The post-conquest season in Turkish universities

Dinçer Demirkent writes: President Erdoğan just appointed rectors to 16 universities across the country. This decision has raised “academic” concerns within universities. Questions have surfaced as to which criteria have been used and to what extent nepotism played a role in these appointments.

Dinçer Demirkent

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan just appointed rectors to 16 universities across the country. It has been announced that the number of appointments will reach a total of 37 by the end of August. This decision has raised “academic” concerns within universities. Questions have surfaced as to how staff positions have been distributed, which criteria have been used and to what extent nepotism played a role in these appointments. 

To analyze this phenomenon, I would like to focus on a news story that was published in the Turkish press last week. This piece allows us to shed light on the structure of universities. But first, I would like to put forward a few reminders. 

As with other top-level executive appointments, the President makes university rector appointments. The president is almost omnipotent. He is the cause of everything, builds the canals, the bridges and the roads and oversees the treasury. 

Yet it was only recently that the President began to directly appoint university rectors. In fact, this regulation was first introduced during the state of emergency by emergency in October 2016, with the decree number 676. 

This decree states that the Higher Education Board (YÖK) should submit three candidates to the President, all of whom should have served as professors for a minimum of three years. If no candidate is appointed within a month, YÖK should nominate new candidates. 

If still no appointment is made after these stages, the President is to make a direct appointment. The term of a rector is four years. Those whose term has expired can be reappointed. In state universities, a maximum of two terms can be served. As for private universities, the board of trustees suggests a candidate, YÖK approves it and the President makes the final appointment. 

But what need was there to make an emergency law for the appointment of university rectors? The government should only have recourse to emergency laws to regulate emergency situations and those laws should be temporary. But the President’s reasoning behind this decree was different. The appointment of rectors had nothing to do with the emergency situation.  

According to the President, the election of rectors by the faculty was responsible for injustice, resentment and chaos. To prevent people from “getting hurt,” he opted to get rid of the elections altogether. And he did this with an emergency law. Rather than being temporary, the measure became a permanent law. The article 69, law number 7070, was published in the Official Gazette on March 8, 2018. 

But during that same year, article 135, decree number 703, which was published on July 9, 2018, changed the provision of that law. The new article more or less stated that the President appoints the rectors of state and foundation universities. For private universities, rectors should be appointed upon suggestions from the board of trustees. Rectors shouldn’t be older than 67, though for those who have already been appointed as rectors, there is no age limitation until their term expires. 

In other words, the initial condition that rectors should have served as a professor for at least three years was lifted. The same applies for the age limit of rectors. After the three-year condition was removed, Nuri Aydın, a close friend of Berat Albayrak, Finance Minister and the President’s son-in-law, was appointed as rector of Istanbul Cerrahpaşa University on July 15. 

What is more, according to the presidential decree number 4 that was issued on July 15, 2018, and its article 800, it was decided that rectors should have previously served as professors for a minimum of three years in the given university. Later still, the presidential decree number 17 of September 13, 2018 changed the last decree and lifted the requirements that candidates should have served as professors for three years. At least, the requirement to be a professor remained. 

The mechanism through which this law was passed is not law making. Rather, it is a mentality of conquest. There can be no rule of law when a rule has been changed so many times in the span of no more than three months. The law goes against the constitutional principle of a university’s autonomy. 

A series of events, including a rector attempting to appoint his own wife to the post and the foundation of companies that advertise academic publications, attest to the situation this has caused in universities across the country. 

Now let us examine the news story that caught my attention. 

The story has to do with the former rector of the University of Ankara, Erkan İbiş. He was replaced by a former AKP deputy Necdet Ünüvar two days ago. Under the state of emergency, Erkan İbiş oversaw initiatives to undermine some of the most grounded scientific institutions, such as the Theater, Communication, and the historic Political Sciences (Mülkiye) Departments at the University of Ankara.

I believe this individual has committed severe academic crimes. Dozens of parliamentary questions have been filed against him. Yet İbiş’ crimes aren’t just academic. 11 different corruption files were allegedly brought against him though the prosecutor’s office decided not to push through with them in “such a short delay” as six days.  

İbiş was accused of transferring his son from a private university to the university he currently leads. The rector launched investigations against academics and imposed penalties upon them until they were overturned by a court. Erkan İbiş appointed a student who had posed with a gun on the university campus as a research assistant at the Faculty of Political Sciences upon his graduation. It is also widely known that İbiş handed over the management of the campuses to the police so protests can be systematically and violently suppressed. 

Erkan İbiş was a rector who wants to be close to everyone. He had close ties with industrialists and lectures at AKP academies. İbiş also frequently took part in the opening ceremonies of libraries at AKP provincial branches.

According to a story that was published by the Takvim daily newspaper, management asked international students registering at the University of Ankara for photos without headscarves or beards. The university immediately denied the story and said that particular announcement dated back to 2011. It added that legal proceedings would be launched against those who “fabricated” these claims. 

But a thorough consideration of the pro-government media outlets that initially produced this story shows that this is a post-conquest fight. The rector has applied for a third term, as he believed he could be a lifelong rector thanks to these news laws. Yet other “conquering” groups did not want him as the rector.

Such operations seek to shape the President’s decisions. For instance, the Islamist Siyasallılar Foundation - which provides references to graduates who want to become state employees – serves as one of the most important tools during the hiring process. 

One of its founders was the Secretary General of the University of Ankara in 2019. The foundation’s executives organized a symposium at Mülkiye, the Political Sciences Faculty, where students were beaten. Members and executives of this foundation frequently visit universities and the offices of its deans. 

In light of this, one question comes to mind. Could the university’s secretary general - who is the founder of the rival Siyasallılar Foundation - be behind all the unlawful actions that were carried out to prevent the head of the Mülkiyeliler Birliği (Alumni Association of Political Sciences Faculty) from entering the campus?

Meanwhile, the process of conquest carries on.