Why was the head of YÖK removed?

Why was the head of YÖK removed?

AHMET İNSEL ahmet.insel@radikal.com.tr
When Gökhan Çetinsaya, who is known in academia for his closeness to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, was appointed head of Turkey’s Higher Education Board (YÖK) on Dec. 12, 2011, the general opinion was that this move was the joint initiative of Abdullah Gül and Davutoğlu, who was foreign minister at the time.

The new head of YÖK did not do anything different from previous YÖK administrations. To be the head of an institution like YÖK, which was initially given the task “to discipline,” meant, to a large extent, being bound by the reflexes injected to its genes by the military regime. 

University administrations, by always referring problematic subjects to YÖK, have enhanced YÖK’s capacity to interfere. Just like authoritarian regimes, institutions do not become authoritarian from the top to the bottom; most of the time, authoritarian demands coming from below make them stronger.
We used to define the function of YÖK as the “National Security Council [MGK] of the universities.” It was the higher education branch of the state security. It remained this way, and although it did other things it never lost its founding feature.

The mentality of the government was naturally a part of this security function. Once, it was favorable to hunt down “leftist” academics. Those with leftist views were not hired; those who had already been hired were intimidated. In the void that emerged, positions were filled with weak academic staff. In the second wave of appointments, the then-ruling party and the Gülen movement positioned their own people in universities, hand-in-hand. The fruit of these appointments is now in a dominant position in the academia.

Two years after he took office, Çetinsaya started openly voicing the complaints that YÖK officials had kept private up until then. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had started to demand a clean-up of the “parallel structure” of the Gülenists in all institutions, and Erdoğan’s circle viewed Çetinsaya with suspicion. In the spring of 2014, Çetinsaya’s statement, “YÖK has lost its functionality,” was in the media. He said YÖK must be abolished, but at the time Erdoğan did not react publicly.

In April, Çetinsaya said YÖK’s “interfering mentality” should change. “I’m not trying to change the perception of YÖK because this perception is beyond change,” he said. It was as if there was no contact left between Erdoğan and the head of YÖK. When Davutoğlu became prime minister, there was an expectation for a short time that a closer relationship could be formed between YÖK and the government.

But instead, Çetinsaya repeated his views in September. “YÖK was founded in the beginning of the 1980s, as a reaction to the problems experienced in the 1970s, at the time of the Cold War and the military regime in Turkey. Today, there is no such Turkey, no such world. YÖK is not sustainable,” he said.

The last nail in the coffin must have been his assessment of “a silenced academia.” He was referring to the university community, in which all rectors had been made AKP-compatible, as having been “silenced.” AKP bigwigs had had enough, but Çetinsaya stood behind his words. He was discharged on Nov. 6.

The outgoing head of YÖK did not have an official handover ceremony with the incoming head. YÖK officials had been talking about a power vacuum for three years, and this must be the reason why the latest YÖK law amendment was, to a great extent, prepared by Erdoğan’s circle, rather than YÖK itself. 

The new YÖK head, Yekta Saraç, when asked about his predecessor’s assessment of “a silenced academia,” gave a politically correct answer. “No, there can only be the unwillingness of university staff to publicly announce their opinions on the social issues in question,” he said.  Saraç said a manager should not criticize the institution he is heading, as it goes against the managerial function. The manager should try to improve the institution, he said.

It is and has always been futile to discuss the heads of YÖK. As an institution, YÖK is at the stage where the doctor tells the patient “to eat whatever he wishes to eat.” However, Erdoğan and the AKP circles blindly following him need YÖK for their centralist, indoctrinating, guardian state. Nobody said anything in the pro-government media about Çetinsaya’s dismissal. I am sure it is not because they were silenced, but because they have an unwillingness to express their views.

The “university of the chief” doesn’t only resemble the “media of the chief,” they also suit each other very well.