A new report on threats to academic freedom around the world in the past year records more attacks on higher education in Turkey than in any other country covered, as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to retaliate against alleged supporters of an attempted coup in July 2016.
Since last September, the report says, more than 7,000 faculty and staff members at universities in Turkey have been dismissed from their jobs, and nearly 300 students have been expelled, under emergency decrees issued by Erdoğan’s government. (See related article: “Turkish Academics Pay Harsh Penalties for the Failed Coup”.)
The report, titled Free to Think 2017, was produced by the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project of the Scholars at Risk Network, a nonprofit organization based at New York University. The report details 257 reported attacks in 35 countries.
Efe Sevin, a Turkish academic who contributed to the report and now works at Reinhardt University in the state of Georgia, in the United States, said in an interview that Turkey’s institutions of higher education are seen as the last stronghold of opposition to President Erdoğan, who in recent years has consolidated executive power in his own hands. He began a crackdown on faculty members seen as disloyal after more than 1,000 academics signed a petition in January 2016 opposing the government’s harsh response to protests in the country’s Kurdish region. (See related article: “Turkish Crackdown on Dissent Muzzles Professors.”)
“In most incidents,” the Scholars at Risk report says, “authorities have sought the detention or prosecution of scholars, staff and students, on suspicion of having alleged connections with Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric self-exiled in the U.S. who Turkish authorities claim was responsible for the coup attempt.”
One decree issued under the continuing state of emergency that Erdoğan declared last year enables an academic to be dismissed on grounds of “supporting terrorism,” without elaboration. Dismissal on these grounds remains on an individual’s official employment record, endangering future employment prospects.
Employees of state-run institutions are hit especially hard by this kind of dismissal, as it bars them from future government employment. They also risk losing university-owned housing and the special passport issued to government employees, Sevin said.
A climate of fear now prevails in universities, where academics fear making any kind of comment in the classroom about government or politics, he added.
“The purges of thousands of academics will have a long-term impact on higher education in Turkey,” Sevin said. “We have lost an entire generation of scholars.”
The dismissals have left many courses without instructors, disrupted research programs, and left students without advisers to oversee their theses, the report says.
Other incidents highlighted in the report, in Turkey and elsewhere, reflect authorities’ increasing concern over the use of social media. The report notes that in Turkey, at least 553 university employees and students have been taken into custody or named in warrants on suspicion of using an encrypted messaging application to organize anti-government protests. The application, called Bylock, was written by amateur developers and had weak security features that government officials were able to crack.
Cases from Arab countries reflect a similar focus on monitoring and cracking down on the use of social media.
- In December 2016, a student of journalism at Lebanese International University was arrested for publishing a Facebook post critical of the government.
- In August 2017, a professor of neuropsychiatry at Zagazig University, in Egypt, was suspended from his job in response to allegedly blasphemous comments posted on Facebook. The professor said his Facebook account had been hacked.
- In March 2017, a lecturer in English literature at Suez University, in Egypt, was suspended after a short video of her dancing on the roof of her apartment building was posted on Facebook. The lecturer, Mona Prince, was also disciplined for allegedly introducing “controversial” issues in a class on English literature.