Turkish universities warm up once again

Turkish universities warm up once again

There were two protest rallies in Ankara on Dec. 21. One of them was on the campus of the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) by students, professors and workers of the university. Some of them left the campus afterward by car and bus and joined another rally downtown, which was organized to show solidarity with them by mostly left-wing civil society and youth associations. Both were in protest of police brutality against students protesting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan during his visit to the campus on Dec. 18.

Erdoğan was there to witness the launch of a Turkish satellite from China in the facilities of Turkey’s scientific research institute (TÜBİTAK) on the ODTÜ campus, together with Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek and Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel. As soon as the students’ demonstration against new university laws and the science and foreign policy of Erdoğan started outside the facility – and nowhere near posing a threat – the police started to disperse them harshly, using baton charges, a water cannon and tear gas. More than 100 students were detained and some injured; among them Barış Barışık, a student of Ankara University Faculty of Law, who suffered brain trauma due to a tear gas shell hitting his head, which cracked his skull.

The next day the protests were echoed at some other universities and in Parliament, too. Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin, who is a hardliner on security issues, had to admit that the police had used disproportionate force against the students. On Dec. 20, the ODTÜ was on an unnamed boycott the likes of which had not been seen for several years. But something else has happened. Besides the protests of the Student Representatives Council (the student union – ÖTK) in the university, the Alumni Association, the Professors’ Association and the labor union of the university issued a joint declaration condemning the “police terror” on the campus, defending students’ right to protest and also calling on the students not to use any trace of violence in their protest demonstrations. Moreover, the rector of ODTÜ, Professor Ahmet Acar, issued a strong declaration denouncing the police attitude on the campus and asked the government to take action against those in charge.

This is not something new for ODTÜ, known for both its high education quality and left-leaning protest culture. One extreme was the 1969 burning of then-U.S. Ambassador Robert Komer’s car in Ankara in protest of his record in Vietnam. But such a combined stance from students and teachers to the rector has been a first since the military coup on Sept. 12, 1980. It is especially important at a time when even Top Judge Haşim Kılıç of the Constitutional Court finds the “silence of universities” unusually disturbing; Acar has taken a risk regarding a possible government reaction.

“It is not acceptable,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News on the phone, “to have tear gas shells and the sound of bombs exploding on the campus. We had asked the Ankara police to take all necessary measures from 11 a.m. on for the ceremony, to start at 2:30 p.m. But up until 2 p.m. nobody showed up despite increasing tension. And when they arrived, they arrived in thousands.” Already having asked for a meeting with the governor and police chief of Ankara, Professor Acar said the police stance in such cases should be coolheaded in order not to escalate the tension. “Any repeat of the situation might be dangerous” he said, “the atmosphere in the campus is really tense.”