The trustee rector appointed from outside to the university caused protests which have been widely supported all over the country. As days pass, both hope and worry heighten. We, as Çatlar Zemin, continue our Boğaziçi interviews. For this piece, we conversed with academics Irmak Ertör, Şemsa Özar, and Zeynep Uysal.
Cemre: The students at Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History (ATA), where you teach, made a statement about the process just like students from other departments. ATA is an institute which only accepts graduate students. How do you evaluate the situation from where you stand? How will such an appointment affect you?
Irmak Ertör (ATA): The students at ATA made two statements; first one was made public on 10th of January, 2021 and the second one on 3rd of February 2021. ATA is indeed an institute with graduate students from a wide variety of universities and departments. At ATA we have close communication with other universities, and the graduates of ATA work as academics in Turkey and abroad, they lecture and conduct research in many different fields, producing knowledge and engaging in discussions. Students of ATA, who are familiar with different university cultures, when making their demands for academic autonomy and an egalitarian, democratic, and free university, did not limit themselves to Boğaziçi, but from the start have underlined the necessity of each university electing its own rector. In their own words, they expressed that they understood universities as “environments where they can think, discuss, and produce freely” and as “a space where students not only receive education, but also encounter each other and see that life is full of complexities, challenges, and fun.”
This atmosphere of free thinking and free discussion, respect for differences, tolerance, and academic autonomy is vital for all the components of the institute. In an environment where these conditions are not guaranteed, you cannot discuss, learn from each other, do social sciences, or produce knowledge. This environment of exchange, solidarity, and academic and social support, as expressed at various meetings in the past by all ATA students, is indispensable for graduate students here to become important scientists and to be able contribute to their future students and academic environments.
The way in which this appointment was carried out and its consequences damage this environment. Police blockades through which all the constituents of the university pass every day, the police presence on campus, the detention of students and police violence, illegal and irregular top-down practices carry with them the treat to destroy the people who are used to democratic decision-making processes, listen to each other, discuss with each other in a collective environment of tolerance and understanding as well as the university structures informed by these principles. A university where university constituents do not participate in the decision-making processes and science is evaluated through the lens of market mechanisms, in other words, a university which focuses on an “ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship” harms the collective and democratic environment mentioned by students at ATA. Under these threats the environment where students can be productive, can carry out their research autonomously, can learn from and contribute to each other and their professors is being shaken. I think this situation has already caused damage to our university of which our institute is a part.
Cemre: What do you think about BÜLGBTİ+’s shutdown?
Irmak Ertör: I think it is unacceptable. The student clubs of Boğaziçi University are founded on a strong tradition and are structures where students can express themselves on equal terms, produce together, organize together, and share their works with the university. Being part of the club activities is also very instructive and formative for all students. Student clubs are also groups that coordinate and cooperate with each other.
Both the Student Activities Coordination Board (ÖFKK) and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Commission (CİTÖK) issued important statements about the shutdown and targeting of the BÜLGBTİ+ (Boğaziçi University LGBTI+ ) student club. They clearly explained the mechanisms and decision-making structures which should be applied in cases of complaints and irregularities about the clubs. Many student clubs also made a statement that they were standing in solidarity with the BÜLGBTİ+ and they wanted these unlawful practices to end immediately. It should be reminded once again that the BÜLGBTİ+ club has had no connection whatsoever with the exhibition on 29th of January which was used as an excuse for shutting down the club. I once again repeat the demand of our students to continue their academic, cultural, artistic, and social works and activities freely and in a safe space; to come together, discuss, and produce as they wish. And I second their demand for anti-democratic and illegitimate practices to end.
Cemre: How would you evaluate the protests that have been going on for over a month now within the tradition of Boğaziçi University which you are a part of?
Şemsa Özar (Department of Economics): I find the protests normal and rightful. That’s why, even though I retired two years ago, I participate in the protests in Boğaziçi University of which I have been a part first as a student and then as a faculty member for nearly 30 years. As you know, there is broad participation in these protests. This institution may not be perfect. Albeit it had its ups and downs, the faculty, students, the alumni, and employees must be happy with its way of functioning and administration that they have built with long years of experiences in the conditions of Turkey, so they are resisting against it being taken away from them. Because they are certain that the emergent way of university administration will make university worse rather than better, they want to make their voices heard by saying “We do not accept, we do not give up”.
Since mainstream media channels distort the news about the protests, people watch them on alternative media and social media. The professors and students organized very creative protests in their own ways. Some of the protests developed very spontaneously. For example, we, the faculty, wear our gowns and turn our backs to the rector’s office every afternoon. We did this once and we started doing the same thing every day. Then we thought we should inform the public about what we were doing and started reading weekly statements on Fridays. Our students, standing in front of us, support us. Students started their protests with music, art, and videos. In other words, both the faculty and students want to express themselves, explain that what has been done is against the democratic and autonomous university, and they call for correcting the wrong. However, the rector has had a securitizing stance, allowed the police in the campus, and the undercover police recklessly patrol in the campus for the purposes of intimidating people; all of this, of course, was disturbing for everyone. It is of course deeply troubling that both the rector and high-ranking state officials stigmatize students for having wicked ambitions and that they choose not the method of dialogue but of intimidation, detention, and arrests. As the students emphasize that their solidarity and protests are peaceful, the other party insists on the discourse of “a handful of terrorists”. Similarly, although more professors turn their back to the rector’s office every day, it is claimed that they are only 20 people. Yesterday, pro-government media launched an incredible defamation campaign against a group of professors. Those who do this have never understood the Boğaziçi culture. Boğaziçi professors never transfer their free will to twenty people and not to mention that they know very well how to protect and defend the rights of those 20 people whether or not they love them.
Cemre: How do you think the appointment of a trustee rector will impact the academic and social life in the university?
Şemsa Özar: I think it will have a huge effect. On the other hand, I strongly believe that such a system cannot be permanent. Let me explain with a few examples why it will have a huge effect. As a feminist, I started studying feminist economics in my early years of teaching at the university. I also wanted to teach a course in this field, and I prepared the syllabus of a course titled “Gender and Economics” and presented it to my department. Each professor has one vote in the departments of Boğaziçi University. It does not matter whether one is a professor or an associate professor. Also, when a professor presents a strong course content, people do not object even though they do not like that particular school of thought, or the course content contrasts their opinions. That professor is given the opportunity to teach and research in the field they want. My department accepted the course. Courses accepted by the departments and included in the curriculum are not questioned by the administrative boards of the university; departments’ evaluation is respected. I have taught this course for years. In that course, for instance, we would discuss the economic issues pertaining to LGBTI+ people. But now, as you know, the appointed rector shut down the LGBTI+ student club by falsely defaming it. If he stays in that position, it is highly likely there will be an intervention in what we teach in these courses.
The second example is the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office, of which I am also one of the founders. When we set up this office, we thought a lot about who should be in the commission. In the end, the commission consisted of professors, student representatives, administrative staff representatives, psychologists and psychiatrist of the Counselling Center, and the security chief of the university. It was of significance that the security personnel treat students carefully in the incidents we encountered; so we gave them training. They also contributed to us a lot. We have taken important steps regarding the security personnel’s behavior, especially towards LGBTI+ students. Now, unfortunately, we see videos of security guards attacking students with wooden bats. This is appointed rectors’ contribution to the university.
Cemre: Following the appointment of Melih Bulu, you resigned from your position as the Dean of Students. How do you see the gap resulted from resignations from administrative positions that have been going on over a month?
Zeynep Uysal (Turkish Language and Literature): Immediately after the appointment of Melih Bulu, I and our colleagues who were advisors to the rector resigned. Vice rectors had already completed their term with the previous rector. But the elected faculty deans continue in their positions. Since his appointment, the University Executive Board, consisting of deans and elective representatives, and the Senate continue to come together to think and produce ideas about the functioning and future of the university, as our students and the faculty have been doing. However, the rector’s administrative team consisting of vice rectors, advisors, and deans of students, who are, under normal conditions, expected to work together has not been formed for a month. None of the faculty members offered a position by Melih Bulu agreed to work with him. Of course, there is an administrative gap. The unannounced vice rector appointments and the decisions to shut down the student club show this gap, or rather show that Melih Bulu has no idea about the functioning of the university. However, this is not just a simple lack of knowledge or experience. For example, as we understood from the official statement shared on social media regarding the decision to close the student club, he was given information about the functioning of the student clubs. Some of this information was used as a ground to shut down the student club; he acted on the information that the candidate clubs can get official student club status after a two-year waiting period. But he then preferred to ignore the role of the Student Activities Coordination Board (ÖFKK) or the University Executive Board in opening and closing student clubs.
Then, we can’t help but think that even if Bulu has an administrative team, he will continue to use his unlimited authority on the basis of his own preferences. The management system of Boğaziçi University, which is finely established and operates bottom-up will apparently mean nothing to him. This shows that the “administrative gap” caused by the appointment of Bulu will continue even if he has an administrative team, and also the gap will be filled with an anti-democratic method.
Cemre: What would you like to say about students’ concerns and agendas?
Zeynep Uysal: I totally agree with the students’ concerns. We all have the same concerns. We are concerned about our university, Turkey, our lives. Neither Boğaziçi, nor other universities, nor Turkey deserve to be in the situation that we are in right now. I have been a part of this university for nearly 30 years and this is the first time I’ve seen that it has been pushed to the brink of an abyss to such an extent. The way Boğaziçi University functions should set an example, a model to other universities of Turkey. In fact, at the time, it had pioneered the model of rector elections and led the enactment of law about rector appointments. Despite all our concerns, our faculty members are still working on models of how rectors should be assigned. Our students, on the other hand, both express our concerns and keep us alive with fresh thoughts every day. Election is their priority, too. The answer is simple. Universities must be academically autonomous institutions. They must be governed democratically. Otherwise, it becomes impossible to freely produce, discuss, speak of, and teach science and knowledge. Our students strive to rebuild the free university. All components of the university want this. And they want this not only for Boğaziçi but also for all the universities of Turkey.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan