By Tuba Engel
The recent dismissal in Turkey of over 300 academics coupled with police attacks against subsequent protests by professors and students on university campuses has sparked a furor across the country, but also fueled growing grassroots organizations challenging oppression through education, such as Street Academy.
Following the last statutory decree no. 686 published on February 7, a total of 4,464 public employees were sacked, according to the Official Gazette of Turkey. Of the 330 academics that were sacked with the last decree, 115 are signatories of the “Academics for Peace” petition.
While the Turkish government has been conducting a crackdown on academics critical of its policies for years, it has taken on greater intensity since the July 15 coup attempt. Thanks to broad powers granted to the government under the continuing state of emergency, the total number of academics discharged by statutory decrees has reached 4,811. The ongoing purge of left-wing academics and “Academics for Peace” petition signatories in Turkey has been described by many pundits as political cleansing.
The consequences of the decrees are alarming. Some departments have been left with almost no professors, and dozens of undergraduate and postgraduate classes have been suspended, leaving hundreds of postgrad thesis studies without a supervisor. The highest number of expulsions belongs to Ankara University and Marmara University: with untold impact on the education and intellectual production of these universities.
On February 10, the Education and Science Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen) organized protests across Turkey’s biggest cities against the purge of academics and teachers. Academics and students took to the streets. More than ten academics were taken into custody in Ankara, one was attacked by a police officer, and another suffered a broken leg due to police brutality.
Boğaziçi University academics and students condemned the decree and marched on campus, expressing solidarity with their professors and saying that attacking universities means attacking society. Another protest was organized in Kadıköy, Istanbul, by students and academics from different universities. The slogans chanted at all the protests were the same: “Down with autocracy; long live freedom”; “You cannot dismiss the truth”; and “No, we are not leaving”.
Yet, despite the tyrannical environment that academia is increasingly facing in Turkey, a plethora of grassroots movements and solidarity networks have risen up to meet the current challenges. In addition to protests, academics and students are pursuing promising initiatives such as alternative academies.
In order to resist the oppression against academia, a considerable number of initiatives independent of the government financially and ideologically have been established by dismissed academics and those who are on the verge of termination.
Street Academy is one of the leading and most popular of these efforts. Street Academy activists organize lectures every two weeks in different areas of Ankara, inviting their students and the general public. They have created an open-air classroom environment and deliver their lectures on a voluntary basis. Saliently, their slogan is a famous quote from Theodor Adorno: “Science needs those who disobey it”.
Mehmet Mutlu, one of the founders of Street Academy, gave an interview to Independent Turkey about the project and academic freedom in Turkey. He is a research assistant at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Middle East Technical University.
Firstly, could you tell us how you came up with the idea for Street Academy?
We started discussing the idea of Street Academy at our colleague Yasin Durak’s suggestion, who was dismissed from the university with the first statutory decree after the state of emergency. Turkey is a country where academia has been oppressed in different ways for a long time. In the ruling period of the AKP, universities have almost been turned into prisons. Academics opposing the government have been subjected to oppression systematically, especially since the declaration of the petition by Academics For Peace, which criticized the violent policies of the Turkish government for a solution to the Kurdish issue. Increasingly, [the crackdown] has continued arbitrarily and unlawfully during the state of emergency, which started after the coup attempt on July 15.
Sacked academics or those who work under pressure built solidarity networks in various ways, in order to resist oppression. Street Academy is one of these attempts. Street Academy summarizes a politic which is grounded in the streets and whose target group is workers. As we mentioned in the declaration that was published on the [inter]net prior to our first lesson: “We are bringing the academy to the middle of life – in other words, to the streets – against those that want to root out science and life on campuses. We produce knowledge and ideas for those on the streets; therefore, we lecture on the streets”.
According to the report “Violations of Rights against Academics for Peace”, 312 academics have been dismissed and banned from public service, and 491 academics have been under disciplinary investigation since the coup attempt. What would you like to say about academic freedom in Turkey currently?
The institutional drawback to academic freedom in Turkey is the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), which was founded right after the 1980 coup d’état. Existing regulations and practices totally restrict academic, administrative, and financial autonomy. One of the AKP government’s promises was to abolish the Council of Higher Education, but it is now a part of the AKP’s “big stick policy” on universities. Under these circumstances, the Council of Higher Education can interfere even in postgrad thesis studies – it blocks free production of knowledge. As I said, academic and intellectual freedom has always been under pressure in Turkey, and it has increased during the AKP’s ruling period. Academics who oppose the government are among the most productive ones in Turkey. Thus, the purge of left-wing, socialist academics actually means the purge of the academy itself.
How does Street Academy work, and what are your goals for the future?
Street Academy organizes public lessons mainly in the parks, lectured primarily by academics who have been dismissed or who are at risk of dismissal. We have a portable blackboard. Every two weeks on Sundays, we take our blackboard to a different district of Ankara and we give public lessons. Our aim is to spread the lessons – we can only organize them in Ankara for now – and to meet more workers on more streets. We want Street Academy to be the university of those on the streets – that is to say, the oppressed workers’ university. There is no such experience in Turkey yet, but why not?
Thank you so much for your time. Do you have any last words for the international community?
Universities are universal institutions. Therefore, it might not be right to make a distinction like national/international in a discussion about universities. If the production of knowledge and ideas is under attack somewhere in the world, it is something that people somewhere else in the world should worry about and react to. We want to thank our colleagues at universities abroad who are sensitive to the oppression we are subjected to here and [who] act against it. Thanks for your solidarity.