July 19, 2016—Scholars at Risk is gravely concerned about sweeping actions against Turkey’s higher education sector, including forced resignations, suspensions, and travel bans, reportedly affecting thousands of individuals, in Turkey and abroad.
The scale and speed of these actions belie any due process or evidence-based response to the attempted coup of July 15th, and therefore raise serious concerns for the future of Turkey’s higher education and society generally.
Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of over 400 universities and colleges in 40 countries dedicated to promoting academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, association and travel, principles on which quality higher education depends. In cases involving alleged infringement of these freedoms, Scholars at Risk intervenes in hopes of clarifying and resolving matters favourably.
SAR has received reports that in the days following the attempted coup, Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK) ordered the resignations of over fifteen hundred faculty deans at state and foundation universities; thousands of education ministry personnel were suspended from their positions; travel restrictions were placed on civil servants, including a number of higher education administrators; and academics abroad were instructed to return to Turkey. SAR is concerned for the personal and professional well-being of the thousands of scholars implicated in these actions. We are particularly concerned that the scale and speed of these actions suggest a lack of due process or evidence-based response to the attempted coup of July 15th. Rather, these suggest a broad campaign against intellectuals and intellectual expression, in violation of Turkey’s international and domestic legal obligations to protect institutional autonomy and academic freedom, including under Turkey’s constitution. If not quickly reversed, these actions risk irreparable harm to higher education personnel and to the reputation and operation of Turkey’s higher education sector, which had been suffering already in recent months from prosecutions and undue pressures on over 2,000 academics.
These actions against the higher education sector, moreover, are counterproductive to the legitimacy and long-term stability of the state. The asking of questions and expression of ideas—especially disputed or unpopular ideas—is not only essential to quality higher education; it is the root of democratic legitimacy and rule of law. The higher education sector has a special responsibility within democratic society to ask and debate questions in a safe space, without resorting to force, and to impart information and ideas to the public. This ensures that sensitive issues may be more widely understood, and affords the public a means of forming opinions based on evidence and reason over passion, prejudice, ideology or even threats of violence. This in turn encourages public investment in democratic discourse and processes; an investment which proved so essential in the resistance to the July 15th coup attempt. It is precisely at this moment of instability when society needs more space for open, democratic discussion. If the university space shrinks—and it certainly will if the current pressures continue—the risks to Turkey’s democracy will only grow.
Given the above, and given our longstanding respect for and partnership with Turkey’s higher education institutions and personnel, Scholars at Risk respectfully:
- Calls on officials in Turkey to honor their international and domestic legal obligations, including under the constitution, to protect institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and to reverse the actions taken and suspend further actions against Turkey’s higher education institutions and personnel;
- Calls on UN and other inter-state entities, governments, and higher education associations, institutions and professionals to express publicly and in private their grave concern over the actions taken against Turkey’s higher education sector; to urge their reversal and suspension of further actions; and to demonstrate publicly their continuing support for higher education, institutional autonomy and academic freedom for scholars and students, including where necessary by offering to host dismissed, displaced or otherwise threatened scholars and students from Turkey; and
- Invites expressions of interest from government and higher education officials in Turkey and elsewhere, together with higher education associations, institutions and professionals, in developing ongoing dialogue on the responsibility of the higher education sector within democratic society, especially in times of instability or dissension, including but not limited to workshops, conferences or other events in Turkey or elsewhere.