Academic Freedom Under Threat in Turkey

Updated: May 1, 2019

The international scholarly community must take meaningful steps to support the Academics for Peace, says Mehmet Ugur.

On January 10 of this year, a group of scholars calling themselves the Academics for Peace signed an open letter calling on the Turkish government to end its violence in Kurdish provinces. In line with their aim of studying peace and conflict-resolution processes worldwide, the academics also called for “a road map that would lead to a lasting peace in Turkey” and for independent observers to monitor the Kurdish provinces, where civilians, including children and the elderly, are still being killed under a security crackdown.

The “Petition for Peace” was signed by 1,128 academics in Turkey and beyond. The next day, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the signatories of treason and called for their punishment. The judiciary then initiated public prosecutions under Turkish antiterror law alleging defamation of the Turkish state and accusing the signatories of spreading “terrorist organization propaganda.” Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) ordered university rectors to commence disciplinary investigations. Numerous suspensions, dismissals, and imprisonments have followed.

To longterm observers of Turkey such as myself, none of this came as a great surprise. Lack of academic freedom has always been a hallmark of the Turkish higher education system. Any de facto respect for it has been wrenched from the Turkish state apparatus (including the government, the military, and the YÖK) as a result of resistance by academics and students alike.

A salient fact about Turkish higher education is that universities that have toed the government line have remained poor performers, whereas those where staff and students showed resistance to state intrusion have done better in terms of research quality, graduate employability, and international recognition. Nevertheless, successive AKP governments since 2003, with Erdoğan as prime minister or president, have been determined to maintain the longstanding state tutelage over Turkey’s higher education system. The expected prize is the production of graduates disposed to submit to authorityparticularly state authoritywithout much questioning.

I did my first degree in Turkey in the second half of the 1970s, at a time of widespread student activism. I was involved in two long-term boycotts of classes and exams (one lasting for six months and one for nine) demanding the withdrawal of troops from campus, respect for academic freedom, and adoption of the standards in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Although the covenant entered into force in many countries in January 1976, Turkey refused to sign i