Purge of Turkish Academics is “Staggering”


In the year since the attempted coup in Turkey, a “staggering” number of academics have faced criminal investigations, detentions, prosecutions, mass dismissal, expulsion and restrictions on travel, according to an open letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, signed by Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk (SAR), the New York University-based scholar rescue network, and reported in University World News.

Shortly after hundreds of thousands of people joined a mass rally in Istanbul on July 16 against the Erdoğan regime, the government announced that it had arrested almost 900 people over the previous week, including 72 university staff.  On July 13, the state announced that some 302 scholars had been dismissed from their jobs for their alleged links to the Gülen movement, which is blamed for the failed military coup.  Of those arrested all are from Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University and Istanbul Medeniyet University, the state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

According to Quinn, evidence strongly suggests academics are facing retaliation not for any participation in or support for the attempted coup but for the non-violent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.  He wrote: “These actions are not only attacks on individuals, but on the higher education sector in Turkey and on Turkish society generally.  If not quickly reversed, these actions will undermine Turkey’s status as an international center for learning and intellectual exchange.”  Quinn urged Erdoğan to “direct all necessary steps to reverse these dangerous and destructive actions,” in which more than 7,500 academics have been targeted and nearly 60,000 students have been displaced.

Quinn called on the Turkish president to:

  • Suspend any investigations, prosecutions, detentions, or other actions against individuals based solely on the non-violent exercise of the right to academic freedom, freedom of expression, or freedom of association;
  • Ensure the restoration of status for those denied access to study or to their professions based on such conduct;
  • Take the steps necessary to ensure that the State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission has the resources and independence needed to ensure just and swift resolution of wrongful dismissals and expulsions;
  • Ensure the restoration of passports and the right to travel for those affected by the actions described above, including persons dismissed from their positions and their families.

Following an “Academics for Peace” petition published in January 2016, all 1,128 signatories were placed under investigation and a large percentage were subsequently – mostly after the coup attempt – targeted with administrative, civil and criminal investigations, dismissals and expulsions, arrests and detentions, prosecutions and restrictions on travel.  According to one report last week, 372 were fired by decree or termination of their contracts.  On March 30, AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum and I issued a statement that called on the Turkish government “to stop the witch-hunt against Academics for Peace, respect academic freedom, free the arrested academics, and reinstate all the academics suspended or expelled during the persecution campaign with compensation.”

“The situation worsened dramatically following the government’s declaration of a State of Emergency in July 2016, with today more than 7,500 higher education personnel targeted directly, and over 60,000 higher education scholars, administrators and students materially affected by government and institutional actions,” Quinn wrote in his letter.

Since the arrests of the petition’s signatories, SAR has verified at least 1,035 detentions or warrants issued for higher education personnel, with 776 higher education personnel and students physically detained (whether or not a warrant was involved).

At the same time, SAR understands that at least 393 higher education personnel have been formally subjected to criminal charges, which include: making terrorist propaganda; membership in a terrorist organization; inciting people to hatred; insulting the Turkish nation; and membership in the Gülenist movement.

“The speed and scope of these actions and the related long-term detentions – often without charge – raise grave concerns about the objectivity and fairness of any investigation and proceedings,” Quinn said.

Turkish institutions of higher education have also been hit by mass dismissals and expulsions.  On July 23, 2016, two days after the declaration of the State of Emergency, the state ordered 15 universities closed, displacing some 56,000 students and leaving 2,808 academic personnel unemployed, Quinn noted.  Since then, the state has issued seven separate decrees ordering the dismissals of higher education personnel and expulsions of students. To date, these actions have rendered jobless some 8,039 academic personnel, as well as 1,193 administrative personnel.

Those individuals who have been permanently dismissed are also subject to a lifetime ban from applying to civil service positions, effectively ending their higher education careers in Turkey, Quinn said. Further, three emergency decrees have ordered the expulsion of 285 students studying abroad. Those decrees also provided that any scholarships supporting their studies abroad were to be cancelled, and that any degrees or certificates obtained abroad would not be recognized in Turkey.

SAR is aware of only 98 reinstatements – fewer than 2% of the scholars, staff and students dismissed or expelled as a result of the emergency decrees.

“The decrees have had a particularly harsh impact on many smaller institutions, which have lost a large portion of their teaching and research faculties,” SAR said. “For example, reports indicate that approximately 50% of academic personnel at Munzer University, and nearly 40% of faculty at Mardin Artuklu University, have recently been dismissed.”

Quinn noted that Decree 685, issued on 23 January 2017, established an entity known as the State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission, creating a formal appeals process.  The commission was expected to begin receiving applications on July 17.  “To represent a meaningful change of course and limit further harm, the commission must receive sufficient resources, support and independence to rectify all recent wrongful dismissals and expulsions, and restore those targeted to their previous positions,” Quinn said.

“The impacts of these actions go far beyond simple job losses. For the foreseeable future, they leave individual scholars unable to pursue their careers, to provide for their families, or even to travel outside of Turkey to seek jobs abroad,” he added. Dismissal of these scholars also denies Turkey’s higher education community substantial human and intellectual capital – losses that will compound over time, not only due to the loss of these scholars’ productive years of teaching and research, but also because the current targeting of higher education will lead fewer students to take up academic careers, and many academics still working in Turkey will likely seek opportunities elsewhere, Quinn added.

The short-term effects of the large-scale purge carried out by the Turkish government since the failed coup attempt a year ago include a 28% drop in research output of academics based in Turkey in 2017, according to a study published by Freedom for Academia, University World News reported earlier this month.  A state decree in September 2016 targeted 15,000 research assistants for their alleged links to the Gülen movement. They were part of an Assistant Professor Training Program (ÖYP) that was launched in 2010 to meet the need for academics in Turkey, Turkish Minute reported last week.

The numbers affected by all these actions, “as staggering as they are, reflect only publicly available, verifiable information. The actual number of persons already affected is in all likelihood higher, and actions against higher education personnel continue,” Quinn said.  Absent material evidence to the contrary – evidence that goes beyond mere words and allegations – the actions against higher education institutions, scholars, staff and students “strongly suggest retaliation for the non-violent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association”.

“Further, the speed and scope of these actions raise grave concerns about the objectivity and fairness of any investigations and proceedings. These concerns are underscored in cases of mass dismissals by government decree, restrictions on travel imposed on persons dismissed from their positions, and similar restrictions imposed on their family members.”

This Spring the AAUP Foundation’s Academic Freedom Fund announced a $10,000 grant to support Scholars at Risk’s Scholar Transition Project, which provides support and assistance to higher education professionals whose careers are upended due to external political upheaval, including placement at U.S. institutions of higher learning.  To learn more about how you can support our Turkish colleagues and Scholars at Risk’s efforts to defend academic freedom in Turkey go here.

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