ODTÜ targeted because of polarization in Turkish society, says rector

ODTÜ targeted because of polarization in Turkish society, says rector

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
ODTÜ targeted because of polarization in Turkish society, says rector

'We have been telling people all along - we believe that liberties are part of university life but people should refrain from violence in their demonstrations,' says Rector Acar, speaking in his office on campus. DAILY NEWS photos, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) is being targeted because of its independent critical stance, according to its rector.

“When you have so few people voicing criticism, you become an outlier. We are not doing anything different than what we have done in the past 50 years,” said Professor Ahmet Acar on the recent contention linked to the municipality’s controversial urban development plans that have drawn a strong reaction not only among the university community but also among those living in the area.

The dispute pits ODTÜ against the government authorities, making the university a victim of the polarization in Turkish society, according to Acar.

How do you position
ODTÜ? What does ODTÜ mean to you?

It is difficult to express a concept in a few words. It’s an out of the ordinary model for the Turkish education and research environment. From the very start, ODTÜ meant a different approach to education: to raise society’s future citizens, not only the required man power for industry or economy, but training future leaders for modern society. ODTÜ meant to also develop critical technology as required by societial needs. Our university has been indispensable in the development of very critical organizations in different sectors, ranging from electronics to defense, from banking to construction and chemical industries.

From the 70’s onwards when our first graduates started to assume important positions in society, the “ODTÜ Impact” was felt. Today, maybe with the exception of the medical sector, we see ODTÜ graduates in very influential positions, not only in Turkey but abroad as well.

What is
ODTÜ’s philosophy, if we are talking about raising future citizens?

ODTÜ means independent inquiry; it means asking questions. You should have the mental set up to ask your own questions, and conduct independent research to seek answers or solutions. When you are scientifically-minded you don’t take anything for granted. After all, science is a culture of doubt. ODTÜ is about asking for the best, and working to make the best happen, whatever it takes to reach the best solution. It is a search for excellence as such.

Where do you place it worldwide?

It is an internationally-recognized and respected institution with a very strong regional impact. It is one of the main partners of all research and higher education institutions abroad when it comes to this geograpical region - Eurasia and the Middle East. We have students from 100 countries. This is the reason we are placed in the 51-60 band of the top 100 “World Universities by Reputation” by Times Higher Education, a highly-respected British instituiton that functions as a global authority on higher education.

Lately however the university has been in the headlines, obviously not because of its academic performance. What’s going on?

This is not the first time we find ourselves in a clash with authorities. ODTÜ has always remained independent and autonomous. We had problems with the military regime in 1960’s, we had problems with rightist governments, social democrats, and the military regime in the 1980’s, given that we spoke our mind. This is what a university should be all about. ODTÜ is a large community: we have 27 thousand students, 5,000 academic and administrative staff, 110 thousand plus alumni. People would inevitably have different political views, but they also speak their mind. So what has happened here is that some of our students and faculty members have reacted to recent developments, and the basic call is for the improvement of the democratic system, enforcing internationally accepted democratic standards and the promotion of individual rights. There have been calls on different issues such as reforming higher education law, for instance. Everybody seems to think that the current higher education law needs to be reformed, but nothing is being done about it. These calls for enhanced liberties and a more democratic society inexorably produce a view that this university is against the current government. We are a university – we are not for or against any political party. If we live in a democratic society, people should welcome harsh criticism and protests coming from academia.

Although you said the university has people of different points of view, it is however believed to be rather left-leaning.

There are people among the ODTÜ family, I am sure, who have voted for the current government as well as against it. There are cabinet ministers, many high-level civil servants and politicians from different political parties among our alumni. It is not easy to label one large community as for something or against something. The perception may be there because there are so few institutions or even academics that are willing to criticize. When you have so few people voicing criticism, you become an outlier or out of the ordinary. We are not doing anything different than what we have been doing for the past 50 years.

But has
ODTÜ been very vocal in its criticisms? Has it been a focal point of an open opposition?

Some people would like to see ODTÜ as a symbol of opposition, some see it as the target that should be fought against. ODTÜ is a university; it is not a political party, it is not the mechanism of a political movement. I think this is one phase of our democratic development that we need to go through. Our society is now very polarized, unfortunately. People in traditional societies would use some authority as reference, to make their decisions rather than asking questions themselves, doing independent assessments, and coming up with individual decisions on crucial political or societal problems. People in a typically traditional society tend to select a leader to lead them, listening to him or her in order to advise them as to what is right or wrong. In a traditional society, this behavior tends to reinforce polarization, and increased polarization consolidates your side of the fault-line. In this polarized environment, you need easy symbols and targets. This is what I talk about when I say ODTÜ has become a symbol for a group of people. And another group have set ODTÜ as a target, (saying) this is the source of our problems, this is the symbol we have to deal with.

So you are telling me ODTÜ is a target due to polarization among society and also due to its independent stance.

Yes. There may be a higher proportion of people with leftist views in the university, but it does not mean we do not have faculty members or students with different point of views. There are also people close to the current government; they have a very easy life on the campus, and that’s part of the freedom in the university environment. We have many projects that are going on with many government organizations, as well as private firms. It is not as if the university is not collaborating with the ministries.

But I have heard that
ODTÜ has been denied funding, project approvals, faculty appoinments?

This is true. We are one of few Turkish universities that can compete internationally. If you look at universities in Europe, Russia, and Iran, for example, all these countries have developed extraordinary measures to support universities that can compete internationally, and particularly with American universities. In contrast here in Turkey, because of the increasing number of new public universities, the current administration has decreased its funding, at least in proportional terms, of the more established universities to support the newly established ones. This has of course taken a toll, although we are not talking about absolute reductions in our budgets.

We also have had difficulties in getting faculty slots. Even though our student numbers, our research activities have reached the highest levels to date, the number of our faculty members has remained stagnant. This is the general background, but during last year we had extra problems in getting approval for new faculty appointments from YÖK (Higher Education Board). For example, an applicant had waited for more than 3 months to gain approval, until she accepted a position at Stanford University.

So recent incidents are not about some urban planning schemes but they are rather politically motivated.

Recent incidents about the new roadway have been very much mishandled. This is a roadway the university has approved for the last 20 years. Part of the problem is that this road was not built during the last 20 years, during which time a whole new neighborhood has developed. Residents now resent the fact that a major roadway is being built in their neighborhood.

What we said is that “ok, we are legally bound to approve this roadway. But there is widespread opposition; the university administration is not the only affected party. Talk to all the stakeholders, explain the project, listen to the complaints. Maybe there could be some modifications to the project in order to reach a compromise.”

Unfortunately the municipality’s approach was far from it, and the project became a major political issue. The resistance and clashes continued. But the municipality moved in as a night-time raid on our campus and started building the road without waiting for the due process.

What is the due process since you had already given your consent.

For the past two years, we have been negotiating with the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, and we thought we had reached an agreement on our master plan, which includes this roadway. Based on this understanding, we submitted our proposed master plan to the Ministry last May. However, the Ministry approved the plans with some major modifications. The legal procedure involves the announcement of the plan’s approval and a month’s window of opportunity for all relevant or possible stakeholders to raise their objetions, if necessary. The decision is not final until the period for raising an objection to the project expires.

The period will expire on the 4th of November; however, the municipality moved in on Oct. 18, during the religious holiday. They started construction, which is not legal. Secondly, they cut down more than 3000 trees, at least 630 of which that could have been moved. This is a very serious violation of national forestry laws. We are talking about cutting down trees in a forest area, certified as a natural site. Even to move one tree, you need to get the permission of the Ministry of Forestry. Instead, all the trees were cut down overnight. We had prepared an area on campus for these trees to be replanted. We have taken the case to court, and filed complaints with the Interior Ministry.

It is also not the first time the university has experienced problems with the municipality. As ODTÜ sits on 4000 hectares of land; many think the municipality is after the last remaining green area in Ankara.

That’s definitely the case, and the current mayor has made no secret of the fact that he would like to get his hands on the university’s lands, especially the Eymir lake. Six years ago, he condemned 45 clusters of university buildings to demonition, claiming they have no construction permits. Of course, this was turned down by the courts. But as he admitted on TV recently, the real reason the municipality had made such a decision was because some of our faculty members had expressed opposing views (to the municipality’s projects) when they were assigned as experts by the courts.

How do you connect Gezi events with the ODTÜ incidents?

People who have been participating in the Gezi movement or opposing them, have associated ODTÜ incidents with Gezi as an overall opposition to a heavy-handed government. It is seen by some as related to Gezi protests. But comparatively it is a more localized issue.

No matter what the connection is, we have been telling people all along - we as a university believe that liberties and individual freedoms are part of university life and of democratic society, and people should feel free to express their opinions, get organized to raise their voices, but on the other hand people should refrain from violence in their demonstrations. Unfortunately, there have been so many clashes with the police who have used tear gas quite liberally. It is a type of blanket reaction that does not discriminate even innocent by-standers.

What do you expect next?

So far we have tried to solve the issue with as little confrontation as possible, but we have not seen a similar approach from the municipality. We have issues to be settled with the Ministry of Environment, and we hope these issues will be solved without a need to go to court. But we will take our complaints to the court if they are not settled amicably.

Who is Ahmet Acar?

Dr. Acar is a professor of business administration. His areas of interest are strategic management, entrepreneurship, and quantitative decision methods. He has served as board chair and member of several organizations and companies.

He has extensive research experience and provided management training and counseling to a wide array of private and public organizations, with a number of publications on strategic management, innovation, small business management, and quantitative decision methods.

At Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), he has served as chair of the Department of Business Administration, Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, as well as Vice-Rector, and founding Rector of ODTÜ Northern Cyprus Campus. In August 2008, he was appointed as Rector of ODTÜ.