Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Bogazici University’s new rector, Melih Bulu, was met with protests from day one.
At his handing over ceremony, on January 5th 2021, university staff turned their backs on him and the rectorial building in peaceful protests. Chants of ‘Melih Bulu is not our rector’ have been heard on campuses in several Turkish cities, and more than 500 students have been detained, some facing charges. The NUS has made a statement of solidarity with the Turkish student union, Öğren-Sen.
But this isn’t just about one rector, or one university. Opposition to Bulu has had influence beyond Bogazici campus, and the reason why his appointment is controversial gives us clues as to why this is.
Firstly, BU has traditionally had a rector selected by the faculty. Melih Bulu was appointed. Secondly, Bulu wasn’t appointed for his qualifications, but because he is a member of the ruling AK Party, being president of a whole branch in 2002. Student protesters have called him a ‘kayuum‘ (or government-appointed trustee) for this reason.
The second reason explains why the backlash has gone beyond simply BU campus. President Erdogan has tried to clamp down on academic freedom before, in an attempt to quash opposition to him. Thousands of academics have faced dismissal and sanctions. Eğitim-Sen, the Turkish higher education union, has been part of the resistance to this purge, and have also given a statement of support for the protests, saying; ‘Boğaziçi University… has taken a stance that will not be erased from the pages of our political history… Advocating that the rectors should be elected rather than appointed.’
This has also become an international issue for students and academics, including in the UK. The University and College Union (UCU) has passed a motion of solidarity with their sister union in Turkey, Eğitim-Sen, saying: ‘UCU expresses its solidarity with staff and students at Boğaziçi University – and throughout Turkey – in their defence of academic freedom, university autonomy and democracy.’
Larissa Kennedy, President of the NUS, said this in a statement issued in February: ‘Students have warned that Erdogan is determined to silence them as he fears the demonstrations becoming a “new Gezi” – the 2013 protests that garnered international support and nearly brought down the government.’
But why should this be important to students at Southampton beyond just being a humanitarian concern?
In the NUS statement they describe themselves as ‘an internationally engaged national union that seeks to organise for social justice in solidarity with other students across the world.‘ Our own union, SUSU, is not a member of the NUS, but I don’t think any student at Southampton would be against a similar statement of support for those students in Turkey, who are facing all manner of threats to their freedoms.
It is also an important part of being ‘internationally engaged‘ in any field (whether it’s student protests in Turkey, or developing a Covid-19 vaccine) that we don’t just export solidarity, but that it informs our own politics. There are examples of solidarity between university students and staff in the UK, during the 2018-2022 strikes of university workers. Students occupied buildings at many universities, and polls show that a majority supported the strikes.
There are also lessons on another front – regarding that of our freedoms on campus, as students and academics. The student protests in Turkey demonstrate that we should take the threats from government to free speech on campus seriously. NUS and Liberty have been critical of the Prevent strategy for its ‘chilling effect‘ on free speech. There’s been something of a moral panic recently over free speech on campus, largely centred around Student Unions. Stories about banter bans and comparisons between SUs and Maoist red guards abound.
However, the biggest threat to free speech on campus remains the government. Recently, Gavin Williamson has proposed government-appointed ‘free speech champions‘ at universities in response to the previously mentioned panic, a strategy that has been widely criticized as counter-productive. Liberty, the NUS and others have noted this would only make the ‘chilling effect‘ on campus much worse, rather than protecting students. Perhaps that’s the actual aim of this proposal.
The UK clearly has its own questions to do with freedoms on campus, from government interventions that do more to chill free speech than protect students, as they’re claiming to. What we can learn from the Turkish protests is to take the threat of government intervention on campus seriously.