Blow by Blow: the Assault on Academic Freedom in Turkey
Ayse Çaglar 29 September 2017

Since 2015, the curtailment of academic freedom and the diminishing autonomy of universities in Turkey has attracted attention in the Turkish and international media. As the assaults on academic institutions in Turkey assumed unprecedented dimensions – with massive purges, restrictions and control on academics and universities imposed by the government, especially after the failed coup attempt in July, 2016[1] – these attacks on and violations of academic freedom have rightly become the subject of numerous reports, communiqués and calls from Turkish and international academics and institutions and human rights organizations.[2] The erosion of the universities’ autonomy has been part of the systematic dismantling of democratic institutions in Turkey. This requires analysis in the context of the broader dynamics of the reconfiguration of authoritarian and democratic politics which we also observe in places like Hungary, India and Russia.[3] Here, however, I focus solely on the inner workings and the consequences of these assaults on academic institutions in Turkey, in order to highlight the politics of law in this regime’s authoritarian form of governance.

It is important to situate the curtailment of the autonomy of universities within the structural context of higher education in Turkey. Two important characteristics of higher education are important here. First, all these attacks have been taking place within a university system which has already been centralized and hierarchically regulated mainly by the Higher Education Law (HE law) and the Council of Higher Education (CHE), which were established in 1981 after the military coup in 1980. Both the HE law and the CHE had already restricted the autonomy of universities substantially by establishing wide-ranging powers to control and discipline them. Since 2016, the power of the CHE over universities and academic institutions has become even more comprehensive and alarming. Second, the HE law of 1981 allowed the establishment of non-profit, privately funded universities in Turkey, sometimes referred to as foundation universities. In 1981 there were only 19 public (state) universities in Turkey. In 2015 there were 109 public and 76 private universities. In Istanbul alone, there were 38 private and 9 public universities in 2015. So we are talking here about a higher education landscape that has been increasingly privatized and commercialized, and in which the number of universities and students has continuously grown thanks to the actions of the government. During the 15 years since the current governing party, the AKP, came to power in 2002, 120 universities have been founded.

However it is important to note the weak boundaries between private and public universities in terms of their organizational and employment autonomy. Private universities were and are allowed to set their own tuition policies. Though the procedures by which the rectors of private universities were appointed were regulated differently from public universities, so that their boards of trustees appointed the rectors, private universities were and still are subject to the control of the CHE in terms of their programmes and the selection and placement of their students. They had to select their students using the same centralized exams as public universities. They were, and remain, free to guide their tuition. In Turkey there are no universities like Central European University in Budapest, as the HE Law in Turkey does not allow universities with such organizational and employment autonomy. Even those universities established via international bilateral agreements, such as with France and Germany (such as The Galatasaray University or the Turkish German University), have the status of public universities and are subject to the control of the CHE and the HE law as such.

In order to address academic freedom, we need to turn to university autonomy, which also entails organizational, financial and employment autonomy. Autonomy in all these areas was already restricted before the recent multifaceted assaults on academic freedom both in state and in private universities in Turkey, but they came under a new threat in the post-coup context. With the reconfiguration of their organizational, financial and employment structures and processes, the autonomy of universities in all these areas has been eroded drastically. Thus the assaults on academic freedom formed part of the wide-ranging attacks on university autonomy in all these areas, which in turn further damaged Turkey’s already bad record in that regard.

As early as in 2011, according to the European University Association, Turkey’s universities ranked 28th in organizational autonomy, out of 29 European countries; 23rd in financial autonomy; 21st in terms of employment autonomy; and 25th in academic autonomy.[4] This was the context within which the threats to the already weakened academic freedom and autonomy of universities have been taking place since 2015.

Purges, Restrictions and Disciplining Measures

Since 2016, more than 15 universities have been shut down (with the seizure of their assets), more than 7,800 academics (including those who have lost their jobs due to the closing of universities) have been purged from their positions and subjected to travel bans, bans on employment in public institutions, cancellation of their passports and, in many cases, detention. 1,500 deans (in public and private universities) have been forced to resign.

No matter how spectacular these attacks on academia, it is important to see them as part of a broader political offensive on democratic institutions, including the curtailment of freedom of the press. 149 media outlets have been shut down, over 200 journalists arrested, 1,000 schools shut, and more than 140,000 public employees dismissed (thereby losing their rights to benefits), including 4,000 judges and prosecutors and 200 governors and their staffs. Although this attack on academics was triggered by (about 2,000) academics signing an ‘Academics for Peace’ petition against human rights violations, especially in south-east Turkey, mainly against the Kurds, and then aggravated by the failed coup attempt in July 2016, all these restrictions on academic freedom and the autonomy of universities have been part of broader restructuring processes, affecting higher education, and part of the re-configuration of authoritarian politics in Turkey, something which has definitely not occurred overnight.

No matter how we depict these authoritarian politics – as a ‘dictatorship with totalitarian dimensions’,[5] as an ‘autocratic presidentialism’[6] or as ‘illiberal democracy’ – what they have in common is that ‘democratically’ elected majoritarian regimes like Turkey’s ignore the constitutional limits on their power. Using democratic institutions, such as elections, they install structures and policies that systematically de-democratize and undermine the democratic institutions of the society. These elected governments install a central and political administration that deprives their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. Despite all these curtailments these regimes still enjoy the support of a substantial portion of the population, who according to Appadurai[7] vote against democracy as an exit voice, i.e. to exit from democracy. Ironically, in these de-democratization processes the judiciary and the ‘fethishization of laws’[8] play a crucial role in facilitating the concentration and centralization of power over all the institutions of the society, including higher education. Despite the violation of international legal obligations and a disregard of the principles of rule of law, talk of ‘legality’ and the use of fabricated legalities loom large in repressing any kind of dissidence to the power of centralized government.

Despite the structural convergences of such authoritarian regimes, it is important to focus on the specific mechanisms and dynamics of the curtailment of academic freedom in particular places to see their workings and the way these ‘legalized illegalities’[9] that undermine even inalienable rights are fabricated. Furthermore, a focus on the ‘Turkish case’ might prompt caution against generalizing some features of such authoritarian politics manifested in specific cases as if they were essential to such regimes. For example, while anti-immigrant discourses and policies might be prominent in some authoritarian regimes, as has been the case in many places including Hungary, the Turkish case shows that anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner mobilizations need not be part of such agendas. Similarly, ‘foreign’ and ‘international’ might take on very different meanings and significance within the authoritarian politics and policies used to limit the autonomy of universities. While the internationalization of universities might be demonized in some authoritarian regimes, in some other cases, it might be cherished and even used together with the erosion of the autonomy of universities.

Two cases of direct intrusions by government actions into the autonomy of the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA) and Bogazici University (BU), two prominent academic institutions in Turkey, can be taken as paradigmatic of the mechanisms and the processes of curtailment of academic freedom in Turkey. In 2011, through a Decree with Force of Law (DFL), the government made changes in the selection procedure of the members and the president of the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA). According to these changes, institutions directly controlled by the government appoint two-thirds of the academy’s members and the CHE (which is also directly controlled by the government) appoints its president.[10] Consequently, TUBA was completely reorganized and restructured. The TUBA case is important to remind us that neither the current government’s actions to block academic institutions from making their own decisions, nor rule by decrees with Force of Law, which bypass the consultative powers that normally limit the government and the president, are particularly novel. They were used in 2011, even before the 2012 election that is considered, in international and domestic debates about Turkey, to be a milestone for the ruling party and its leader’s move to an ‘undemocratic‘ path. Thus this ‘undemocratic’ path was very much in place in 2011, at a time when the ‘democratization’ moves of the governing party found strong positive resonance in Europe, US and in a wide array of international institutions.

The case of Bogazici University (BU) is interesting in showing how these authoritarian regimes work and make use of the judiciary and ‘law’ to bypass the rule of law. Until autumn 2016, the procedure for the selection of rectors was that the universities submitted six candidates, identified through an intra-university election of competing candidates, to the CHE and the CHE reduced these to three. According to this procedure, the president would appoint the rector from among these three. In July 2016, based on the election results in BU, a candidate who received 86% of the votes, with a participation rate of 90%, was nominated as the rector candidate to the CHE. There followed silence and the President of the Republic proceeded to appoint no rector to BU for 4 months.

During these 4 months, the ruling party brought an amendment to the Rules governing University President Elections by the Council of Higher Education before parliament, in August. The opposition party voted down the amendment. However, in October the government approved a state of emergency decree, which abolished the election of rectors and gave the President of the Republic the power to appoint directly all public university rectors. The president now appoints rector from among three candidates nominated by the CHE. This emergency decree with force of law (DFL) put all universities under the president’s control with the argument that

Elections of university presidents lead to unfair practices, chagrin and personal strife in the universities, and create a chaotic atmosphere in institutions of tertiary education. The replacement of the election system with an appointment system would eliminate these problems at universities.[11]

It is important to note that this decree has also altered the selection procedure for rectors in private universities so that the President acquired the power to appoint a rector from among three candidates proposed by the private university’s board of trustees (after these candidates have been approved by the Council of Higher Education).[12] With these changes, the boundaries between public and private universities in terms of organizational autonomy were eroded even further. Right after the promulgation of this decree, the president appointed as rector to BU a person who had not even run as a candidate in the elections. The candidate who received 86% of the votes was simply disregarded.

The Bogazici case is important to show the significance of legal façades and DFLs in curtailing the autonomy of universities. No matter in what ways the amendments to the laws were hindered, and no matter what kind of constitutional rule exists in theory, these rules are bypassed by government decrees and, since the failed coup of July 2016, by state of emergency decrees. The academic world (like many other spheres of life in Turkey) is now ruled by such decrees, by fabricated legalities of repression, not by the rule of law.

As the TUBA case shows, DFLs and rule by DFLs had already become something of a tradition. However, since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the declared state of emergency provided very fertile ground for decrees that facilitated major assaults on academic freedom and democratic organizations. Laws have been effectively replaced by these decrees. These decrees became crucial for an apparatus to bypass the rule of law and produce ‘legality’ by extra-legal means.[13]

These amendments by DFLs also regulated anew the termination of private universities’ operating licenses, their closure, and their transfer to guarantor universities, for example, in cases where the managers of private universities are suspected of directly performing or supporting actions against ‘the country’s indivisible unity’.[14] Such vague formulations pave the way for pre-emptive obedience by university managers and boards of trustees, leading to further limitations on their faculties’ freedom of expression in order to avoid government sanction. In a context where more than 950 private companies have already seen $11 billion worth of their corporate assets expropriated,[15] such threats to private universities acquire a strong disciplinary function.

It is important to note that the DFLs did not only bypass parliamentary supervision and the consultative powers limiting the government, but very often provide a posteriori legitimization of purges, dismissals and confiscations. Those who were purged, dismissed and lost all their rights were punished not on the basis of law, nor because they broke any existing law, but because of their civil disobedience.[16] The legal basis of their ‘illegal’ persecution came afterwards, after their behaviour became identified as ‘treason’ endangering the ‘country’s indivisible unity’, and thus a terrorist act. As is the case in similar authoritarian regimes, the legal production of ‘illegalities’ is an essential mechanism of the judicialization of politics in Turkey too.

The law amending the articles on disciplinary infractions on higher education is a perfect example of these after-the-fact legal covers. This draft law transfers power over disciplinary matters and investigations from the universities to the Council of Higher Education. This law, which was proposed in 2014, way before the Academics for Peace petition and the failed coup attempt, was passed but later challenged and cancelled by the constitutional court in 2015. Again by government decree, the amendment was passed in December 2016. However, long before this, many of the signatories of the petition had already been dismissed from their universities and from public service, thereby violating the constitutional, criminal and administrative laws which were in force at the time of their dismissal and during the application of the disciplinary penalties.[17] These academics were criminalized and some of them detained beyond any law in force at the time of their persecution. Thus the DFLs often functioned as a posteriori legal cover for violations of rule of law by the central authority.

Even a quick look at the amendments to the disciplinary infractions give an idea of the scope of the assaults on the autonomy of universities and academic freedom in Turkey. With this amendment, achieved by a DFL at the very end of 2016, the authority to impose disciplinary penalties was re-organized. ‘[U]niversities’ power to perform disciplinary investigations as independent legal entities is partially transferred to Council of Higher Education’.[18] Thus, universities’ authority to conduct disciplinary investigations of their own staff was transferred to the chairperson of the Council of Higher Education, who now bears the title of ‘disciplinary supervisor’[19] This amendment clearly combines the disciplinary regulation of civil servants and academics to create a command-and-obedience relationship within academia. The ambiguous and open-ended natures of the designated disciplinary offences[20] provide very fertile ground for an environment of uncertainty and insecurity within universities and academic institutions. These after-the-fact legal fabrications very much function as a disciplining and governance measure in the universities. They sustain the vulnerability of academics by making them dismissable at any time, independent of the legal frames of their current deeds and actions.

More than a simple purge of academics

It is important to look at the nature of purges of academics and civil servants to realize the scope of these assaults. The expulsion of academics from public service, which took place without any due process and with no judicial remedy, were not simple dismissals. Those who are dismissed are also banned from taking up office in public institutions, banned from using any titles, and from travelling abroad. In some cases their passports and, if deemed necessary, their property are confiscated. In addition to losing their pension rights and benefits, in many cases the dismissed academics are not even allowed to work in newspapers, journals, publishing houses, or even to be part of their advisory boards. In the context of the increased centralization of control and power, those purged are in many cases de facto banned from employment in the private sector too. Due to the comprehensive nature of these bans, these expulsions are rightly identified as acts geared to the ‘social, civic and intellectual death of the purged, rather than simple dismissals from university.

The international dimension: Beyond a template

What is the role of the ‘foreign’ and the ‘international’ in the restructuring of the higher education in Turkey? As previously mentioned, despite the presence of structural commonalities between the authoritarian and illiberal restructuring of higher education in Turkey and several similar authoritarian regimes, foreign universities and the internationalization of higher education seem to play a different role in the Turkish case. For example, in contrast to the anti-foreign-universities tone of the massive assaults on academic freedom in Hungary,[21] in Turkey, while all this cleansing in academia was going on, the Council of Higher Education proudly and explicitly took very pro-international, pro-foreigner positions and announced the increasing internationalization of universities. In fact, in the last three years the number of international students (with a current figure of 103,727 in 2017) in higher education in Turkey more than doubled.[22] It is important to note that these are not simple exchange students. Interestingly, these international students, mainly from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria comprise 46% of all foreign students in Turkey. Thus there is strong internationalization, supported by the central governance structures in Turkey, but this internationalization does not refer to the Europeanization and/or Americanization of the student body. Its axis is located elsewhere. In fact, concurrent with this emphasis on internationalization, several international cooperation programmes involving European institutions, such as the Jean Monnet scholarship, have been put on hold.

Similarly, while foreign universities are increasingly attacked in places like Hungary and Russia, there are proposed amendments in Turkey to allow the establishment of foreign universities. A decree allowing such foreign universities has not been passed yet and a constitutional change will be required for the establishment of foreign universities. However there are already several foreign universities operating in Istanbul, albeit mostly in Arabic. Rather than US-based or European universities, the foreign universities in operation in Turkey are Malaysia-, Jordan-, and Sudan-based universities.[23] Cultivation of a transnational network of student bodies and academia with strong Islamic influences seems to run parallel to the restructuring of higher education and curtailment of academic freedom in Turkey.

Many such policies by elected, majoritarian authoritarian regimes that use democratic means to dismantle the democratic institutions have been identified among the problems of illiberal democracies.[24] There is no doubt about the illiberal nature of the current political regime and politics in Turkey. The problematic part lies in its identification as a ‘democracy’ (as if the latter can simply be reduced to electoral politics). In fact, the current president made it very clear almost 20 years ago (when he was the mayor of Istanbul) that democracy is not an end but a means to be used to reach specific goals, by comparing democracy to a tram: ‘Democracy is like a streetcar,’ he said publicly in 1996 . ‘You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you step off.’[25]

As set out above, the curtailment of the autonomy of universities, academic freedom, and the democratic institutions in Turkey have been going on within the neoliberal and authoritarian restructuring of politics and society at least for a decade. However, until very recently these developments have not been subject to much criticism in Europe. The erosion of academic freedom and the rule of law clearly stood against the liberal values that many European institutions stood for, but many of those institutions preferred to overlook these violations and developments, which collided with liberal and ‘European’ values and norms. In fact, the AKP regime and the groups (including intellectuals) supporting the current regime in Turkey enjoyed considerable support and acquired a strong voice in Europe, reminding us of the times marked by the ambivalent role of liberal values in the shadow of colonialism: when citizenship and rights-based rule were preached and installed in Europe, but the same Europe (the other face of Europe) supported the politics and policies of colonial violence that denied and violated these rights in Europe’s colonies due to its other economic and political interests.[26] [27]

Interestingly, the curtailment of privileges of the Turkish Academy of Sciences in 2011 found limited resonance in US and European institutions that safeguard academic freedom and democratic rights. Despite the increasing assaults on democratic rights and institutions in Turkey even in 2015, some European leaders had no difficulty being taken hostage by the Turkish president in relation to the ‘refugee crisis’. It is true that the attacks on academic freedom and the universities which have been going on for more than a decade assumed unprecedented dimensions in 2016. However, it might also be true that European leaders and institutions started to see the ‘illiberalism’ of Turkey clearly only with the changing historical conjuncture, not necessarily with the changing nature of the political rule in Turkey. For sure, global conflict in the Middle East and the surfacing of problems between Turkey and NATO have played a role in reminding European leaders and institutions representing ‘liberal’ and ‘European’ values to take a strong position against the clear authoritarian restructuring of Turkish politics and society, including its universities and academic life.

Ayse Çaglar is a professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna. Before joining Vienna University, she was a professor at Central European University, Budapest. Trained as an anthropologist and a sociologist, she has worked and published on transnationalization processes and states; the interface between migrants, migration and neoliberal urban regeneration; displacement and dispossession processes; citizenship, cultural industries; and cultural policies.


[1] Although the powers, dynamics, and the parties involved in the coup are still far from clear, I refer to the political confrontations that took place in Turkey on 15 July 2016 as a coup attempt.

[2] See All European Academies (ALLEA), International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, British Academy, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and articles on the weekly scholarly magazine Nature, vol. 7595 and 7641 as well as the calls by SAR, EUA, ISA, MESA. See Bilim Akademisi 2016 and 2017 for an elaboration of these reactions and the scope of the curtailment of academic freedom in Turkey.

[3] Appadurai, A. 2017. ‘The Global Swing to the Right’: talk given at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, 25 April 2017.

[4] Uslu, B. 2017. ‘Organizational flexibility of Turkish universities: Evaluations in the institutional reports of European University Association’ in Pegem Eğitim ve Öğretim Dergisi.

[5] Balibar, E. 2017. Academic Freedom, Authoritarianism and Turkey. A half-day conference in memory of Mehmet Fatih Traş, Birkbeck, University of London March 17, 2017.

[6] Benhabib, S. 2017. Academic Freedom, Authoritarianism and Turkey. A half-day conference in memory of Mehmet Fatih Traş, Birkbeck, University of London March 17, 2017.

[7] cf. Appadurai, A. 2017.

[8] Comaroff, J., and J. Comaroff. 2006. ‘Law and Disorder in the Postcolony: An Introduction.’ In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, edited by J. Comaroff and J. Comaroff, 1–56. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bilim Akademisi. 2017. The Science Academy Report on Academic Freedoms 2016-2017: 4.

[11] Bilim Akademisi. 2016. The Science Academy Report on Academic Freedoms 2015-2016: 8.

[12] Bilim Akademisi. 2017: 7-8

[13] De Genova, D. 2004. The legal production of Mexican/migrant ‘illegality’ Latino Studies 2004, 2, (160–185).

[14] Bilim Akademisi. 2017.

[15] Segal, D. 2017. ‘Turkey Sees Foes at Work in Gold Mines, Cafes and ‘Smurf Village’’ in New York Times, July 22. These companies and their assets were seized based on the accusation that they were related to the political group which purportedly masterminded the coup.

[16] Kilinc, N. 2017. Academic Freedom, Authoritarianism and Turkey. A half-day conference in memory of Mehmet Fatih Traş, Birkbeck, University of London March 17, 2017.

[17] Bilim Akademisi. 2017.

[18] Bilim Akademisi. 2017: 8.

[19] Bilim Akademisi. 2017. This amendment now blocks the possibility of university rectors refraining from conducting disciplinary investigation of their own academic staff. This has been the case in several universities since the coup, especially in relation to those academic staff who had signed the Academics for Peace petition.

[20] Such as disrespecting a superior with conduct and attitudes in the exercise of duties; providing information or making announcements to the media, news agencies, radios or TVs without authorization, displaying conduct and attitudes which could jeopardize the state’s prestige or civil service’s reputation while abroad; engaging in or supporting separatist or terrorist actions; displaying dishonorable or shameful actions unbecoming a public servant or members (Bilim Akademisi 2016; Bilim Akademisi 2017) all become reasons for disciplinary investigations.

[21] Although the attacks on the Central European University in Hungary by the Hungarian government has more complicated reasons than simply being anti-foreigner, this attack was clearly built on the anti-foreign, anti-cosmopolitan rhetoric and policies of Hungarian government.

[22] Anadolu Ajansi. 2017. ‘Türkiye’deki yabancı öğrenci sayısı 795 bin 962’ye ulaştı’. May 4, 2017

[23] Yabanci Universite Turkiye’de nasil ‘sube’ aciyor 2017. Egitim caddesi, January 17, 2017. 

[24] Holmes, S. 2015. Illiberal Democracy, talk given at IWM, Vienna on June 26, 2015. .

[25] Cerrahoglu, N. 1996. ‘Demokrasi Bizim için Araçtir’, Milliyet, July 14, 2017

[26] Colkin, A. 1998. ‘Colonialism and Human Rights, A Contradiction in Terms? The Case of France and West Africa, 1895-1914’ The American Historical Review 103:2 pp. 419-442.

[27] Appadurai, A. 2017b. ‘Populism, Nationalism and Democracy’ May 3, 2017.

Article published on Eurozine on 27 September  2017

Credit: Ozan Kose /AFP