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Since its establishment, Turkey has experienced several military interventions including two coups in 1960 and 1980 as well as 1971 military memorandum and 1997’s so-called “postmodern coup.” Academics were some of the biggest victims of previous military interventions in Turkey. Hundreds were dismissed from universities and many were arrested just because of their opinions or ideologies. In addition, academic freedom was significantly restricted during those periods.
The latest coup attempt on July 15, 2016 obviously targeted Turkish parliamentary democracy and the basic rights of Turkish citizens by trying to overthrow the democratically elected government. It claimed the lives of more than 200 people, mostly civilians, and injured more than 2,000 people.
Turkish citizens from all political backgrounds defended their freedom and parliamentary democracy. Since then, people have been protesting the coup attempt on the streets every single night. Turkish universities have also collectively repudiated the coup.
Reactions from the Academic Community
Administrators at the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) – a constitutionally independent agency that oversees universities – as well as university rectors immediately visited the Turkish Grand National Assembly, which was bombed during the coup attempt, and declared their full support to the government. The Turkish Inter-University Board, which represents all Turkish universities, also condemned the coup attempt.
In addition, the Academy Council of the Turkish Academy of Sciences firmly stressed that there can be “no excuse and no justification whatsoever for a coup [that] attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government.” Lastly, various academic organizations declared their full support to the democratically elected government.
This is a turning point for Turkish academia since all of the previous military interventions unfortunately got some level of support from the academic community. In the last ten years, however, Turkish higher education system has undergone significant changes and has become more democratic.
First, more than a hundred new universities were established and enrollment has expanded. At the same time, policies such as the headscarf ban and the coefficient rule, which limited access of women and vocational high school students to higher education were removed. In addition, the Council of Higher Education members and university rectors who generally supported elitist higher education and ignore public demands have been replaced. We believe that the expansion and democratization of the Turkish higher education system during the last ten years are some of the reasons behind the reaction of Turkish academia to the coup attempt.
State of Emergency
Thousands of ordinary citizens in Turkey, including many academics, still have concerns about new attempts targeting the government. That is why they have still been on the streets every single night since July 15 protesting the coup attempt and monitoring military facilities. The Turkish government and the public at large believe that an illegal organization, FETO, is behind the attempted coup and it might plan new attacks through its members within state institutions. Therefore, several measures have been taken by different state institutions against this organization under the state of emergency rules.
In academia, all deans were asked to resign from their positions by YÖK, which appoints all deans in Turkey. However, they are still employed as professors in their universities since the deanship is just a temporary position. We expect that most of these deans will be reappointed to their positions after investigations are completed.
Several universities have also temporarily suspended academics from their jobs because of their possible connections to FETO. We expect that they will undergo investigations by their own universities. Also, as of now, there is no evidence that supports the international concerns about the purge of all dissenting academics. All major political parties have supported the government against the coup attempt and none of them has declared that government targeted any dissenting academics.
Any attempt to silence unorthodox independent academics who are not related to FETO would be a betrayal to those people who have lost their lives on July 15 to defend our freedom against the attempted putsch – not to mention a shame in itself.
Another step taken by YÖK just after the coup attempt was an international travel ban on academics. However, after several days, YÖK removed this ban and reauthorized universities to decide on this matter. Now, rectors have the final say on professors’ requests to travel abroad after internal processes are followed (e.g., approvals of departments and deans). We are not aware of any academic who was abroad for academic purposes that had to return to Turkey because of this measure, since the travel ban lasted just a few days.
What to expect?
It must be recalled that Turkey has an effective and well-functioning parliamentary democracy. In addition, we strongly believe that as part of a democratic society, the Turkish public as well as the academic community and the free press will closely watch the implementation of the state of emergency and make necessary warnings.
We believe that academics who were falsely accused to be part of FETO will return to their jobs. Also, we strongly encourage university administrators to base their decisions on solid proof. Moreover, any decision taken by universities or YÖK can be appealed before the civil courts.
As scholars working in higher education, we are fully committed to academic freedom in any situation. Therefore, we understand international concerns related to academic freedom during the state of emergency. However, we believe that the measures taken by Turkish government are justified for now because of the danger of a new military coup or other possible threats.
Sedat Gumus, PhD, is an associate professor at Necmettin Erbakan University in Konya, Turkey. He was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, Athens, in the United States from 2015 to 2016. Previously, he worked as a coordinator of international relationships in Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, YÖK. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bekir S. Gur, PhD, is an assistant professor at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara, Turkey. He also currently serves as a member of the Executive Board of the Turkish Fulbright Commission, and is a member of the Study Group on Science and Education Policy-established by the Turkish Academic of Sciences (TÜBA). Previously, he was a visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley from 2014 to 2015. He can be reached at email@example.com.