Erdoğan’s attack on private universities

Erdoğan’s attack on private universities

A bitter fact about Turkey has become painfully obvious in the past couple of years, especially the past couple of months: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to control and transform almost every aspect of the state and society. He wants to subdue not just the executive, in other words, but also; the legislation, the judiciary, the Central Bank, the media, civil society, and even the universities.

Erdoğan’s plans for the latter can be seen in a staggering draft law, which the government presented to Parliament last week. In a very clear attempt to increase and expand the already highly centralized and authoritarian Higher Education Board (YÖK), to which all universities are tied, the law suggests the following:

1) The YÖK, whose chair and members are appointed by the president, will now have the authority to appoint the executive boards of all universities, including private ones. (Yes, private ones!) In other words, private universities such as Koç, Sabancı, Bahçeşehir or Bilkent will not be able to decide who will be their president or board members. It will all be up to the orders of YÖK, (i.e. the government). In fact, if this law passes, I wonder why anyone would ever want to open a new private university. It will be like starting up a company and then giving its keys to the government.

2) The YÖK will also have the authority to decide which academics will get tenure, or who will become an associate professor or professor. Until now, such titles were given to academics, based on their experience and performance, by the Inter-University Board (ÜAK), which was independent from the government. Now, if this law passes, the government will basically be able to decide which members of academia get promoted, and which ones don’t.

3) The almighty YÖK will also have the authority to decide upon the very content of university education. The central institution will decide upon the areas of research, and will have the authority to force universities to open new areas of research.

For anyone who has a sense of liberal democracy, this notion is unbelievable. It might also look unbelievable how Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came from the liberal, de-centralist ideas during its initial years to this unabashed authoritarianism.

Yet in fact, the AKP’s transformation, or devolution, is not that surprising. In its initial years, the AKP used a liberal and de-centralist narrative, and realized some significant reforms accordingly, for a simple reason: Central state power was still in the hands of the AKP’s secularist enemies, (i.e. the Kemalists). The YÖK, for example, was a Kemalist citadel which imposed the ban on the Islamic headscarf, along with other ideological redlines.

During those years, AKP spokesmen were in agreement with liberals who had long advocated for the abolition of the YÖK, which was created by the military junta in 1980, and the de-centralization of the university system. But then Erdoğan and his cadre dominated the YÖK, and all of their complaints about the institution suddenly evaporated. Now, they are attempting to give the institution dictatorial powers that even the juntas did not imagine.

It is a story that should go into text books as a case study of intoxication with power. It is also a hymn to Nietzsche, confirming his view that politics, if not mankind itself, is driven by no ethics, no principles, but only the “will to power.”