Sadık Güleç/ DUVAR

Istanbul’s Şehir University, known for its close affiliation with former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu from the start, has recently became the subject of controversy. Amid a feud with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ex-prominent figures of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) such as Davutoğlu and other former Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan. Babacan and Davutoğlu have split from the AKP. Davutoğlu officially formed his party this week and Babacan to do so before the year’s end.

During an AKP meeting held in Istanbul, Erdoğan accused Davutoğlu of illegally acquiring state-owned land for the university. The president also accused Babacan, Şimşek and former Transportation Minister Feridun Bilgin of being involved in the process. He claimed they tried to defraud the state-run Halkbank by taking out large loans, which they did not pay back. 

Prior to Erdoğan’s allegations, seizure procedures had began against the university based on the grounds that the school had not paid its loans to Halkbank. Meanwhile, the Turkish Chamber of Architects filed a lawsuit against the university over the land in question, which used to house a state-run liquor factory on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Turkey’s Supreme Court issued a stay of execution in the case, and Halkbank leaned on this decision to indicate the mortgages for the university’s buildings on the land, and seized all of the borrower university’s assets it held in the bank. 

The Foundation for Sciences and Arts, co-founded by Davutoğlu, applied to the Ministry of Finance to acquire the land for Şehir University, though the ministry replied by saying that since it did not own the land, it could not allot it to the foundation for the university. The Ministry of Finance, citing debts owed to it by the formerly state-run Tekel liquor company that once operated on the land, then transferred it to the Treasury. Shortly afterward, Şehir University reapplied to the Ministry of Finance, and the land was put up to tender. The university was the only party joining the tender, and acquired the land, which covers a size of 300,000 square meters, at the cost of 2,972,000 TL.

The university prepared a zoning plan for the land, which was approved in a majority vote by the Istanbul Greater City Municipality (İBB). The Istanbul Chamber of Architects filed a lawsuit in opposition to the plan, trying to halt its implementation by having the Tekel factory building and other buildings on the land be granted with protected status. Still, the chamber lost the case. As the trial was ongoing, an area totalling 400,000 square meters was transferred to Şehir University free of charge, while the Istanbul Chamber of Architects insisted it was illegal for the Treasury to transfer property it owns to private universities free of charge. 

The transfer of this large stretch of land and the buildings located in it to the university was conducted by the Privatization Administration in 2013 and 2014, based on two decisions approved by the administration’s high board. At the time, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan was the head of the board, the other members being Ali Babacan, Mehmet Şimşek, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, and former Environment and City Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar. 

Yet the allocation was cancelled in 2014 after a case was filed in the Supreme Court. But in 2015, while Davutoğlu was Prime Minister and head of the Privatization Administration’s high board, he made the decision to transfer the buildings on the land to the university free of charge. It was that decision that has since prompted Erdoğan’s recent criticism in light of the major falling out between the two, as the high board at the time included Babacan, Şimşek, Bilgin, and former Environment and City Planning Minister İdris Güllüce, the only member that Erdoğan has not called out by name in his recent speech.