The war in Ukraine has further exposed the solidarity among autocratic rulers around the world. Their role in democratic decline and the erosion of the rules-based global order is well-recognized. What also deserves attention are the acts of resistance against authoritarian rule in many parts of the world. They manifest themselves in different forms, spanning from Ukraine’s military, political, and social defense against Putin’s Russia or mass protests in Hong Kong and Iran to less dramatic and visible acts that are just as important. One such example is the resistance of the faculty at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul against persistent government efforts to destroy that bastion of democratic thought, to make it yield to authoritarian dictates. Entering its third year, this resistance deserves greater coverage and international attention, as it encapsulates many aspects of the global struggle between democracy and autocracy.
We wrote two years ago when a decree by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed a loyalist of his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) with suspect academic credentials as rector to Boğaziçi University. This was done with total disregard for the established practice of consulting the academic community at Boğaziçi, a prestigious university in Turkey with a historic connection to the United States as the first American college founded overseas. The students, the crème de la crème of Turkey, who are the top scorers in an entrance exam taken by 2.5 million high school graduates every year, were swift to protest.
But their capacity for sustained collective action was largely curtailed by state intimidation that included police violence and arbitrary arrests. The faculty have been the only group that managed to resist with resolve, vigor, and great sacrifice to push back against the state’s assault on a culture of pluralism, tolerance, and academic excellence so painstakingly nurtured over decades.
Ironically, it was the faculty at Boğaziçi that had resisted the headscarf ban imposed in the 1990s. It was the era of Turkey as a fiercely secularist state before the Islamist-leaning AKP came to power. Though traditionally secular, the faculty cited the primacy of the right to education over any ideological divide and said devout students should be allowed to continue their education. They upheld equal access to education and merit over loyalty then, as they do today.
Another characteristic that defines this group of academics is the culture of collegiality they instituted and maintained over the years. They adhered to the principles of “horizontal, transparent, and inclusive” policymaking, a practice and culture at odds with the heavily centralized, hierarchical, and opaque presidential system of governance imposed by Erdoğan.
Silent Daily Protest
The president’s top-down approach was manifested once more when, in August 2021, after months of protest, he installed a new rector, yet another candidate fiercely opposed by the Boğaziçi community. In an informal vote before the appointment, 95 percent of the faculty had opposed that candidate. As a result of the appointment, a university of more than 15,000 students has since been run by this rector and a tiny number of loyalists. Their impunity and disregard for established procedures of decision-making by debate, consensus, and/or legitimate voting caused an uproar, leading all departments to stand together against their imposition. The photos of the Boğaziçi faculty standing, in their ceremonial gowns with their backs turned to the rector’s building, have since become the symbol of their resistance.
(Creative Commons BY 4.0 Can Candan, 2021)
Repeating this silent act for 15 minutes on every school day, rain or shine, for 500 days so far, they sought to peacefully but vividly express their indignation against a litany of violations: the removal of their colleagues from posts as elected heads of departments, schools and institutes; the arbitrary dismissal of faculty and disciplinary action taken against them based on tenuous charges; the recruitment of academic personnel and the opening of new schools, bypassing the decades-old procedures governing these processes; the burgeoning new cadres of loyalist academics brought in to ensure the majorities needed to shape internal decision-making; the threat to academic and personal privacy with attempts to give a private company access to their email communications; and reports that campus land is being considered for building by developers close to the government.
The faculty has complemented this daily peaceful gesture of protest with persistent efforts to use the few remaining tools of democracy in Turkey, administrative legal action being foremost among them. The faculty filed several lawsuits to overturn administrative decisions taken in violation of basic rights and academic principles, with 3 out of 52 so far concluding in their favor – a small but surprising manifestation of the limits of authoritarian hold over the judiciary. (The other cases are pending, as the process is known to be notoriously long.)
In another initiative, along with academics from other Turkish universities, the faculty at Boğaziçi have advanced legislative reform to ensure academic autonomy for all higher education institutions in the country. As they are careful to point out, the faculty have remained committed to maintaining the quality of education in their institution while carrying on with their activism. Teaching and doing research have since turned into another way of manifesting defiance.
Part of the Broader Struggle – in Turkey and Beyond
This defiance is more than just a struggle for academic freedom and autonomy. It is also part of the broader global struggle against autocratic rule, a defense of basic rights and the rule of law, paramount to democratic governance. As a collective act, it showcases one of the many different forms of democratic resilience that are emerging in many countries around the globe to counter the well-known methods used by autocrats. The very fact that the resistance at Boğaziçi is occurring as Turkey enters the centenary year of its foundation as a republic and approaches critical presidential and parliamentary elections this year — the exact date awaits another presidential decision — lends it even more significance. The outcome of these elections will determine whether Turkey, at this pivotal point in its history, gets a chance to reverse the backsliding of its democracy.
Erdoğan resorts to every possible means to remain in power. Top among them is the restriction of free speech, placing Turkey in 149th place on a press freedom index of 180 countries issued annually by the French nonprofit Reporters Without Borders. It is no wonder that most citizens in Turkey are unaware of the struggle at Boğaziçi. According to one poll, almost 50 percent of respondents in the country were not aware of what was happening at Boğaziçi. Of those who knew about it, 80 percent opposed the idea of rectors being appointed without consulting faculty and 83 percent believed faculty should elect their rector.
Academics are not the only ones in Turkey who clearly are cognizant of the importance of using democratic tools to stop the erosion of the basic tenets of a pluralist, egalitarian, and just society. For example, women, a sizeable voter base, have long mobilized in various forms, using different methods, but generally gathering on issues of gender equality, socially imposed behavioral codes, and protection against violence. They were especially visible in their opposition to yet another presidential decree that in 2021 pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention, a legally binding Council of Europe agreement to prevent violence against women — ironically, a convention once promoted by Erdoğan. Members of the LGBT+ community have been determined to hold the yearly Pride parades despite a ban since 2015 and the accompanying police violence. Another pocket of resistance is environmental activists, who have demonstrated several times in different parts of the country, not only to protest projects that may be harmful to the environment, but to raise objections to the lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
To counter all this opposition, Erdoğan and his associates have exerted vast control over the media and the judiciary. The most visible example of eroding judicial independence is the case of Osman Kavala, a civil society activist and philanthropist who now has been jailed for more than 1,900 days on spurious charges once dismissed by a court only to be reinstated and upheld just last month, in a ruling condemned internationally as violating the rule of law.
For the upcoming elections, Erdoğan relies on other like-minded rulers to ensure an outcome in his favor. The financial assistance he receives from what he terms as “friendly” countries, including Azerbaijan, China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, help him sustain his spending largesse to win votes. Among this cohort of autocrats, Erdoğan’s close relations with Putin stand out despite his professed claim to be keeping a “balanced approach” to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his address to the joint session of the U. S. Congress on Dec. 21, drew a parallel between Ukraine’s defense against Russia and the defense of democracy against autocracy. Indeed, Ukraine’s struggle can be seen as occupying one extreme — in its intensity and blood sacrifice — of a wide spectrum of battles; varying in degree, method, or immediate objectives, but they are fought for the same common idea of upholding the rule of law and democratic values against the onslaught of authoritarianism.
The faculty at Boğaziçi has earned a rightful place in the fellowship of those standing for democratic governance, cultural pluralism, tolerance, primacy of merit over loyalty, scholarship over dogma. They deserve recognition beyond the few liberal media outlets in Turkey and the academic world. If they lose their fight, it would bring Turkey another giant step closer to the camp of the autocrats.