To be “governed” or to be the people?

Turkish government's oppression and persecution of higher education as a reflection of the general trend in society.

I am a researcher and a university professor, and I like being an academic. It may sound a bit masochistic when you will read what I am about to say on being an academic in my country in this day and age, but if I had to do it over again, I would still be an academic. However, it comes at a price, and that price is not only related to our poor earnings. This was never a novelty, and we chose to be academics in Turkey knowing that fact. The actual price is rather the excess of undocumented working hours. We are unable to show how hard we work. And this is especially the case during and after the pandemic.

There is no doubt that academics face the same drudgery as many other employees in different sectors but let me tell you about my last Sunday to give you an idea of its dimensions: After working 10 hours at home on Saturday, I sat down to work again at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. First, I had to write the working instructions for an upcoming workshop. Then, I spent two hours troubleshooting and formatting a master's thesis for one of the students in the department to help her make it to the graduation ceremony at the beginning of July. After completing this mission impossible, I completed the preparations and announced a Zoom meeting for the evening, and then exchanged WhatsApp messages with colleagues in the department about preparations for the upcoming entrance exam for our graduate program. It was only after this that I was able to start writing this article. After the evening Zoom meeting, I had a few more things to do before going to bed.     

By the way, our classes are already over, and we have even finished the grading. Next week I have a thesis follow-up meeting and another thesis defense jury the week after, that's all. What I mean is that my workload is relatively lighter these days. Of course, my colleagues and I will be reading around 50 papers of the graduate entrance exam by Tuesday evening. Oh, and one more thing: I have to format-check around 150 theses over the next month, as I am a member of the graduate school executive committee. I am fast approaching my annual leave, which will start in mid-July, anyway.

As always, I have amazing plans for my time off, like being able to finish one of my unfinished book projects. Who knows, I might well finish writing my book on my take on the rhetorical narratology and narrative ethics of Yasar Kemal's “An Island Story Quartet” during these six weeks? Or perhaps I can do the necessary reading, take notes and then start writing the book during the autumn term?

I do not deny that I intend to swim a little, to have lengthy and pleasant chats with my close friends and to immerse myself in the air and light of the Aegean. However, my real dreams are always the same: to finish a book, or at least a chapter of a book or perhaps an article... And let me assure you that I am not very different from any other specimen of my kind. Academics are often like me. We are supposed to be academics and researchers, but we don't find free time to read things and rack up some writing or research because of our excessive teaching and bureaucratic workload.         

           I am aware that this situation is not specific to Turkey and that academics around the world have been reduced to white-collar workers who have to perform many non-academic tasks, such as filling in forms, applying for scholarships, reading exams, writing reference letters for students, and so and so forth.

           Fortunately, we are entitled to a sabbatical year, one might think. This is a new concept in Turkey. Until five years ago, it was only available at a few universities, such as Bogazici and METU, which have close links with the academia abroad. The Turkish Higher Education Association (YÖK for short in Turkish) made it available in all Turkish universities in 2017.

It could indeed have been a happy development if those grim developments at Bogazici University in early 2021 had never taken place and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had not appointed a certain Professor Melih Bulu as rector of the said university. Since a change in the law in 2016, Erdogan has had the right to appoint rectors of Turkish universities all on his own, without asking anyone's opinion. However, this practice is contrary to our principles of academic freedom and university autonomy, which we have been building and practicing throughout the 52-year history of the public University of Bogazici, which is why we have protested against that appointment and publicly stated that we will not accept it and we will not abandon our principles. We demanded to vote for our own rector, as was the usual practice. The government would not hear of it, and although Professor Bulu was to be dismissed in the sixth month of his rectorship, the president this time appointed his vice-rector, Professor Naci İnci, in his place. Professor İnci had been a faculty member at Bogazici for the last 20 years, but we nevertheless held an informal vote of confidence to make our position clear to the president regarding the appointment of the new rector. No less than 95% of the faculty members at Bogazici expressed their lack of confidence in Professor İnci, yet the president took no heed of our reservations and appointed İnci as the next rector all the same. Thus, we continued our protests as Professor İnci was devising a new model of governance in which he attempted to undo every single aspect of Bogazici University's tradition of transparent and democratic governance and built instead a simple top-down, strictly hierarchical, and one-man governance.

           A minor example to this new model of governance was the refusal of certain requests for sabbaticals. For example, a colleague who has been working for 20 years, five of them in a very demanding administrative position, without taking a sabbatical. She came with a sound plan for a sabbatical, only to be turned down by his rectorship. She quite reasonably asked for the reasons for this refusal, but the answer from the dean's office was a mere "discretion of the Rector". Some applications were accepted, while others were rejected. Their overall rationale for these decisions was also very interesting: The relevant regulation on sabbatical leave stated that the application for a sabbatical "can be accepted..." The Bogazici Rectorate made a grammatical leap there and concluded that a sabbatical application "cannot be accepted" just as well and therefore turned down some of the applications without further explanation.

           I am also one of the so-called "peace academics" in Turkey. Hundreds of academics, including myself, were put on trial for a text we signed. The Turkish Constitutional Court acquitted all of us in the end, but some of us were subjected to disciplinary proceedings in our universities and were punished at the end of these investigations. And these punishment decisions became the reason for the dismissal of many academics from public service with the government's emergency decree laws from 2016. We call them "KHK'lı", "those dismissed by the decree laws", and there are more than one hundred thousand people in this situation. Not only have they been dismissed from their jobs, but their passports have been taken away and they are not accepted in any registered positions. It has been a painful, heartbreaking and ongoing political process. The cases of the rejection of sabbaticals at Bogazici University is in no way comparable to the KHK violations. This issue is the greatest political injustice of the first century of the Turkish Republic.

           But don't let me change the subject, I have another idea in mind while writing this article. I intend to focus on the precarization of academics in Turkey and around the world over the last 30-40 years of our neoliberal era, just as it is the case for many other sectors of work. We have lost and are still losing our hard-won assurances and entitlements through systemic hardship and unchecked exploitation. We are among the pushed around, victimized and disempowered communities in this neoliberal world.

           Let me give you an example from Turkey: In Turkey we do not have "for-profit universities" because the law does not define such a category. On the other hand, we have many so-called "foundation universities", and they are pushing hard to become for-profit universities. Meanwhile, they employ young graduate students as teaching and research assistants, and often use them as call center or marketing employees. Some of these highly exploited assistants have demanded salary adjustments in line with the rapidly rising inflation rates, but the administrations of those "foundation universities" concerned have responded by simply firing them.

           The celebrated nationalism studies expert Partha Chatterjee published his book The Politics of the Governed in 2004. In it, he argues that those segments of the people who do not fit into the networks within the nation-state apparatus and civil society, become the 'governed'. By the early summer of 2022, those who do not integrate into civil societies and the citizenship systems continue to increase exponentially. We academics have now become a part of them. There are quantitative differences between the governed, but we are all victims in the end. We must accept this fact and resist accordingly. We are the outcasts. We are the alienated. We have to face it and then decide what to do next. But what can we do? I will talk about this next week through Chatterjee's views on the matter. But I won't leave you until I say one last thing:

           We can do a lot.

           And we will do a lot!

Because we are the people.

Erol Köroğlu is an associate professor of modern Turkish literature at Boğaziçi University. He studies interaction of literature and history, Turkish novel, Turkish nationalisms, and narratology. Most of his publications are available on his page in Turkish and English.

Previus and Next Posts