On January 2, 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed five new ”rectors” (university presidents) to public universities. Erdoğan had removed democratic oversight to the rector appointment process four years before, while the country was under martial law. At Boğaziçi University — a public university in Istanbul that’s 150-year history has been dotted with student activism — Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu, a member of his party who had previously run for parliament. In recent years, seven professors from Boğaziçi have been tried for speaking out against the government’s continued violent policies in Kurdish territories, and numerous students have also been arrested in protests. Bulu’s appointment was widely seen in the university community as a move to bar student activism and quell academic freedom. 

On January 4, hundreds of Boğaziçi students, academic workers, and staff gathered on campus to call for the rector’s resignation. In the coming days, the crowds grew to over a thousand; despite the pandemic, citizens and union members joined the protestors on the streets of Istanbul and called for “solidarity against fascism.” Students began a six-week boycott of classes during the first week of the spring semester, and faculty staged daily vigils on the university campus and refused to work with the rector. Now, nearly three months later, the resistance continues. 

An uprising of this scale in response to the anti-democratic election of a university president puts in sharp relief the state of organizing at higher education in the United States. How anti-democratic are our universities? Can organizers at our universities stage and sustain a resistance of this scale? I spoke with Taylan Acar, an assistant professor and long-time labor activist who is part of the resistance, about organizing strategy and what labor organizers from the U.S. can learn from their comrades in Turkey.    

—Ege Yumusak

 

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Ege Yumusak: What brought you to teach at Boğaziçi? 

Taylan Acar: Boğaziçi is my alma mater. I did my undergraduate studies and masters there. Like all aspiring scholars at Boğaziçi, I wanted to go to the U.S. and come back to Turkey. I started my Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin - Madison in 2009. I was at the protests in 2011 at the Capitol and I’ve been to the Labor Notes get-togethers in Chicago several times. I became an active member of Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), AFT Local 3220, as the Vice President in charge of organizing, as part of the organizing committee, and as a shop steward in my department. I have been working at Boğaziçi for over three years in the Sociology Department. I’m now a member of Egitim-Sen, the union of education employees. Industrial unionism is the common organizing method in Turkey, so I sit side by side with all kinds of workers across eleven universities when I go to meetings at my local — Local Number 6, the Istanbul University Employees’ Local. 

 

EY: Give us some historical context. Where does Boğaziçi stand in higher education in Turkey?

TA: Boğaziçi had kept its autonomy thanks to its 150 years as a higher education institution and fifty years as a public higher education institution. Despite the fact that it was founded by Americans in 1861, it is today a public university that educates students from all over the country. But with the new appointment, we realized that this institution we worked to create might go away. Most of the faculty like me are graduates of Boğaziçi. We decided to stand up and take ownership of our university. After the protests started, the President said that he found the new rector very well fit for this university even though he has no experience in higher education and he does not know anything about teaching or academic matters. And we said no, the students said no, the alumna said no. The protests have been going on for 11 weeks now. We are asking for the resignation of the appointed rector. 

 

EY: How has the resistance evolved in the last two months? Who has joined the coalition, how were they brought into the coalition, and whose support are you still hoping to gain?

TA: Everyone at the university is part of the protest. Faculty are very adamant about it, in an unprecedented way. The students have been very active since day one, and, I have to say, they are more creative than we are. As faculty, at the vigil I referred to earlier, we have been turning our backs to the building of the rectorate, standing in silence for half an hour; we end with an applause, and on Fridays we read a press statement we prepare with the input of faculty during the week. But students have been filming video clips, writing songs, doing music videos for those songs, visiting friends under house arrest. They have been exposing themselves and taking more risks than we have been. We have also been doing interviews, writing articles (helpfully catalogued by our alumni on a website), holding panels. We are seeing this resistance as the beginning of university reform in Turkey. 

 

EY: Your main demand is that the appointed rector resigns. In addition to the resignation of this particular rector, are you demanding legislative change for all universities? Are there other demands?

TA: Yes, certainly. We have a commission on University Governance Structuring. They had a meeting with the High Education Council last month. What we propose is to overhaul the system of governance in Turkey. So, implicitly this is a demand for legislative change for all universities. Our other fundamental demand is the closure of the Law and Communication Schools (fakülte, in Turkish), which also were opened overnight with a presidential decree without any discussion at the university commissions and committees. Just like the rector appointment, one Saturday morning we woke up to two brand-new schools at the university. So far, the Dean of the Law School is appointed. And he does not meet any university-level appointment and promotion standards. Probably, the faculty who will be hired will be the same. And God only knows what kind of people they will be hiring. 

 

EY: Have there been any campaign wins? Is further escalation or a strike on the table? 

TA: We want to democratize the way universities are run and maintain academic freedom on college campuses. We haven’t achieved anything tangible yet but we have been hugely successful in one sense: the public has been discussing university reform for the past two months. Anyone you ask on the street will know about the Boğaziçi resistance and what we’re fighting for.  In terms of escalation, what we said from day one is that we don’t accept this appointment and that we won’t give up. When we say “we won’t give up,” we also mean that we will continue to do our jobs well and not let the government’s appointees take our university away from us. We believe in something I’ve chanted since my days in Wisconsin: “the university works because we do.” We won’t give up our teaching and research activities. We are well aware that if we leave some posts, there is a chance that they will be filled by the appointed rector. We won’t let that happen but we are being creative in finding ways of resistance and making these decisions as they come. For example, two days after the rector was appointed, I canceled my talks that were open to the public and intended to promote the university. 

For the moment, it is hard to say that we are escalating. A work stoppage is not on the table. I should add that we do not collectively bargain. Public employee unions do not have collective bargaining rights or the right to strike in Turkey. The federation of public employees unions engages in talks with the Ministry of Labor. For workers’ unions, collective bargaining takes place at the local or workplace level. 

We are relatively safe from dismissal. However, rectors in Turkey have unlimited authority over every single matter at universities. The reason Boğaziçi was so democratic and decentralized was thanks to its traditions and the understanding that people should be elected to their posts. In fact, we took pride that our rectors did not exercise their authority fully and delegated it to the schools and institutes. Almost the entirety of administrative or legislative positions, such as the University Senate, have been elected by the respective faculty members in the past. The appointed rector can, however, retaliate in a variety of ways. He can start investigations for a group of faculty as a scare tactic. Or he can refuse to sign your promotion to become an associate or a full professor. They can delay the hiring of teaching assistants or certifying your grant or application for an award. The admin in general has a word over even the course schedule. They apparently already cancelled courses of a few emeritus faculty, who continued teaching after their retirement. We have not faced these threats yet. They are still on the table though. 

 

EY: So, what goes into the planning of winning on a legislative demand? Could actions spread to other campuses through unions or student groups? 

TA: Unions are relatively weak on college campuses, even though we have members in most of the universities. In addition to challenges of organizing workers to become active members, there is another, pro-government, union that is challenging us for certification. On many campuses, pro-government groups engage in turf battles in order to curb real collective action. Two-thirds of the universities in Turkey were established after 2006, i.e., under the current government. So, they owe their existence to the government and so do the rectors, deans, and administrators. 

Despite the state of higher education and organizing, we received a series of support messages from across the universities. Students across universities waged protests and demonstrations to support our resistance. Everybody knows what we need is a legislative change in order to win autonomy and academic freedoms. We have received tremendous support from the public as well. 

 

EY: The selection process you’re describing is a very clear case: there’s no public input into it. I think organizers at universities in the U.S., both public and private, might recognize some authoritarian strands in the way their presidents are appointed as well. One palpable example here is that a previous head of the Department of Homeland Security has served as the President of University of California — a public institution — taking home millions of dollars and engaging the National Guard to break a strike. At University of Michigan, the decisions of another bad university president put residents of Michigan in danger because of repeated outbreaks of COVID-19. I’m hopeful that we could organize effectively here in the U.S. for ownership of our universities because of how high tuition is at public schools and because of how awful private universities have been in extracting resources from their communities by expanding into their neighborhoods and not making tax contributions despite their huge endowments. What I’m hearing from you is that Boğaziçi ultimately still serves the public and that changes your approach to organizing. How has the public response been to your demands? Does the fact that Boğaziçi is an elite institution that hires U.S.-educated faculty pose any challenges, even though you’re fighting for the common good?

TA: Yes, I am aware of most of these issues at American universities. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the most recent president of the University of Wisconsin system was selected by a search committee, which did not include any faculty member. Yes, we are at a different playing field. Our university is not investing in diamond mines in Cote d’Ivore or land in Brazil. Our endowment is probably .000001 something percent of those of the Ivy League schools. Yet, we are very much connected to the most important academic circles in the world, including the U.S., Japan, and Germany. Despite all that, we are a public institution, and we serve the public. We have fees, but there is no tuition.

We are being targeted by pro-government propagandists and media outlets because of our backgrounds. We are being accused of having ties to Soros, Rothschild family, American intelligence services, and what have you. That part of the story is like listening to AM Radio or Fox News in the U.S. — full of lies and conspiracy theories. Our students and colleagues are threatened by government officials, pro-government media, and social media trolls based on bigoted attacks over “indecency” and LGBTQ+ “ideas.” These threats are sometimes realized and people’s lives are put in jeopardy. 

Yet, the fact is that we have power: The support behind Boğaziçi comes from the fact that nine out of every ten parents, and nine out of every ten high school students in Turkey want to come to Boğaziçi. You can go out and ask around. This would be the answer you’ll get. Despite all the attacks in whatever form and with whichever troll army, this is the reason we have the support of the public. That’s why the appointed rector constantly seeks legitimacy claiming that he is a graduate of Boğaziçi.

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