Turkey's Fraying International Ties

A crackdown on Turkey’s higher education sector after a failed coup has far-reaching effects for fraying academic collaboration and exchange.

July 29, 2016
Entrance to Istanbul University

A crackdown on Turkey’s higher education sector is hurting international academic collaborations and student and scholar exchanges.

A joint statement signed by 42 American and European scholarly groups describes what’s happening in Turkey as a “massive and virtually unprecedented assault” on principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression and says “the crackdown on the education sector creates the appearance of a purge of those deemed inadequately loyal to the current government.”

Since a July 15 coup attempt, Turkey’s government has reportedly suspended, detained or placed under investigation tens of thousands of soldiers, police officers, judges, teachers and civil servants in a push to rid government and educational institutions of suspected followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government accuses of being behind the failed coup (Gülen has denied any involvement). It has ordered the closure of 15 universities and 1,043 private schools suspected of links to Gülen. The government has also reportedly detained academic staff, suspended four university rectors and demanded the resignation of all university deans, 1,577 of them. In a statement about the forced resignations, the Council of Higher Education described it as “a precautionary measure” and said it is “very likely” most universities will reinstate the deans after an investigation.

“The failed coup attempt in Turkey has provided strong signals that the responsible clandestine and illegal armed organization may have penetrated into our higher education system and this illegal organization may have established strong links with the schools and universities nationwide,” the council’s statement said. “The resignation of the deans should be regarded as a precautionary measure to facilitate and precipitate the implementation of the necessary steps to re-establish the autonomy of our universities by severing possible ties with these clandestine and illegal organizations.”

The effects of recent events on academic exchange are many. At least one major academic conference in Turkey has been canceled. Study abroad to Turkey, already scaled back due to terrorist attacks, is being further curtailed. Some foreign academics who research Turkey report feeling unsafe or uneasy about traveling there, particularly if they have been outspoken in their criticism of the government. A nationwide ban on professional academic travel -- which has been eased somewhat, to allow academics to travel with permission of their university rectors -- has prevented Turkish scholars from taking up visiting posts and pursuing opportunities abroad.

Even before the attempted coup, many observers expressed concerns about what they characterize as a worsening climate for academic freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian administration. Erdoğan is a member of what The New York Times describes as the “conservative Islamist” Justice and Development (AKP) party.

In the most sweeping academic freedom case, more than 1,000 Turkish professors who signed a petition in January calling for the military to end its campaign against Kurdish separatists were accused by Erdoğan of “treason” and have since faced a variety of repercussions. Over a series of letters to Turkish government officials, the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom raised alarm over what it described as “a broad pattern of persecution” aimed at the signatories “encompassing suspensions and terminations of academics from positions at universities, detention, interrogation and prosecution of faculty members by overzealous prosecutors, and a spate of threats and attacks against academic signatories by vigilante actors.”

“Earlier this year, it was already clear that the Turkish government, in a matter of months, had amassed a staggering record of violations of academic freedom and freedom of expression,” says the aforementioned joint statement signed by MESA and 41 other academic groups, including the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association. “The aftermath of the attempted coup may have accelerated those attacks on academic freedom in even more alarming ways.”

Short- and Long-Term Effects

Paul T. Levin, the director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, described a range of ways academic collaboration has been affected by recent events in Turkey. He said one Turkish researcher set to come to the institute in Stockholm this summer to discuss a potential research collaboration had to cancel the trip due to the travel restrictions imposed. It’s unclear if a second professor who is scheduled to come as a visiting scholar will be able to.

At the same time, Levin said, he’s received increasing numbers of requests for employment at Stockholm from Turkish scholars and foreign scholars based at Turkish universities.

“There’s a short-term and a long-term consequence of this,” Levin said. “The immediate [travel] ban, and these restrictions, they of course hinder academic exchanges, but in the longer term I think what we’ll see is what we’ve already started to see, a brain drain. Some of the best and brightest in Turkish academia are increasingly trying to seek work outside the country.”

“One thing that I’ve noticed for some time but it seems to be getting even stronger in Turkey is the self-censorship among academics,” Levin added. “People are very worried about writing openly about sensitive topics in Turkey, unfortunately. And with the heightened atmosphere and very aggressive atmosphere post-July 15, that’s just going to make it worse.”

Two U.S.-based organizations that offer fellowships to scholars who feel they are at risk in their home country report receiving significant numbers of applications from Turkish scholars in recent days.

Sarah Willcox, the director of the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, said in a statement that “applications from scholars in Turkey have inundated the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund at a rate higher and faster than what we witnessed at outset of the crisis in Syria.”

Rose Anderson, the acting director of protection services at the Scholars at Risk Network, said Thursday that the organization had received 36 applications for assistance from scholars in Turkey since the attempted coup, on top of 56 other applications received since January.

“Many of those that reach out to us report being suspended and/or dismissed from their university posts, and others report being restricted from traveling abroad without their home university’s authorization,” Anderson said via email. “Some also fear arrest and/or physical violence. They also report seeing little recourse for the actions taken against them in the current declared state of emergency and the widespread uncertainty of what will happen next. We have also received applications from those outside Turkey who fear returning to the country in the current climate -- some of whom have been ordered back and threatened with dismissal if they do not comply.”

Foreign Researchers in Turkey

Foreign researchers continue to work in Turkey. But some foreign scholars of Turkish studies have expressed unease or worse about returning to the country where they do their research.

“I know from talking with fellow academics there is some trepidation about going, especially if you’ve been outspoken about what’s going on,” said Kent Schull, an associate professor of Ottoman and Modern Middle East History at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

“What’s being monitored?” Schull asked. “Are Facebook pages being monitored, is there going to be a problem getting in, getting access?”

Kemal Silay, the director of the Turkish studies program at Indiana University, described it as “unthinkable” to return to Turkey, his home country, any time soon.

“Due to my predominantly academic needs, I have been a frequent traveler to Turkey,” Silay said via email. “But now, I would not feel safe to travel there anymore. I am not only a university professor but also a public intellectual and activist. I am a Muslim but I have been an outspoken critic of Islamism. I am convinced that Islamism (not Islam) is a scary form of fascism, and I have been fighting this fascism for decades. For the Islamists, I am a very clear target.”

Silay described what’s happening right now as “the biggest witch hunt in Turkey’s modern history. Anti-Erdoğan intellectuals in general and secular academics in particular are being targeted.” Silay said he has many leftist and secular academic friends in Turkey who have been branded “traitors” or “terror supporters.”

“Using the so-called coup attempt as a pretext, I expect Turkey to be ruled as a civilian fascist dictatorship for years,” Silay said. “Under the ‘rules and regulations’ of such regimes, scholars and students, journalists, artists, anyone with a dissenting voice, they suffer the most. It is hard to predict the entire picture at this point, but obtaining visas, receiving permits for research at libraries, conducting interviews, organizing conferences or activities on Turkish literature, arts, cultural activities, inviting free-minded scholars and journalists even to our own campuses here in the United States, all will be extraordinarily difficult given the fact that Erdoğan supporters right now throughout the world are declaring and reporting whomever they don’t like or whoever may disagree with them as ‘terrorists.’”

Nancy Leinwand, the executive director of the American office for the American Research Institute in Turkey, which is supported by a consortium of about 50 U.S. universities, said it’s difficult to tell what the impact of this month’s events will be on American researchers. On the one hand, she said she doesn’t expect day-to-day operations at ARIT to change much. On the other, she said that things like permits for archaeological digs could be impacted by changes in personnel or in attitudes. In addition, she said continuing concerns about the risk of terrorism -- which predate the coup attempt -- could lead to a reduction in the number of scholars coming to the institute’s research centers in Ankara and Istanbul.

The questions for researchers, Leinwand said, are “do I feel safe” and “can I get my work done.”

Leinwand said one of the scholars at the institute doing sociological research this summer chose to leave Turkey early. Another scholar doing archival research who originally planned to leave opted to stay. ARIT’s summer language program at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University is continuing, though one of the students left early.

“That particular group took a boat trip on the Bosporus yesterday up to the Black Sea, had a picnic and swam,” Leinwand said Tuesday.

Study Abroad

In other cases study abroad programs have been canceled or relocated.

It’s not only the attempted coup and the government response that concerns U.S. universities. A series of terrorist attacks prompted some universities to suspend or cancel their study abroad programs there even before the events of this summer. A terror attack at Istanbul’s airport in June killed 45 people.

A U.S. Department of State travel warning, updated Tuesday, warns of increased threats of terrorist attacks in Turkey and advises American citizens to “reconsider” travel to the country and “avoid” travel to the southeast, particularly near the Syrian border. The warning also makes note of the State Department’s decision to authorize the voluntary departure of family members of American embassy and consulate employees following the attempted coup and subsequent declaration by the Turkish government of a 90-day state of emergency.

It was after the coup attempt that Duke University placed Turkey on its list of restricted regions, a move that means undergraduates who want to travel there would have to petition for the right and graduate students would have to sign a special waiver (faculty travel is unaffected). Duke sponsored a summer service program in Dalyan, Turkey, that concluded three days before the coup attempt.

“The factor that put it on the restricted regions list was the attempted military coup, the state of emergency and just a sense that we had that Turkey had become a volatile place,” said Eric Mlyn, the chair of Duke’s Global Travel Advisory Committee and assistant vice provost for civic engagement. “Once the coup took place it just became clear to us that we couldn’t even guarantee normal security in Turkey given the upheaval in police forces and the armed forces. Once that upheaval became clear to us, it just made sense to take a break.”

The American Councils for International Education, which administers multiple federally funded study abroad programs in Turkey, had already pulled its programs out of the country for the summer. The American Councils made alternative arrangements for students in the summer Critical Language Scholarship and Turkish Language Flagship programs to study in Turkish language programs at universities in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, respectively.

Dan E. Davidson, the executive director of the American Councils, said the intention though midsummer had been to return to Turkey for the academic year Turkish Language Flagship program, but that plans changed after the attempted coup. Instead, he said the advanced Turkish language students enrolled in the program will attend a university with a Turkish language program in Baku, Azerbaijan. They will live with Turkish host families and study Azeri as a second language.

Academic Conferences

At least one major academic group, the European International Studies Association, has canceled a planned conference in Turkey.

“Under present circumstances, it has become impossible to guarantee a safe and secure environment for EISA’s 10th Pan-European Conference, which was supposed to take place in Izmir from 7 to 10 September 2016,” the organization said in a statement.

“Over the past months, and following the persecution of academic colleagues who had signed the Academics for Peace petition in January, the EISA board has been clear in its criticism of the course of action taken by the Turkish government,” the statement continues. “At the same time, we have always said that it is because of the concern for Turkish colleagues that we need to engage with them rather than withdraw from Izmir as a venue. While we still think that this policy has been the right one, the course of events since [July 15] have made it impossible to proceed with PEC-16, and have forced us to take the decision to cancel PEC-16 against our declared intentions.”

University Partnerships and Centers

Columbia University has a center in Istanbul, one of eight global centers it has around the world.

Columbia’s executive vice president for global centers and global development, Safwan M. Masri, initially stated a willingness to be interviewed for this article but then indicated, through an assistant, he was unavailable. The university’s media relations office issued a statement instead: “The employees of the Columbia Global Center in Istanbul are accounted for and safe, and the center is open. We have also reached out to the more than 150 Columbia students, faculty and scholars who are Turkish citizens. Columbia’s commitment to academic freedom, uninhibited intellectual inquiry and open debate is a defining principle of our institution, and we continue to monitor developments in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt.”

SUNY Binghamton typically enrolls a little more than 300 Turkish students a year through dual-degree and exchange programs with three Turkish universities -- Bilkent, Istanbul Technical and Middle East Technical Universities -- and also has (nondual degree) exchange agreements with Boğaziçi and Koç Universities. Those programs are continuing: Oktay Sekercisoy, the senior director for global strategy, education abroad and international partnerships, said Binghamton has seen increased interest in the dual-degree programs from Turkish students since the coup attempt. Turkish students begin selecting their universities today.

Sekercisoy said he has been closely watching the news from Turkey since the coup attempt, watching for every sign, positive and negative, of the direction Turkish academia is going. One crucial indicator he’s watching involves the reappointments of the deans -- whether many of those who have been asked to resign will be reinstated, and whether the reappointments seem to be based on merit rather than political and ideological affiliation.

Brian Silverstein, an associate professor of anthropology and director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Turkish Studies, described the actions against deans as a “a move against the autonomy of the universities; the real test will be the process for appointing deans in the future.” Arizona has formal partnerships with two Turkish universities, Boğaziçi and Dokuz Eylül Universities.

“I’ve been concerned about the overall worsening of academic freedom and the work conditions of academics in Turkey for several years now, after a few years when it seemed things were getting better on this front, especially compared to the 1980s or 1990s,” Silverstein said via email. “It’s clear that the universities and schools shut down are Gülen-linked ones, and the vast majority of teachers and academics targeted have been as well, but it’s still not clear if these purges everywhere are happening to Gülen-related people only. So far (and this could change) it seems that’s the case, because the media oppositional to the AKP are not reporting, for instance, that secularists who have been outspoken in opposition to the AKP are being fired.”

“Will these purges be followed by moves that further deteriorate the conditions for independent, critical inquiry at Turkish universities?” Silverstein asked. “That is what I am watching for, and if that happens then my university might need to revisit its relationships with Turkish universities. I very much hope that does not come to pass.”


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