Humour versus handcuffs at Boğaziçi University

Despite a lot of clumsy efforts to appear as Mr. Nice Guy, Melih Bulu, who was appointed as the new rector of Boğaziçi University, is verging between the most unpopular person of the month and the most ridiculed. Perhaps someone should have advised this ambitious industrial engineer and self-declared innovator that outlining his affiliations to widely divergent parties is not the best way to prove that he is simply a gentle academic worthy of leading Turkey’s top public university. 

“A kind, approachable man with a taste for Metallica, innovation and extreme sports. Open-minded in his political views which was demonstrated by his involvement in vastly divergent political parties. Slightly conscious of his size. If interested, please join me at the main gate of Boğaziçi University. Handcuffs will be provided.”

I am not sure whether such a singles ad would be popular among Turkey’s flirting masses but clearly, it is far from eliciting positive responses from the students and academcs of Boğaziçi University, one of the oldest - and let’s admit it - most beautiful campuses of the country - a university that should belong to “the people” and not to the “elitists,” to quote Hilal Kaplan, the columnist of the pro-governmental Zaman and a Boğaziçi alumni herself.

Despite a lot of clumsy efforts to appear as Mr. Nice Guy, Melih Bulu, who was appointed as the new rector of Boğaziçi University on Jan. 1, is verging between the most unpopular person of the month and the most ridiculed. His attempts at “explaining himself” online or in Ahmet Hakan’s program “Neutral Zone” (oops, another oxymoron) seems to fall tragically short of the desired results - to prove that he has landed in his plum job by academic merit rather than cronyism. Perhaps someone should have advised this ambitious industrial engineer and self-declared innovator that outlining his affiliations to widely divergent parties - from social democrats to liberals and then, to the current center of power, Justice and Development Party (AKP) - is not the best way to prove that he is simply a gentle academic worthy of leading Turkey’s top public university. 

The events that have unfolded ever since this appointment can be read all over Duvar English, as well as Turkish and international media, with details of the students’ protests, arrests, professors greeting the new rector with their back turned to him, and the infamous snapshot of a pair of handcuffs that have closed down the university gates to the demonstrating students. 

To be clear, presidential appointments to universities are no longer a novelty in Turkey’s academic scene in general and in Boğaziçi in particular. Bulu’s successor, Prof. Mehmed Özkan, had landed in his position with a similar coup and faced exactly the same clashes and the “turn your back” protest. Though the university senate had chosen Gülay Barbarosoğlu, its sitting rector, for a new term, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had appointed Özkan as the rector of the university in 2016, after he was given authority to directly appoint rectors without having to consider the preferences of academics following the imposition of a state of emergency decree. 

Since then, the president has used his power liberally. Nükhet Hotar, AKP’s founding member and former Izmir deputy, was appointed in 2018 as the rector of Dokuz Eylül University in this Aegean city which was a stronghold of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). AKP’s former deputies have graced the top posts of universities all across the country.

Two factors, which feed each other, set this appointment apart. The first is the heedlessness of the man in the center of the whole ordeal. Bulu acts as if it is perfectly normal that he landed in this position on the will of a single man and that the protests are non-existent. His generous promises that he will make Boğaziçi University “one of the top 100” and his claims that he knows “the culture of Boğaziçi” sound hapless, if not downright surreal. But what makes it worse is that he fails to see that his qualifications - which are tarnished with allegations of plagiarism - are only part of the issue. He seems oblivious to the fact that the method that landed him in this post - brushing aside the old tradition of being elected by the university’s academia -  is irreconcilable with academic independence. Worse, he comes across as defending it.

The other is the exceptional solidarity that was displayed among all university students, despite tough measures taken by the security forces in Istanbul. Since the very beginning of the week, students of different universities have either participated in the demonstrations or in the hashtag campaigns. In what was somewhat reminiscent of the Gezi Parkı protests (2013 demonstrations that initially contested the urban development plan for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park but turned into a wholesale revolt against government policies), humor seems to be their best weapon. Tweets suggested that rectors who are a cross between “rektör” and “kayyum” (government trustees) should be called “rectum.” Cartoons that picture Bulu dressed as Mehmet the Conqueror crossing the Bosphorus to conquer İstanbul. Every word uttered by the new rector becomes a joke. In reference to his remarks on “innovations,” hundreds of students posted or shared the snapshot of the infamous handcuffs that were used in the university gates with the explanation, “Here is Bulu’s first innovation.” 

Bulu’s defense by Edibe Sözen, an AKP member who herself had a brief appointment as the rector of Hasan Kalyoncu University, also sparked a flurry of jokes. Sözen said that Bulu could be the rector of any university in the world (Oxford, watch out) but this could hardly be expected by “scumbags” or “cruds.” The word she used was “paçoz” - a derogatory word that is originally used by the Greeks of Istanbul and can mean anything from a slut to unkempt person. The keyboard-savvy youth, recalling AKP’s mockery of “Boğaziçi elites” immediately tweeted “Are we the elites or scumbags? Figure it out.”

Students of Middle East Technical University, known for its own battles with the government, joined in. “We are offended that you keep referring to Boğaziçi as elites - what the hell are we, then?” 

The people?

January 15, 2021 Taking Sex out of the City