On January 1, 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his appointment of Melih Bulu as the rector of Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most reputable institutions of higher education. A few days later, thousands of students gathered in front of the university to protest Erdoğan’s top-down decision aimed at controlling one of the few universities previously able to maintain a modicum of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. They were met by riot police who blockaded the university to prevent students from entering the campus. The significance of the president’s appointment—and the police state he has strengthened to back his unilateral decisions—was symbolically captured by the images shared on social media of handcuffed university gates.
In the hours and days that followed, the police arrested dozens of students by carrying out early morning and late-night raids at their homes, sometimes even breaking through house walls. Istanbul’s governor banned all meetings, demonstrations and marches on the European side of the city, where Boğaziçi University is located, using the pandemic as an excuse to shut down further protest. Joined by their peers from other universities, Boğaziçi students then took ferries across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city to continue to voice their opposition. They called for Bulu’s resignation, immediate release of detained students and democratic and transparent elections involving all university stakeholders to elect a new university rector. The faculty joined the protests by standing every day, in rotating groups, with their backs turned to the rector’s office. Meanwhile, students continued to express their frustration in creative ways. They danced to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in front of Bulu’s office, in reference to his statement about his love for the band, while calling for his resignation. They staged a communal preparation of halwa, typically served at funerals, to symbolically mark the death of the rectorate, before practicing yoga together. They also organized an art exhibit featuring satirical representations of Bulu and the government.
As the police continued to arrest and initiate criminal prosecution of students, Erdoğan defended his decision to appoint Bulu as lawful and extolled the new rector’s merits. He described the protestors as a naive bunch mobilized by provocateurs tied to terrorist organizations. “Terrorism,” as a flexible, handy and frequently used term in Erdoğan’s Turkey, was employed once more to target students, professors and their allies in the fight for a democratic university. Pro-government pundits attacked Boğaziçi by characterizing it as an elitist institution, suggesting that it is anything but democratic, turning on their head the claims of its students and professors.
The attacks to delegitimize and defame student protests reached a new peak when Boğaziçi University’s Islamic Studies Club (BİSAK) posted a picture on Twitter of student art from the exhibition organized in tandem with the protests, characterizing it as an insult to their religious and sacred values. The art in question depicted the Great Mosque of Mecca embellished with rainbow flags, and it replaced the Ka‘ba with the mythic Shahmaran figure of a half woman, half snake, a subversive image that the student artist used to question the religious legitimation underlying much misogyny and homophobia. The story was picked up by pro-government media, and Bulu rushed to condemn the picture on Twitter. Predictably, this religious populist trope succeeded in mobilizing a wide range of public figures. The president of Religious Affairs condemned the protesting students for attacking sacred Muslim values. The interior minister denounced students as “LGBT perverts,” and initiated a criminal investigation, which resulted in the detention of four students on the grounds of insulting the religious values held by some portion of the public. Boğaziçi shut down the LGBTI+ student club. Even the spokesperson of the main national opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) reprimanded the protesters for the alleged insult. The uncanny similarity of this incident to fabricated scandals—such as the public beating of a woman wearing a headscarf and the consumption of alcohol in a mosque that circulated to discredit the Gezi protests in 2013—did not escape commentators’ attention. Ongoing protests both on and off campus resulted in the violent arrests of hundreds more students. As Bulu struggled to garner enough faculty support to put together an administration, a presidential decree announced at midnight on February 5 established two new schools at Boğaziçi, with the intention of appointing pro-government faculty in order to pack the university.
This latest encroachment on Boğaziçi is part of a long history of governmental control of higher education in Turkey. It also reflects Erdoğan’s strategy of bringing autonomous institutions to heel to suppress dissent and the AKP’s desire to attain cultural hegemony by cultivating “homegrown and national youth” who are staunchly pious and politically obedient yet highly educated. Erdoğan has been criticizing educational institutions for producing “alienation from national values and interests,” particularly since the 2013 Gezi Park protests and has led a striking expansion of religious secondary schools in the last two decades. Taking control of universities such as Boğaziçi is the latest move to realign those remaining semi-autonomous holdouts with Erdoğan’s agenda of making them subservient to national interests, as determined by the regime.
State Control of the Academy
The legal basis for Bulu’s appointment as Boğaziçi’s new rector lies in an executive decree (KHK/676) issued during the state of emergency that was declared following the 2016 coup attempt. The state of emergency, extended six times from 2016 to 2018, gave Erdoğan sweeping powers to change regulations in order to control the judiciary, security agencies, the national defense apparatus, government personnel and educational institutions, among other areas. Article 85 of the decree changed the Higher Education Law (number 2547, article 13) by canceling elections for rector in public universities and instead granting the president and the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) full authority to make appointments. The new regulation allows YÖK to decide on the candidate pool according to its own criteria, without consulting with the universities in question. Another executive decree issued in 2018 eliminated the only general requirement that the candidates were expected to meet, which was to have served at the full professor level in any university for at least three years. This change led to a major decline in the academic qualifications of newly appointed rectors. A 2019 study shows that out of 196 appointed rectors, 68 have been credited with no international publications and 71 have never been cited in an academic publication. Only 49 rectors authored more than one publication or received more than one citation.
The government assault on freedom of expression, academic freedom and university autonomy in Turkey certainly did not start with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) government. The Higher Education Law, which instituted YÖK as a central mechanism of control over universities, is a vestige of the 1980s military regime that abolished the relative autonomy they enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s. YÖK’s role was defined in Article 131 of the authoritarian 1982 constitution:
to plan, organize, administer, and supervise education provided by institutions of higher education, to orient teaching activities, education and scientific research, to ensure the establishment and development of these institutions in conformity with the objectives and principles set forth by law, to ensure the effective use of the resources allotted to the universities, and to plan for the training of the teaching staff.
The Council included military officers at the time of its foundation, and it set up a system where university presidents were appointed by the head of the military junta. In the early 1990s, the system was partially relaxed, allowing universities to conduct their own elections and submit a list of nominations to YÖK, which screened, shortened and finalized the list before submitting it to the president for his decision. While the Council and the president largely respected the university votes, their role in screening the candidates and making the ultimate decision not only led to the politicization of the office of rector but also consolidated political control over the universities. The military regime’s effort to discipline universities found expression over the years in the immediate dismissal of 90 academics following the coup, the headscarf ban on university campuses and YÖK’s control over academic appointments and promotions as well as research topics.
When it came to power in 2002, the AKP promised to end strict state control over universities and abolish YÖK. Although it ended military tutelage, the AKP regime opted to keep and capture the state institutions inherited from the 1980s military rule to consolidate its own power and suppress dissent. YÖK played a pivotal role in advancing the AKP’s higher education agenda. First of all, it realized Erdoğan’s campaign promise to open a university in every city as a reflection of his service-oriented politics of bringing higher education to all. The expansion of public universities went hand in hand with the increasing privatization of higher education. As a result, the number of universities in the country increased from 76 to 207 from 2002 to 2020. The quality of education, however, remained low due to a lack of trained academics and adequate facilities. Plus, without proper planning, many new departments remained without students. What Erdoğan and his YÖK team missed was that higher education is not like other public services. It requires much more than bestowing government contracts or incentives on cronies for the construction of university buildings. A new term has become popular in Turkey to reflect the hollowness of these new institutions: “signage universities.”
The Struggle Over Boğaziçi
While Boğaziçi is one among many institutions subject to the restrictive atmosphere of higher education in Turkey, it also has a distinctive history and reputation. Founded in 1863 as Robert College, it was the first American college established outside of the United States. For over 100 years, it served as an English language institution of higher learning for young men, which mostly attracted the Ottoman Christian minority youth, as well as foreigners living in Istanbul. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the College adopted a strictly secular educational model in accordance with republican principles. In 1971 its Board of Trustees passed a resolution transferring all their land, buildings, facilities and personnel to the Turkish government to establish Boğaziçi as a public university. Today it is regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in the country, known for its academic rigor as well as its diverse, vibrant and engaged student culture. The language of education at Boğaziçi remains English, and the faculty is composed of high-profile scholars with doctorates from top institutions throughout Europe and the United States. The students are selected among those candidates who earn top scores in the nationwide university entrance exam. They come from all over the country, bringing to campus diverse ethnic, religious and class backgrounds, as well as different political affiliations.
Responding to criticism, Bulu argued that even though he did not get his undergraduate degree at Boğaziçi (he went to Middle East Technical University in Ankara, another prestigious English-language public university) or teach there as full-time faculty, he is in fact no stranger to “Boğaziçi culture.” In his first written address to the Boğaziçi community, he stated that he is excited to “return home,” where he spent the best eight years of his life during his graduate studies. Contrary to his desire to portray himself as an insider, Bulu’s address to the Boğaziçi community, in which he made references to popular student experiences, sparked additional reaction as it was considered further proof of his superficial understanding of the university’s unique character. Students and faculty responded that it is not the leisurely student activities that Bulu referenced that make Boğaziçi the university it is today. Rather, it is the democratic culture, academic freedom, merit-based academic practices and transparent administrative tradition, which Bulu’s top-down appointment endangers.
The protests against Bulu’s appointment and concerns over his lack of qualifications sparked accusations of elitism. A vocal member of a pro-Erdoğan media outlet tweeted that, as a Boğaziçi graduate herself, she fully expected “self-appointed arrogant objections” against Bulu’s appointment. “Boğaziçi does not only belong to the elitists but to the nation” she wrote. Describing the protests as “the laboring pains of an ongoing transformation,” she furthermore called on allies to “demolish the Boğaziçi oligarchy” as the university “cleanses itself from the American influence.” Contrary to today’s pro-AKP media portrayal of Boğaziçi as an anti-Muslim institution and an ivory tower, it was actually one of the few higher education institutions in Turkey where the right to education for students wearing headscarves had strong support among both students and faculty while the headscarf ban was still in place.
Pro-government circles have repeatedly accused Boğaziçi of elitism and alienation from national values and interests. In 2018, Erdoğan joined the general assembly of the Boğaziçi University Reunion Association (BURA), a conservative alumni organization that was established in 2003, where he urged the Boğaziçi community to adopt a “homegrown and national” standing to counter those who act “against their state [and] the values of their own people.” His sentiments were echoed by the chairman of BURA as well as a student representative, who shared their vision of Boğaziçi as an educational institution where the “primary components” of society are represented, as opposed to “an oasis that is surrounded by walls of elitism.” Later that year a group of students protested the actions of students from the Islamic Studies Club (BİSAK) who set up a table on campus to distribute Turkish delight sweets to celebrate the government’s military incursion into the Kurdish-controlled town of Afrin in northern Syria. Erdoğan publicly reprimanded the protesters: “Those communists, terrorists, and traitors tried to destroy the table of pious, homegrown, national youth.…We will not give them the right to study in college.” Following his statement, 21 students were arrested.
Pious, Homegrown and National Youth
Promoting “pious, homegrown and national youth” has been on Erdoğan’s agenda since the early 2010s. The 2013 Gezi protests lent a sense of urgency to that priority by demonstrating to Erdoğan that most of the country’s youth not only do not vote for him, but can actively bring about his demise, as happened to his fellow authoritarian leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. From then on, molding a politically compliant, modern and pious youth that is educated and respectful of national values became a foremost goal of the government. Erdoğan repeated his yearning for a youth with “faith in his heart, the Qur’an and a computer in his hand, science in his mind, and a calling toward God” throughout the years, opposing this figure to the dissident Kurdish youth or the youth involved in the Gezi protests.
On the 36th day of the Boğaziçi protests, Erdoğan took the stage to unveil Turkey’s ten-year space program, which includes reaching the moon in 2023, the centennial year of the founding of the Turkish Republic. Other missions include sending Turkish astronauts into space, building a Turkish spaceport and developing sophisticated satellite and meteorological technology. But the dozens of universities the government established over the last two decades, largely staffed through patronage networks, neither have the research capacity to achieve such innovation, nor are capable of advanced knowledge production. As Boğaziçi professor Bülent Küçük aptly noted: “Accumulating intellectual and cultural capital is achieved slower than accumulating political and financial capital.” Hence, Erdoğan’s attempt to take over an established research institution such as Boğaziçi.
As the government attempts to weed out non-compliant groups from academia through disciplinary investigations and criminal procedures, Turkey is simultaneously facing an unprecedented brain drain. Public opinion polls show a large majority of youth are disillusioned about the country’s direction under Erdoğan. More than three out of four young people between the ages of 18 and 29 wish to leave Turkey for a better future. Almost half of those polled see unemployment as the biggest issue facing youth while more than seventy percent believe that merit is irrelevant since they think they would not be able to find a job without friends in the state apparatus. A recent video made by a group of Boğaziçi students and distributed on social media under the hashtag #ülkemadınaçoküzgünüm (#Iamverysorryformycountry) further expresses the frustrated dreams of Turkey’s top students.
The resilience of Boğaziçi protesters reflects an accumulated anger toward the government, reminiscent of the 2013 Gezi protests. Two decades of AKP rule caused unprecedented damage to the university’s autonomy and academic freedoms. Yet, the AKP’s attempt to conquer one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education, that has until now largely been able to maintain its autonomy, seems to have crossed a symbolic line. It remains to be seen whether the protests will succeed in throwing off the government’s yoke over Boğaziçi and lead the way for a larger effort to establish academic autonomy, or whether their brutal suppression will mark a turning point in consolidating Turkey’s universities as coercive and disciplinary tools in the service of the AKP’s authoritarian control. Until then, Boğaziçi students and faculty and their growing number of supporters from Turkey and beyond will continue to repeat #WeWillNotLookDown.
[Ayça Alemdaroğlu is research scholar and associate director of the Program on Turkey at the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Elif Babül is associate professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College. Both serve on MERIP’s editorial committee.]
 @hilal_kaplan, “Bir Boğaziçi mezunu olarak, kerameti kendinden menkul bir kibirle size karşı çıkacaklar olacağını biliyorum ve aldırmadan yolunuza devam etmenizi bekliyorum. Boğaziçi sadece elitistlerin değil, milletindir. Allah muvaffak etsin,” Twitter, January 3, 2021
 “14. Olağan Genel Kurulumuz Cumhurbaşkanımız Sayın Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’ın Teşrifleriyle Gerçekleşti,” Boğaziçi Üniversiteliler Derneği (BURA).
 Carrie Shawn, “On an Istanbul Campus, Turkish Afrin Delight Leads to Arrests,” Middle East Eye, March 30, 2018.
 @RTErdogan, “Elinde taşla molotof kokteyliyle değil, göğsünde iman, elinde bilgisayar, Kur’an ve zihninde ilimle Hakk’a çağıran bir gençlik var,” Twitter, December 28, 2012.
 Neşe İdil, “Neoliberal Authoritarianism at Its Best: Boğazici University Academics Defy Erdoğan’s Rector Appointment,” Duvar English, January 7, 2021.