Since the 1st of January, protests against Melih Bulu, who was appointed as a trustee to Boğaziçi University, are continuing both inside and outside the university. These protests are against a system, which bypassing the will of everyone within the university appoints a rector ab extra, against the potential of destruction that this system entails, and for sure, against those things that accumulated over the years and make it impossible to breath in this country any longer. The statement “we do not accept, we do not give up” which has been voiced inside the university for over a month now, is also being uttered by more people outside the university. The police blockades surrounding the university, riot squads that entered the university for the first time since years, detentions and arrests are amongst some of the worrying developments. Even though the government and the ruling circles tried to suppress the protests by various manipulations and by utilizing hate to shift the focus to an anti-LGBTI+ discourse, the current course of events, which echoed in the hashtag #AşağıBakmayacağız (we will not look down), tells a different story. As Çatlak Zemin, we wanted to listen to the protests at the Boğaziçi University. For this interview, we conversed with academics Aylin Vartanyan, Nükhet Sirman, and Olcay Akyıldız. Our interviews will continue…

Cemre: How do you see the protests which are going on for over a month now and are participated by different groups in the university? What has been going on for the past month?

Aylin Vartanyan (The School of Foreign Languages, Advanced English Unit): Since the beginning of this year, we are facing a crisis at Boğaziçi University. What I mean by crisis is that the ground beneath our feet on which we have been firmly stepping is sliding away and our safe spaces in our ecosystem that is built on education-learning-research is under threat. When we enter and exit the university campus, which is our second home, our chests get tight. We pass through polis blockades and barriers, something which we are not at all used to. Against all these negativities and unknowns, we still try to publicly share our protests against the appointed rector by reminding the principles of our university, by making written statements, by reflecting the situation we are going through via hashtags, and most importantly, by standing together. For the first time in 26 years that I have offered my services to Boğaziçi University, I bear witness to academics from all departments, vocational schools, and institutes coming together over different platforms to find a common and collective voice.

Despite the Covid-19 restrictions and the police siege of the campus and the Hisarüstü neighborhood, our students come to the campus every day and organize Open Courses. In the forums, they produce ideas about how an inclusive, free, and productive university environment can be achieved. Faculty members meet on the campus everyday between 12.00-12.30, regardless of the weather. They turn their backs to the rector’s office in the area that we call “South Square” and express in a quiet vigil that they do not accept the appointment of the rector and that they are not going to abandon our university’s principles. In such times that we oscillate between the absolute and the ambiguous, our noon protests have become a part of our routine and they give us a feeling of standing together as a remedy to feeling stuck. When we are startled by the news about our university every day, even every hour, this quiet vigil shows us how valuable it is to be standing together. Looking at the etymology of the word protest, we see the concepts of honorable explanation and witnessing. These vigils on the campus encompass both concepts. The content of the events we witness is somehow reflected in our vigils. Finally, on our 22nd vigil on February 2nd, 2021, to protest the arrest of our 159 students, each of us carried placards written 159 in black and white numbers, and a new hashtag was added to our vigil: we will not look down. At the end of our vigil, although we had not priorly agreed, we naturally returned to the rector’s office door and by showing the placards in our hands we demanded the appointed rector to resign. Although our spaces for negotiating and establishing a dialogue with the administration have been closed at our university, we try to peacefully convey our word every day remembering that we are a community.

Cemre: The exhibition which took place last week led to the detentions on Friday night and the police searching the club room shared by BÜKAK (Boğaziçi University Women’s Studies Club) and BÜLGBTİ+ (Boğaziçi University LGBTI+ Club). What was the exhibition about? Can you talk about your observations? What did the exhibition have to do with BÜLGBTİ+?

Aylin Vartanyan: As you all know, Boğaziçi University entered 2021 with the news of an appointed rector. This decision is being protested by the majority of university constituents who find it against the principles and values of the university. During this period, in order to let some sunshine into our campus, a group of students took the initiative to establish an art platform. Bounsergi (BOUN Exhibition Group) collective is established independently of Boğaziçi University clubs by a group of students who are interested in art or who are themselves artists. As indicated in the Open Call text dating from 9th of January, which the collective posted on social media, the exhibition invited “everyone and every form of work from straw men to photographs to sculptors to videos.” The exhibition invited not only students of Boğaziçi University, but also artists outside the university who could not find the opportunity to exhibit their works during the pandemic. Bounsergi collective, in order to support artistic production, accepted all the artworks without any discrimination or previous selection, including those artworks which are anonymous. This platform has nothing to do with BÜKAK, BÜLGBTİ+ or Fine Arts clubs. Most of the artworks were sent to the email address of the platform via anonymous accounts and all artworks were printed and exhibited within the university for three days based on the principle of inclusiveness. According to the information shared by the members of Bounsergi collective the artwork which caused the investigation of the public prosecution’s office was also sent from an anonymous account.

Cemre: As the advisor to BÜKAK, can you talk briefly about what had happened to the club and its room?

Olcay Akyıldız (Turkish Language and Literature): Due to lack of space, usually, two different student clubs share the same club room in our university. BÜKAK and BÜLGBTİ+ were using the same room. As of now, no one from these two clubs can enter the room. If I may briefly go over what happened, on the night that ties 29th of January (Friday) to the 30th of January (Saturday), police had entered the university campus with the order of the of the office of the attorney general (and we were only able to hear about this from other sources) and had searched the rooms of the Fine Arts Club and BÜKAK/BÜLGBTİ+. The person in charge of the building and officers from the chief of security had waited outside the door during the process. Following the search, police had left the campus after a report –which we did not see– was signed. Students from BÜKAK reached me on Sunday night and told me that it would be better if on Monday when they enter the club room the academics who are advisors to the clubs, and if possible, a lawyer and a witness accompanies them and records the process. They said that they do not want to enter the room on their own. So, Can Candan, the advisor to the other club, Feyzi Erçin, who is a lawyer and offers courses to students in our university, you from CİTÖK (Sexual Harassment Prevention Office) and I met with the students in front of the club room. However, we could not enter the room since the locks were changed. We thought that maybe the locks were damaged during the search, but the door was not damaged since they entered the room with a key. So, naturally, we started to investigate who changed the locks and why; however, we were not able to reach any official statement. We tried to put together the pieces that we heard ourselves. In the meantime, other events unfolded when students were not let out of the university and were taken into custody by the riot squad that entered the university. That midnight, we also learned from social media about the decision to shut down BÜLGBTİ+. Neither BÜLGBTİ+ nor BÜKAK, the other club that used the room, were not informed about the locks that had been changed or the process. Moreover, the document which was used for justification contained wrong information. The club which had been shut down had no direct connection to the exhibition or the artwork that caused the discussions. That artwork is anonymous, and the exhibition was organized by the art collective. Therefore, the information on the document that was delivered to the club on the 2nd of February was not correct. Currently, the relevant units of the university –including CİTÖK, of which I am also a part– are making public statements about this issue. Personally, I think that it is necessary to underline that those who are harmed as a result of this incident are the women and the LGBTI+ –vulnerable groups of society who are under threat of violence–whose rights are to be guaranteed by the Istanbul Convention.

Cemre: How do you see the protests of the academics? What do the academics try to say when they protest by turning their backs?

Olcay Akyıldız: I think the attitudes, demands, and statements of the academics are very clear: all universities are autonomous entities, and the rectors should be democratically elected by the members of the institutions. In the case of Boğaziçi University, Melih Bulu, who is not a member of the university and who is appointed without an election, should resign. On the one hand, the continuity and resilience of the protests make me happy, on the other, this is the period of finals, the most compact and intense time of the academic year and we are not able to think about or focus on anything other than the current state of events in the university. But, above all, I am extremely angry and sad because our students are being taken into custody during the protests and are arrested. Boğaziçi University is an institution that has been functioning with its own dynamics as one of the best universities of this country for years and I have been through different periods and processes during my bachelor’s and MA studies as well as an academic who is working at Boğaziçi University for almost 20 years now. Therefore, it is not possible for me to understand, internalize, and accept this current situation.

Cemre: You have been a faculty member of Boğaziçi University for a long time. How do you evaluate the current events which started with the appointment of Melih Bulu?

Nükhet Sirman (Sociology Dept.): We are, indeed, going through a curious period. It is curious, most importantly because there is a great accumulation of knowledge in terms of political processes. People no longer believe in everything they hear; they doubt the accuracy of even what they witness. Thanks to the digital age, social media, and smartphones, discourse and statements spread very fast. These discourses can be produced sometimes to rule and other times to resist; regardless where it originates from, each segment of society can start using these words in their own way. We can give the “perception operation” as an example. It can be uttered to rule by making things invisible; but also to resist by rendering what is made invisible visible. Or words such as “conspiracy”, “project” are keywords/concepts that serve to create the post-truth world. And, of course, there is an accumulation of experience. Since Gezi, people, especially the young people who effectively use social media have learned to engage in politics within the conditions they live, they have watched and contributed to the transformation of the issue of identity into the object of politics, and perhaps, most importantly, they have developed many ways of political engagement. In doing so, they have not only used these concepts but also bent and deconstructed them, questioning their meaning. As a result, society has also learned these new concepts but above all, they have seen how empty these discourses are, or more accurately, the discourse itself is. Secondly, now we see that compared to the past, the government is at a different level of legitimacy. Society does not believe everything they say, does not approve everything they do. Therefore, the government embarked on a legitimacy game in Boğaziçi University. The rector was appointed, the university did not accept this appointment. The university was called an elitist, a puppet of external powers. It did not sell much. Protests continued. The government said that our religious sensibilities were transgressed. At that point, Boğaziçi University took a defensive position: they sought legitimacy with statements such as that it is art, freedom of expression and cannot be censored. But these statements were not strong enough. But the next day, detentions started first outside, then inside the university. They [students] were not terrorists, not all of them could be perverts. But most importantly, they were children who managed to get into a university where everyone wanted to send their children. The society did not want to watch its ideals destroyed, so, the legitimacy turned in favor of children. It seems, this legitimacy game will continue for a while. You never know who wins the power games; indeed, it is not even clear whether there will ever be a winner. Because the moment someone secures a victory, a new game starts to knock them down. Unfortunately, the entire society is dragged into this game with its institutions and values. There is no turning back from here.

Cemre: What do you think will be the effects of this process when you consider Boğaziçi as an academic institution and see that the protests are widely supported both inside and outside? Perhaps, based on your past experiences?

Nükhet Sirman: Unfortunately, Boğaziçi, as an institution, will be wounded by this process. For a long time, universities are regarded as vocational schools by society. Asking questions, criticizing, taking a critical distance from the world and having a different perspective are no longer desired. Of course, there is also this aspect of resisting the appointment of a rector. This is a resistance against this understanding which sees education from a purely utilitarian point of view, defines the utility in favor of management and capital, and does not leave any room for another perspective in the university. Since the world is going in that direction, this understanding is very strong. I do not think that support from outside the university is interested in this detail. For the public, the impact of this resistance is to make the government’s legitimacy more questionable. On the one hand, police violence has become visible; on the other, the determined but calm stances of students and young people moved society. The general atmosphere is also conducive to this. From the pandemic to the economy, a feeling of anger, anxiety, pessimism caused by violence, particularly by the increase in femicides, prevails in the society. It seems that people are in need of taking a breath. I don’t know if the rector will resign, if the university administration will be democratically elected. But it is inevitable that academic life will be negatively affected by these experiences. Such an intervention in the university carries with it the possibilities of other interventions. Living with an anxiety of what is going to happen next means making anxiety a part of everyday life. One cannot do science living with such anxiety. I don’t know when or for whom the academy was an ivory tower, but now it is certain that it has been demolished.

Of course, this is not the first time it is demolished. I started as a faculty member at METU (Middle East Technical University) right after the September 12, 1980 coup d’etat. The university was still recovering from the Hasan Tan[1] era. The biggest issue was whether or not the faculty members should resign. There were new appointments in each department, new people who could control the university were placed at key positions of administration. YÖK (Higher Education Council) was trying to determine the departmental curricula and even the subjects to be taught in the course. In such an environment, the clash over who stays and who resigns caused a serious cleavage among the faculty members. This was the worst impact of that period. This is my experience. But since their establishment in the 1930s, in Turkey, the universities have always been institutions which were scared of and tried to be controlled. It has taken various forms. Those who were expelled from the Faculty of Language, History, and Geography (DTCF) with the communist hunt in 1948, the 147 of 1960, those who were relocated overnight on the grounds of the State of Emergency Legislation of the Law No. 1402, the trampled university gowns which later became the symbol of those who were expelled from the universities with decree-laws (KHK’lılar). Now, the state is trying to suppress freedom of thought by establishing a number of new universities and pushing them to the level of vocational schools. Because university professors very well know it, they resist appointments. And, Boğaziçi University faculty members constantly develop methods of collective decision-making, speaking, and discussing in order to act together in this context and avoid cleavages. This is the way through which the invaluable and often mentioned democratic culture of Boğaziçi develops. It is not carved in stone. It is produced and reproduced in the face of new events. I hope it is this knowledge of reproduction that will remain when everything is over.

Translator: İpek Tabur

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

[1] In 1977, students and academics of METU started a resistance against Hasan Tan, a figure from the far-right, who has been appointed as the rector of METU. (Editor’s note.)


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