In Turkey, Academia Reckons with Ongoing Effects of Brain Drain

Following a post-coup crackdown by President Erdoğan, the Turkish intelligentsia is under continuous siege.

Faculty of Political Sciences, Ankara University. Fæ via Wikimedia Commons; originally by SALT Research via Flickr.

Faculty of Political Sciences, Ankara University. Fæ via Wikimedia Commons; originally by SALT Research via Flickr.

For some professors, the change occurred overnight, and with no warning: One day, they reported to work as usual, taught their classes, and returned home safe and secure. The next, they were met outside the gates of their university by swathes of security guards threatening them with tear gas, who informed them that their careers had been terminated, effective immediately. Such sudden and shocking occurrences reflected the overall timbre of 2017 for Turkish academics—hundreds of whom found themselves purged from their jobs in what they described as an officially sanctioned “intellectual massacre.”

The purge was precipitated by the failed coup of July 2016, which resulted in more than 260 fatalities and spurred President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to declare a three-month state of emergency. During that state of emergency and in the ensuing months, hundreds of academics from more than 20 universities lost their jobs without notice—the result of drastic action by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which chose to detain, arrest, and fire thousands of public-sector workers in various different fields rather than pressing charges on those responsible for the coup attempt.

According to Erdoğan, the responsible party was Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric and former ally who the authorities claim infiltrated supporters into professions all over Turkey as part of a large-scale takeover scheme. Gulen denies having any part in the plan, and many purged academics said they had nothing to do with Gulen’s movement and were unsure how they ended up on the official hit list. Turkey’s Official Gazette describes the banned academics as having “suspected links to terrorist organizations and structures presenting a threat to national security,” but those accused hold a contrasting view: “It is a project to silence all dissident voices within the academy,” Murat Sevinc, who was fired from Ankara University’s Political Science faculty, told Reuters. “The government has seen you can silence 100 academics by firing only one.”

One commonality among many of the academics was their membership in a movement called Academics for Peace, or “Barış için Akademi syenler.” Of the 330 fired in October 2017, 115 had signed an Academics for Peace petition titled “We shall not be a party of crime,” which took a stand against violence in the mainly Kurdish provinces of Turkey. The signatories immediately faced demonization in the pro-government media and condemnation by Erdoğan.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. U.S. Department of State.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. U.S. Department of State.

As of March 2017, the total count of purged academics was above 7,300. Those affected were not only deprived of their jobs but also banned from taking other jobs in any public or private institutions, robbed of retirement rights, and even suspended from traveling. Certain universities and departments were particularly hard-hit—for example, the Faculty of Political Sciences at Ankara University, Turkey’s oldest collegiate institution and one comparable in prestige and rigor to France’s Sciences Po. The departments of journalism at Ankara and at Istanbul’s University of Marmara were also decimated. Emre Tansu Keten, a casualty of the purge at Marmara, told Vocal Europe, “I am simply proud to be in the same list along with my senior colleagues who are thrown out because of the opinion they expressed.” Students, though not the primary victims of the situation, were nevertheless left reeling with the realization that their universities were mere shadows of the places at which they had enrolled.

The purges of 2017 were hardly the first shockwave to ripple through Turkey’s academic sector in recent years. In the past few decades, Turkish academic life has frequently been tumultuous, with intellectuals embroiled in military takeovers, secular/religious tensions, and leftist/nationalist battles. Following the start of European Union accession talks in 2004, however, fresh influxes of funding allowed Turkish institutions to construct modern research labs, encouraging students to study in Turkey rather than in the United States or elsewhere in Europe.

That progress, some academics suggest, is now in jeopardy. Following the coup attempt and subsequent crackdown, the trend of intellectuals returning in Turkey took a sharp U-turn, with liberals, secularists, and the intelligentsia fleeing the encroachment of religious nationalism. Between the signing of the Academics for Peace petition in 2016 and the end of 2017, nearly 700 Turkish academics applied to the New York–based organization Scholars at Risk to be relocated to a safer position. Historically, many such applications have been successful: In the five years preceding 2017, approximately 17,000 Turkish nationals came to Britain, 7,000 to Germany, and 5,000 to France.

For academics remaining in Turkey, opportunities for rebuilding their careers are slim, and rewards for their work few and far between. In 2018, the more than 2,000 individuals who make up Academics for Peace finally received recognition in the form of the Courage to Think Defender Award from Scholars at Risk, which applauded the group for their “extraordinary efforts in building academic solidarity and in promoting the principles of academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, and the peaceful exchange of ideas.” Scholars at Risk went on to acknowledge the tenuous state of academic affairs in Turkey, writing, “The nomination is a specific recognition of Academics for Peace’s solidarity work, and at the same time a general recognition of the current pressures on all scholars, students and higher education institutions in and from Turkey.”

Haydarpaşa campus of Marmara University. Fikricoban. CC BY-SA 3.0

Haydarpaşa campus of Marmara University. Fikricoban. CC BY-SA 3.0

On the ground, academics across the country continue to participate in protests, boycotts, and sit-ins at various universities, while a donation fund supports victims of the purge. As of early 2017, Ankara’s “Street Academy” hosted public lectures on Sundays, extending a special invitation to workers and oppressed communities. Funda Şenol Cantek, one of the throngs of fired academics, expressed her defiance to The Advocate: “the government should worry more now that they expand academia to the streets.” Similarly, Sevilay Celenk said of the occasional lectures she holds in public parks, “We took these dismissals as an opportunity to push the limits and bring university together with the streets.”

In June 2019, the body politic of Turkey elected an opposition candidate as mayor of Istanbul, interrupting two decades of control by the AKP. Nevertheless, reported the New York Times, “something about this era under Erdogan has still felt different, more lasting, as if the continuing existence of the A.K.P.’s repressive policies will permanently impair otherwise resilient, historic institutions.” That feeling doubtless stems in part from the uncertain futures facing vast swathes of Turkey’s once-resilient academic sector: As of spring 2019, the legal proceedings concerning 501 members of Academics for Peace remain ongoing. And at the universities, absence is keenly felt. Inside Ankara’s Faculty of Political Science—known as the Mulkiye—walls once plastered with leftist posters are now smattered with a sparse assortment of Turkish flags, the Times described. Certain subjects, such as Foucault and queer theory, have been wiped from the schedule. Master’s and doctoral courses have been canceled, and at the once-lively film society, the showing of films has been banned altogether. Thus, the effects of the purge linger on: in the hallowed halls of universities, in the leafy parks and city streets, and in the hearts and minds of Turkish learners and teachers around the world.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.