The Boğaziçi Protests: Lost in Translation, Found in Solidarity
In January 2021, President Erdoğan controversially appointed Melih Bulu as the new rector of the prestigious Boğaziçi University, inciting protests from both students and academics. Faculty member Olcay Akyıldız provides an insider’s perspective on the protests and their impact.
How to translate a group of academics standing for half an hour every day in their academic gowns, turning their back to the rector’s office into English? So as not to lose the meaning in translation, we should just see this as a symbol. A symbol of resistance and civil disobedience. Resistance for academic freedom and university autonomy. Disobedience against the unwanted police force on campus which was allowed by the centrally appointed rector, against the will of the Boğaziçi University. A symbol of objection against the judicial system which imprisons and keeps students under house arrest without reason.
I hesitate to translate/explain what is going on at Boğaziçi University, as a specific example of the ongoing anti-democratic processes in almost all institutions in Turkey. In any country where autonomous universities, academic freedom, and democratic institutions of education are unquestionable, the events would be difficult to follow – even in a world in which we witness a global right-wing, authoritarian offensive against these values, supported by the neoliberal pressures on higher education institutions. The notion of a university is becoming more and more commercial every day, which was also reflected in the so-called “success plan” of the anti-democratically appointed Rector Melih Bulu. The government and YÖK (The Council of Higher Education) maintain that the appointment of a rector by the President Erdoğan follows the standard regulation in place since 2016 and is therefore not against the law. Yes, it is legal on paper but it is not legitimate – like many other presidential decrees issued after the failed coup d’état attempt in July 2016.
Here are a few milestones of what happened since the beginning of 2021, at Boğaziçi University:
2 January 2021
During the four-day New Year lockdown, the news spread that a person called Melih Bulu was appointed as the new rector of Boğaziçi University. This was rather a shock, because he was not a faculty member, nor had he ever worked at a public university. Not to mention his suitability issues, which became clear in the following days. But the main concern was a matter of principle. Except for Ergun Toğrol, who was appointed after the foundation of YÖK as the rector, there had not been a single rector who was not elected by the faculty since 1992. In 2016, Mehmed Özkan was appointed instead of the elected rector, Gülay Barbarosoğlu, but he was from the University and had the blessing of Barbarosoğlu. The first thing he did was to ask for a vote of confidence, which he got from the faculty. He also promised to respect the code of ethics of the University, which he signed and was approved by the University Senate.
5 January 2021
“I will be standing in my gown in front of the rectorate building with my back turned at 12 noon (external conditions allowing). I don't know if there will be anyone else following suit but I owe it to myself to show my objection in this way.” A retired faculty member wrote this, after word had gotten around that there were many police cars and buses on campus. Boğaziçi University was always proud of not allowing police on campus. The faculty member was ready to stand there alone, but many short but determined emails followed: “I will be there too,” “count me in,” etc. And people got together.
30 January 2021
The highly unacceptable climax of events: hundreds of police and dozens of police buses entered the campus around midnight and arrested the students who had been peacefully protesting the process.
6 February 2021
The opening up of two new faculties (Faculty of Law and Faculty of Media Studies) was a greater shock than the rector’s appointment. You cannot just decide overnight, top down, without consulting the University Council, to open up two new faculties, especially if you do not have the physical space or intellectual base for those disciplines. Soon followed the appointment of yet another person from outside the University as the dean of the Law Faculty, who immediately joined the Senate and University Council meetings, revealing the hidden agenda behind the foundation of those faculties: a power game to change the numbers in the Senate and the University Council.
I have of course skipped the many meetings, forums, organizations, discussions, and public appearances in which we expressed our viewpoint. I think nobody was expecting the whole thing (especially the vigils) to be sustainable. But it has been more than two months, and tens, sometimes hundreds of academics are standing outside the rector’s office. On Fridays and special occasions we read a digest of the week. Today when we look back to the photos and the videos of the vigils, it seems that the initial reservation of “external conditions” in that first email was never an issue. On rainy days or in the snow the academics stood there, as a symbol of their resilience. The “other side” did not foresee the obsessive persistence of academics once they work on something they believe in.
Will these protests change anything? Yes and no. I do not think it will change the plans of the rectorate, but it will change – and it already has – the temperament and the atmosphere. From the very beginning, the protests against the central appointment of a rector reverberated with the public. Even people who have no idea of the system, the way Boğaziçi University functions from bottom to top or how the selection of rectors always worked perfectly from 1992 until 2016, found something to support in this. I guess two things are important here: one is that Boğaziçi University is one of the best universities in the country and has always been the dream of many students and families, and the other is that people are aware that this is a successful, autonomously functioning institution which has to be defended against attacks to control it. That is why this story is not just ours; it is the latest move of an increasingly authoritarian regime.
17 March 2021
The trial of the arrested students started at 14:20 hrs. The judge asked one of the students: “LGBTI üyesi misniz?” (are you a member of LGBTI?) It would require at least another thousands words to comment on why these students, whose only crime was to organize an art exhibition, were arrested and why the LGBTI+ Student Club was closed without any real reason. As I finished writing these lines the trial was still going on and we are hoping to hear good news. (Ed.: two students were released, the next hearing will be in July)
18 March 2021
The first day of semester. The academics are promising to go on with their research and classes as usual and assuring their students they will get the education they deserve. At the same time, they will keep on protesting, as this protest has become a symbol for peaceful resistance and civil disobedience. This was much needed in this country where, since the 2016 coup attempt, emergency rule is being used to centralize all the power in one person. But, by nature, a real university cannot and should not accept anything without critical questioning. What is certain for now is that we will not acquiesce, we will not give up, and we will not “look down.”