but local reports say the police forcibly took them off the grounds around midnight.
Political science professor Zeynep Gambetti, who teaches part-time at Boğaziçi after retiring in 2019, said Erçin’s removal shows how far the new university administration is wiling to go.
“This is a turning point in that, until now, they hadn’t really touched or meddled with curricula; they hadn’t interfered this directly into departmental decision-making procedures,” she said.
“The administration is showing its teeth now.”
Assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabancı University, Berk Esen, said the government could not go after full-time faculty members in the same way as Erçin because expelling them would be more difficult.
Still, he said, the termination of Erçin’s course could be a warning to both academic staff and part-time lecturers that they could be targeted.
“This is an utter attack, a personal vendetta by the Boğaziçi administration,” Esen told The Media Line.
“Basically the rector’s office is going after [Erçin].”
Boğaziçi University and the Turkish government did not respond to The Media Line’s requests for comment.
In a previous email, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications told The Media Line that the constitution allows the president to appoint rectors.
“That’s been the case for four decades, during which a large number of governments with different political views were in charge.”
Not so, said Gambetti.
Gambetti said Boğaziçi appointed its own rectors starting in the early 1990s although the government stopped the practice when it put the country under emergency rule following the 2016 coup attempt.
“This is a government project; there is a puppet administration at Boğaziçi,” said Gambetti.
She said other newly appointed high-level staff of the university had similar ties to the government, such as the dean of the Faculty of Law, Selami Kuran.
Kuran has advocated for Erdoğan’s highly contentious, multibillion-dollar project to build a canal in Istanbul.
Turkish news website Duvar reported that Kuran was on a committee at Istanbul’s Marmara University that disciplined academics who signed a 2016 petition calling on the government to peacefully end a conflict in the southeast involving the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia.
Many signatories lost their jobs, and some were tried and convicted for disseminating terrorist propaganda.
Following the coup attempt later that year, even more academics across Turkey were removed and some universities closed.
However, Boğaziçi, which some refer to as the Harvard of Turkey, has come under particular scrutiny.
Following the protests in the winter, Erdoğan called the students “terrorists” who didn’t share the country’s values.
In a statement to the Turkish state news channel TRT, Turkey’s Communications Director Fahrettin Altun in February said the students of the university have in recent years joined “terrorist organizations” like the PKK.
“We must shed light on the darkness that turns some of our nation’s brightest students into terrorists. We also condemn the ongoing attempt to smear Boğaziçi University’s reputation by falsely portraying the radical views of a small group as the position of an entire community,” he said.
Gambetti said Boğaziçi was one of the last bastions of academic freedom, and its diversity and liberal atmosphere combined with its high profile had made it a target.
“The reason why Boğaziçi was so special is exactly the reason why the government wants to put its hands on it,” she said.