Protests at top Turkish university trigger more than 150 arrests

Students and staff oppose new rector appointed by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish riot police clash with protesters opposed to  Turkish president Erdogan’s appointment of party member Melih Bulu as the new rector of Bogazici University in Istanbul.  Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Turkish riot police clash with protesters opposed to Turkish president Erdogan’s appointment of party member Melih Bulu as the new rector of Bogazici University in Istanbul. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA


More than 150 people were arrested during protests at one of Turkey’s top universities, in a sharp escalation of a stand-off between students and staff and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A total of 159 demonstrators were detained on Monday night after failing to heed warnings to end their protests in and around the campus of Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University, the city’s governor’s office said.

The protests – in which students shouted “Police, get out” and “Universities are ours” as they scuffled with police, according to Reuters news agency – followed weeks of mounting tension with the government after Mr Erdogan announced the appointment of a rector, Melih Bulu, who is opposed by many of the Bogazici students and staff.

The crackdown, which comes at a time when Mr Erdogan has promised democratic reforms, drew swift condemnation from Turkish opposition figures. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), described the arrests as “unacceptable” and called on Mr Bulu to step down in order to bring an end to “this ugly situation”.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP mayor of Istanbul, said he was seeking to mediate between students and the authorities. Traditionally, staff at Turkish universities would choose a rector from within their own ranks through elections.

Greater control

But Mr Erdogan, who has long sought greater control over the country’s academic institutions, granted himself the authority to hand-pick university heads after a 2016 coup attempt that was followed by a state of emergency that gave him sweeping new powers.

Government supporters say that the ruling party is fighting elitism in the country’s higher education system.

But Bogazici’s defenders say that the university – a public institution that does not charge tuition fees – has a record of defending the rights of all students, including those from the religious conservative section of society that Mr Erdogan himself hails from.

They see the president’s decision to impose a rector as part of a wider assault on academic freedom in the country. Thousands of academics were summarily dismissed after the 2016 failed coup, and university staff across Turkey worry that speaking freely about politics could cost them their jobs.

Mr Erdogan has faced previous objections to Bogazici appointments. In 2016 his decision to pick Mehmet Ozkan, an engineering professor whose sister was a ruling party member of parliament, as university rector also drew condemnation and protests from students and staff.

Ruling party

But critics say that the latest appointment, announced in early January, is an even greater blow because of Mr Bulu’s history of political activism with the ruling party and because he is the first rector chosen from outside the university since a 1980 military coup.

The 50-year-old, who sought to be a candidate for the ruling party in a 2015 election, has also been accused of not having the academic calibre to run the esteemed state university. He has faced accusations of plagiarism in academic articles and the thesis that he submitted for his PhD in finance – a claim that he has denied.

Protests have simmered for weeks, but tensions escalated over the weekend after the arrest of several students for inciting hatred and insulting religious values after creating a poster that depicted Islam’s most sacred site – the Kaaba in Mecca – with LGBT flags. The image, displayed at a Bogazici University exhibition, prompted Turkey’s interior minister to describe the students in question as “LGBT perverts”.

Mr Erdogan, meanwhile, on Monday praised his party’s youth wing for “not being the LGBT youth”. The Turkish president has claimed that “terrorists” are involved in the protests.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021