Why the Turkish government is coming after Boğaziçi University

In the wake of the widespread backlash to President Erdoğan’s sudden appointment of an AKP member as the rector of Boğaziçi University, we must ask, why? The short answer is: Because he can. But what has made Boğaziçi so unique is not high scores or rankings, but that it has always managed to maintain a level of autonomy. This bold and undemocratic move by the government may not only be an attempt to suppress Boğaziçi’s social and academic freedoms, but to control its assets.

While watching last week's protests in response to the presidential appointment of Melih Bulu, a former ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) MP candidate, as rector of Boğaziçi University, my alma mater, I have begun reflecting on why the government could have singled out the school, and what makes the university so unique.

I remember the exact day that I made my list of university options, the year was 1987. My dear sister eventually talked me into selecting Boğaziçi University, the school she attended, which was, and still is, one of the best in the country.

So, on my list I wrote down every single social science department at Boğaziçi and nothing else. Months later, when I got my results back from the university entrance exam and saw that I had been accepted, I began to better understand my sister. While at Boğaziçi I enjoyed the freedoms, quality of education, and social environments the university offered.
It never was an elite club. Back then, universities were not privatized and Boğaziçi still isn’t. Any bright student can attend Boğaziçi if they score high enough on their entrance exam.

The campus itself felt to me like a different country, a paradise, especially back then. The professors were superb and the students studied English to the point of fluency, which was perhaps Boğaziçi’s greatest strength. The sports, arts, and social clubs were the best in the country. No matter which department you are a part of it has always been a great privilege to graduate from Boğaziçi University.

It is interesting to note that Turkey’s former prime minister and the ruling AKP's Istanbul mayoral candidate Binali Yıldırım said in an interview that when he was selecting a university he was shocked to see “girls and boys lying on the grass on campus” and said that he would have gotten “too distracted” at Boğaziçi and thus, chose a different school.

Boğaziçi was never hostile towards devout Muslims and did not interfere with such groups, unlike many campuses, which were battle grounds for opposing political fractions. After the 1997 coup, Boğaziçi at first resisted and then loosely applied Turkey’s headscarf ban while other universities enforced the ban very strictly, even via police presence. Eventually, the “ban” was applied arbitrarily and students protested as a result.

There are many prominent and distinguished graduates of Boğaziçi who went on to become engineers, academics, scientists, writers, and business entrepreneurs. It is still listed as being among the top 200 universities in the world according to U.S. News Global, and, according to the British QS, Boğaziçi ranks 650th among the top 1000.

But what has made Boğaziçi so unique is not high scores and rankings. While it must follow the rules of higher education like any other public university, it has always managed to maintain a level of autonomy. For instance, Boğaziçi’s former rectorate did not expel the professors who signed the petition stating, “We will not be a party of this crime,” five years ago.

So, why then has President Erdoğan suddenly decided to appoint an AKP member as the rector of Boğaziçi?

The short answer is: Because he can. Because Turkey’s institution of the presidency enables him to control civil society more and more each day.
First, ‘democratically-elected’ rectors have long been a joke among Turkish universities. The president chooses among the candidates for rector of the university, but does not necessarily select the one that has the most votes. In Boğaziçi’s case, the newly-appointed rector Melih Bulu is an ex-AKP MP candidate, and a total outsider.

In addition to Bulu, four rectors were appointed to other universities, but small new universities do not often make headlines. Only a handful of academicians responded. In June 2020, 6 new rectors were appointed to Turkish universities, such Anadolu and Hacettepe University, and only one of them was qualified for the job. Four of them had no academic achievements whatsoever.

Some changes to the legislation regarding higher education were made in April, at the beginning of the pandemic. An ex-AKP member, now with the Deva Party, Mustafa Yeneroğlu pointed to Article 13 of the amendments, which is being used as justification for these rector appointments.

Like Şehir University, all other foundation universities would be directly affected by Article 13, which allows YÖK (The Higher Education Council) to decide to shut down a university and manage everything, including its assets.
Nobody paid attention to the changes amid the chaos of the pandemic, thinking that perhaps this was just another attempt to seize Gülen-affiliated universities. However, the president is instead using Article 13 to appoint anyone he wants. This bold and undemocratic move may not only be an attempt to suppress Boğaziçi’s social and academic freedoms, but to control its assets.

What is clear is that President Erdoğan makes no concession when it comes to shaping society according to his wants and interests, but this is certainly no way to establish a legacy.