Concerns Continue About Climate for Academics in Turkey

September 8, 2016

Letters and statements expressing concern about the climate for academics in Turkey continue to accumulate after the announcement last week that 2,346 academics had been fired for alleged links to the July 15 coup attempt. Since the failed coup, the Turkish government has suspended, dismissed and arrested professors; ordered the closure of 15 private universities; imposed professional travel restrictions on faculty; and ordered the resignation of all 1,577 university deans, the majority of whom have since reportedly been reinstated (more on that below).

“While we recognize that the attempted coup represented a threat to Turkish national security, and that the government must take legitimate precautions in the aftermath of that violence, mass firings of university faculty and staff have no rational relationship to such legitimate measures,” the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom wrote in a letter to Turkey’s prime minister Tuesday. “Instead, the mass firings suggest the continuation of a government campaign of intimidation, threats and attacks on academic freedom that began well before the attempted coup.”

The letter states that about 40 of the 2,346 fired academics were among the signatories of a January petition calling for an end to a Turkish military campaign against Kurdish rebels. Signatories of the Academics for Peace petition were accused by Turkey's president of "treason" and faced a range of reprisals even prior to the attempted coup, including criminal and university-level disciplinary investigations and terminations from academic positions.

In a statement on its website, the Academics for Peace group describes "[this] latest attempt to purge Academics for Peace by linking them to coup plotters" as "outrageous and unacceptable."

"Note that many of the signatories have already been under administrative investigations for signing the peace petition for months, without a conclusion," the statement says. "The dismissal of the signatories overnight with a fait accompli of a state of emergency decree is a serious violation of their basic human right to fair trial and due process."

A letter from Academics for Peace signatories at Ankara University sent to the European University Association accuses Ankara of failing to uphold academic values like freedom of expression promoted by the EUA -- of which it is a member -- and seeks the association's help in addressing the treatment of signatories, who, according to the letter, have been under investigation by the university since February and subject to a range of "unjust, unlawful administrative practices" including "suspending and delaying career promotion evaluation processes of the signatories, denying the signatories administrative permission for academic work abroad including fieldwork and conference attendance, and excluding signatories from financial funding for academic research that Ankara University provides to all its employees."

"This month, the university administration launched an intimidation campaign against us by spreading the word that we would lose our job if we do not withdraw our signatures," continues the letter, which notes that petition signatories at Ankara and elsewhere were among those fired in the emergency decree.

Administrators at Ankara University did not respond to email messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for EUA confirmed receipt of the letter, along with several others from Academics for Peace sent in conjunction with a meeting EUA held Tuesday with representatives of Turkey's Council of Higher Education (abbreviated YÖK). The rectors of Ankara and Istanbul Universities were among those in attendance.

“With 64 EUA member institutions and nearly seven million students, Turkey is an important part of the European Higher Education Area,” EUA President Rolf Tarrach said in a press release issued by the association about the meeting. “It is in the interest of the entire sector to promote dialogue and to work together towards preserving the fundamental values that universities share.”

In the press release, EUA reported that it received assurances from YÖK that 1,386 of the 1,577 deans forced to resign after the coup attempt had been reinstated. In July, YÖK described the resignations of the deans as a "precautionary measure" and said it was "very likely" most would be reinstated by their universities following investigations. The council described the forced resignations as a necessary step to "re-establish the autonomy of our universities" in light of concerns that coup plotters had infiltrated the country's universities and schools.

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