Academic freedom has always been limited and under threat by the state in Turkey. But since the beginning of 2016, academic freedom in Turkey—and the broader field of higher education—has been subject to a sustained campaign of state repression that is unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic.

The crackdown on academia undertaken by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began in early 2016 with the repression of the group of anti-war university professors and scholars who became known as the “Academics for Peace.” It was followed by an all-out government purge of higher education—including the mass expulsion of more than 6,000 academics and the prosecution of hundreds more, university closures and institutional restructuring—during the emergency rule that followed the failed July 2016 coup attempt against President Erdoğan. Authorities also routinely interfere with student protests on campus and monitor academic research on sensitive topics.

The unprecedented government intervention since 2016 has caused irreparable damage to higher education, creating a climate of fear and self-censorship, which will have long-term effects on education and critical thought in Turkey. This catastrophic assault on academia was driven by a number of factors: most importantly, the return to war politics regarding Turkey’s Kurdish question, the power struggle between the AKP and its former partner the Gülen organization and, ultimately, Erdoğan’s ambition to establish a fundamentally new regime in Turkey that controls all the institutions of power, including the education system.

The Political Evolution of Turkish Academia

The most significant previous period of Turkish government repression of academia followed the harsh 1980 military coup, but even this period does not reach the levels of post-2016 repression.

The military coup leaders placed great importance on taking control of the universities, which they viewed as the main source of anti-establishment and subversive ideas and organizations. The military rulers abolished the relative autonomy and democratic procedures of the universities, introduced strict disciplinary regulations against students and faculty members and centralized higher education under the command of the Higher Education Council (YÖK) established after the coup. They imposed the conservative ideology known as the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” on universities. 148 faculty members were expelled and many more resigned due to political and administrative pressure.[1] Arrest and imprisonment of academics only occurred in exceptional cases, unlike the current purge.

The authoritarian regulations of the 1980s were followed by the neoliberal restructuring of higher education in the 1990’s through their commercialization via the establishment of private universities, the privatization of university cafeterias, security and cleaning services and an increase in hourly-paid contract work for staff.[2] Neoliberal restructuring continued after the AKP came to power in 2002, with a boom in the number of universities after 2006. Under the motto “one university for each province,” the government opened new public universities in many small and medium sized Anatolian cities, which, unsurprisingly, constitute the AKP’s electoral support base. In the same period, private entrepreneurs, including many religious sects, notably the Gülenist organization, began to invest in the increasingly profitable “university sector” by establishing new universities. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of universities increased from 94 to 221 and the number of faculty members increased from 79,555 to 147,969. During this period, private universities increased from 28.7 percent to 41.2 percent of the total number of universities.[3]

In this context, three different types of universities emerged as the norm within Turkish higher education: a small number of higher tier public and private universities in the metropolises; lower tier private universities that serviced the lower classes mostly located in the metropolises; and lower tier public universities located mostly in smaller and middle-sized cities. The last two types of institutions became popularly known as “signage universities” (tabela üniversiteleri) due to their prominent advertising but lack of necessary infrastructure and staffing. The academic positions in the latter two categories were often filled by those close to the AKP government and the religious sects, regardless of merit.

Before it came to power in 2002, the AKP had promised to abolish YÖK in order to democratize higher education. After coming to power, taking control of YÖK became the party’s main priority. The election of Erdoğan’s second in command, Abdullah Gül, as Turkey’s president in 2007, brought YÖK under AKP control because the majority of its board members were appointed by the president. YÖK’s priority during this period was lifting the head-scarf ban in universities, a continuous source of dispute between secularists and Islamists since the 1980s. The 2010 constitutional referendum enabled the government to reconfigure and dominate higher judicial bodies, breaking the resistance against abolishing the head-scarf ban, the only act by YÖK that improved freedom in higher education. Scholars who conducted research in sensitive issues like the Kurdish question or took an overtly political stance with their academic work, however, continued facing repression by university administrations and the government.[4]

Cracking Down on Academics for Peace

On January 11, 2016, a petition titled “We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime!” signed by 1,128 academics was released by the Academics for Peace Initiative.[5] The petition strongly criticized human rights violations by Turkish security forces taking place during renewed fighting in Kurdish cities in the southeast, and urged the AKP government to resume peace negotiations with the Kurdish movement that had collapsed after the June, 2015 elections. The Turkish military had just launched a major assault upon several Kurdish cities, resulting in more than 100 civilian causalities—including babies, children and elderly people—as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people and the total destruction of several urban areas.[6]

The petition for peace had a tremendous impact at a time when anti-war opposition in the western part of the country was silenced by state repression and ISIS attacks on Kurdish communities.[7] A day after its announcement, Erdoğan accused the signatories of treason and supporting terrorists. Public prosecutors and university administrations quickly started investigations, and the pro-government media launched a smear campaign against the Academics for Peace. Despite these assaults even more Turkish academics signed it, raising the number of signatories from 1,128 to 2,212. In solidarity, 2,279 foreign academics also signed the petition.

Soon after the petition was released, a number of signatories were suspended in several universities and forced to resign from their administrative positions; others were threatened by ultra-nationalist groups inside and outside the campuses. The suspensions began in private universities where employment was more insecure. In some cities, criminal investigations were launched by public prosecutors resulting in home raids and detentions of signatories. The four academics who read a second press release against these investigations and dismissals were imprisoned for 40 days and a criminal case was filed against them for spreading “terrorist propaganda.” Approximately 100 Academics for Peace signatories were dismissed from their positions before the state of emergency was declared in July 2016.[8]

Post-Coup Purge

The growing repression within academia significantly worsened after the state of emergency was declared on July 21, 2016, following the failed military coup attempt against Erdoğan. The coup leaders were alleged to have secret relations with the Gülen organization, which had invested heavily in universities and had developed a considerable network of support institutions in the education field, both within Turkey and abroad. The Gülen organization had been closely allied with the AKP until 2013 and had taken over key positions in the state bureaucracy (primarily in education, the judiciary, the army and police) in return for their political allegiance. In fact, academics affiliated with this organization had actively supported the purge of both Academics for Peace and leftist academics until they too were eliminated by Erdoğan after the failed coup.

The state of emergency lasted for two years—from July 21, 2016 to July 19, 2018. During this period nearly 150,000 civil servants were expelled through emergency decrees without any juridical oversight. The largest share of this enormous purge took place in the educational field: 41,705 employees (30 percent of total expulsions) were expelled from educational institutions.[9] 6,081 academics and 1,427 administrative staff from 122 universities including 300 graduate students studying abroad with state scholarships were also dismissed.[10] 15 private universities were shut down. 2,808 academics working in these universities lost their jobs and 64,533 students were transferred to other universities.[11] Even though the majority of expulsions were of civil servants accused of association with the Gülen organization, many Academics for Peace, civil servants associated with the Kurdish movement, trade unionists and leftist activists were also added to the expulsion lists. A total of 407 Academics for Peace signatories were dismissed from their positions by the emergency decrees, bringing the total number who lost their jobs to 519.[12]

The dismissal of so many academics during the state of emergency was a chaotic and arbitrary process without any judicial oversight. The “to be expelled” lists were prepared by the university administrations.[13] The few universities where massive dismissals did not take place were the ones who did not submit any “to be expelled” lists to the YÖK. The majority of university rectors, however, submitted “to be expelled lists” with great eagerness in order to ingratiate themselves with the government.

Those dismissed by the emergency decrees were both prohibited from working in another public institution and unable to work in the private sector due to an inscription on their insurance register. They were effectively banned from travelling internationally because their passports were invalidated. In the words of a pro-government columnist, they were sentenced to “civil death.”[14] In some cases, however, this “civil death” led to the literal termination of lives: 37 of the expellees committed suicide out of despair due to these unjust and severe sanctions.[15]

The persecution of the Academics for Peace has not been limited to academic expulsion. 434 academics are facing charges for “terrorist propaganda,” with more on the way.[16] Although signing the petition for peace was a collective action, prosecutors have sought to isolate each signatory by opening individual investigations in different courthouses, beginning in December, 2017. 33 signatories have been sentenced to prison for 15 months, which was delayed through a conditional process called “the deferral of the verdict” that requires the acquitted to refrain from breaking the law for five years, at the end of which the sentence is annulled.[17]

In addition to mass expulsions, additional laws and regulations were enacted to increase the recruitment of government loyalists to the academy. Perhaps the most effective procedure to ensure political conformity is the new obligatory “security clearance” required for all academic appointments, granted by the National Security Department only if the person in question is not considered to be a security threat. Furthermore, an emergency decree issued in October, 2016 gave the president direct authorization to appoint university rectors and, in some cases, to bypass the academic qualifications historically necessary for such appointments. For example, Yusuf Tekin, the former undersecretary of the Ministry of Education of the AKP, who had been a professor for only one month, was appointed rector of a newly established university in Ankara.

Moreover, an amendment to the law of higher education in December 2016 subjected faculty to strict disciplinary codes and directives, such as the directive to not “make statements or give information to the press, news agencies, radio and TV channels without having been assigned an authority.”[18] The new disciplinary code and regulations make it nearly impossible for academics to inform the public about social problems or to conduct scientific research that may have a critical tone. This policy forces dissident academics who have not yet lost their positions into silence and self-censorship; many dissident academics have simply moved abroad.[19] Students have been adversely affected due to the decrease in the overall quality of education and an increase in police violence on campuses. Boğaziçi University, one of the most autonomous and top-tier universities in Turkey, has experienced the routinization of police violence on its campuses. Students protesting against supporters of the Turkish military invasion of the Kurdish city of Afrin in Syria in March, 2018 were arrested, tortured and imprisoned for three months; 22 await pending trials.[20] The Boğaziçi University rector appointed by Erdoğan issued a declaration condemning his own students rather than supporting their freedom of speech.[21]

Resisting Academic Expulsion

Despite government repression and the criminalization of many individuals within academia, academics are engaged in ongoing and often courageous struggles to protect their own professional values and academic freedom. The collective efforts of expelled academics to survive, to continue their professional work and to support the struggles for peace and democracy in Turkey should also be taken into consideration when considering the repressive crackdown on the field of higher education.[22]

Most of the Academics for Peace signatories continue to defend their stand for peace and democracy, including those behind prison bars and in the courts. Against the isolation policies of the government, they have organized collective resistance with the support of other democratic social forces. They formed a coordinating body to collectively follow the individual cases in order to counter the prosecutors’ isolation tactics.[23] They established solidarity networks to provide their expelled colleagues economic and legal support, in which the teachers union Eğitim-Sen has played a vital role. Academics for Peace members also established alternative educational centers under the name of “Solidarity Academies” in eight cities where they have been dismissed in large numbers. They organize open lectures, conferences, workshops and summer schools. Despite their limited financial resources, with international support “Solidarity Academies” may be able provide a new institutional framework where critical thinking purged from the universities can flourish, though they face considerable challenges.[24]

With Erdoğan and the AKP establishing a one-man constitutional dictatorship through the newly enshrined “Turkish-style presidential system,” it appears that universities are being restructured to reflect and uphold this new system. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy, always weak in Turkey, have now been wiped out completely. The expulsion of the Academics for Peace and other independent scholars signifies the possible elimination of critical thought from academia in Turkey. Although different, the purges against alleged Gülenist academics are also part of the broader intimidation of academia and society by the state. This intimidation seems to have worked so far. The academics whom Erdoğan favorably defines as “domestic and national” are currently those occupying the administrative bodies of Turkish higher education. At the present, the government has absolute control over the universities. The struggle, however, continues and the outcome is far from determined as academics create new spaces to produce critical knowledge and practices.


[1] Most of these faculty members were able to return to their positions at universities in the early 1990s.

[2] Even though they are legally described as “foundation universities,” these universities actually are run by their owners according to commercial principles.

[3] Yüksek Öğretim Kurumu, İstatistikler.

[4] GIT Türkiye, Türkiye’de Araştırma Özgürlüğü ve Akademide Hak İhlalleri (Istanbul: Mayıs, 2013).

[5] An initiative established by a group of academics to promote a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey by conducting critical academic research in the field in 2012 during the hunger strikes by the Kurdish political prisoners.

[6] Some reports about the issue include: OHCHR, “Report on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey: July 2015 to December 2016” (February 2017); Nils Muižnieks, “Memorandum on the Human Rights Implications of the Measures Taken Under the State of Emergency in Turkey” (Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 7 October 2016); İnsan Hakları Derneği, Çatışmalı Ortamlarda Meydana Gelen İnsan Hakları İhlalleri: 24 Temmuz 2015–24 Temmuz 2016 (Diyarbakır, August 30, 2016).

[7] 103 peace activists were killed and hundreds injured by two suicide attacks against a Peace, Democracy and Labor Meeting in Ankara on October 10, 2015.

[8] T. Deniz Erkmen, “Turkey’s Cautionary Tale,” Open Democracy, July 4, 2016; Bahar Baser, Samim Akgonul, and Ahmet Erdi Ozturk “‘Academics for Peace’ in Turkey: A Case of Criminalizing Dissent and Critical Thought via Counter-Terrorism Policy,” Critical Studies on Terrorism 10/2 (June 2017).

[9] Eğitim Sen, “Eğitimde ve Yükseköğrenimde OHAL Raporu,” July 19, 2018.

[10] THİV Akademi, “Bülten 2: OHAL Koşullarında Üniversite,” June, 2018.

[11] Beyza Kural, “Sayılarla Kapatılan Üniversiteler,” Bianet, August 2, 2016.

[12] “Rights Violations against Academics for Peace,” October 27, 2018.

[13] T.C., “Yüksekögretim Kurulu, Basın ve Halkla İlişkiler Müşavirliği,”; Fundanur Öztürk “Akademisyenleri ihraç eden üniversitelerin rektörleri anlatıyor,” BBC Türkçe, February 23, 2017.

[14] Cem Küçük, “‘Medeni Ölüm’ Mekanizmaları!,” Star, January 16, 2016.

[xv] THİV Akademi, “Bülten 2: OHAL Koşullarında Üniversite,” June 2018.

[15] “Rights Violations against Academics for Peace,” October 27, 2018.

[17] “The deferral of the verdict” is granted by the judge upon the request of the defendant. Füsun Üstel and Büşra Ersanlı are the only defendants who have not yet asked for a deferral. Tansu Pişkin, “13 Akademisyenin İlk Duruşmaları Görüldü,” Bianet, October 26, 2018.

[18] Bilim Akademisi, “Akademik Özgürlükler Raporu 2016-2017,” August 9, 2017.

[19] Vezir Aktas, Marco Nilsson, and Klas Borell, “Social Scientist Under Threat: Resistance and Self-Censorship in Turkish Academia,” British Journal of Educational Studies, August 3, 2018.

[20] “Boğaziçili Öğrencilerin Tamamı Tahliye Edildi,” Bianet, June 6, 2018.

[21] “Boğaziçi Üniversitesi Rektörlüğü’nden Açıklama,” Bianet, March 21, 2018.

[22] Peace Academics have received many national and international awards for their efforts. See “Turkish Academics Win Aachen Peace Prize” Deutsche Welle, January 1, 2016 and “Turkey’s Academics for Peace to Receive 2018 Courage to Think Defender Award,” Scholars at Risk April 16, 2018.

[23] For an insider’s view on the trial process see: Aslı Odman, “Barış Bildirisi ve Dev Şirketin,” ‘Yeni’ Akademisi-1: Büyük Dönüşüm, February 13, 2018.

[24]Aslı Odman, “Barış Bildirisi ve Dev Şirketin,” ‘Yeni’ Akademisi-4: Dayanışma Akademileri: Yakıcı İhtiyacı Erdeme Dönüştürmek.

How to cite this article:

Muzaffer Kaya "Turkey’s Purge of Critical Academia," Middle East Report 288 (Fall 2018).

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