Threats to Academic Freedom and Higher Education in Turkey

Yazar / Referans: 
MIddle East Studies Association MESA

July 21, 2016

The Middle East Studies Association, American Anthropological Association, Executive Committee of the American Comparative Literature Association, American Council of Learned Societies, American Studies Association, Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, European Association for Middle Eastern Studies, German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO), German Studies Association, International Center for Medieval Art, Latin American Studies Association, Linguistic Society of America, The Medieval Academy of America, Modern Language Association, National Communication Association, and Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association collectively note with profound concern the apparent moves to dismantle much of the structure of Turkish higher education through purges, restrictions, and assertions of central control, a process begun earlier this year and accelerating now with alarming speed. 

As scholarly associations, we are committed to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The recent moves in Turkey herald a massive and virtually unprecedented assault on those principles. One of the Middle East region’s leading systems of higher education is under severe threat as a result, as are the careers and livelihoods of many of its faculty members and academic administrators.

Our concern about the situation in Turkish universities has been mounting over the past year, as Turkish authorities have moved to retaliate against academics for expressing their political views—some merely signing an “Academics for Peace” petition criticizing human rights violations. 

Yet the threat to academic freedom and higher education has recently worsened in a dramatic fashion. In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15-16, 2016, the Turkish government has moved to purge government officials in the Ministry of Education and has called for the resignation of all university deans across the country’s public and private universities. As of this writing, it appears that more than 15,000 employees at the education ministry have been fired and nearly 1600 deans—1176 from public universities and 401 from private universities—have been asked to resign. In addition, 21,000 private school teachers have had their teaching licenses cancelled. Further, reports suggest that travel restrictions have been imposed on academics at public universities and that Turkish academics abroad were required to return to Turkey. The scale of the travel restrictions, suspensions and imposed resignations in the education sector seemingly go much farther than the targeting of individuals who might have had any connection to the attempted coup.

The crackdown on the education sector creates the appearance of a purge of those deemed inadequately loyal to the current government. Moreover, the removal of all of the deans across the country represents a direct assault on the institutional autonomy of Turkey’s universities. The replacement of every university’s administration simultaneously by the executive-controlled Higher Education Council would give the government direct administrative control of all Turkish universities. Such concentration and centralization of power over all universities is clearly inimical to academic freedom. Moreover, the government’s existing record of requiring university administrators’ to undertake sweeping disciplinary actions against perceived opponents—as was the case against the Academics for Peace petition signatories—lends credence to fears that the change in university administrations will be the first step in an even broader purge against academics in Turkey.

Earlier this year, it was already clear that the Turkish government, in a matter of months, had amassed a staggering record of violations of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The aftermath of the attempted coup may have accelerated those attacks on academic freedom in even more alarming ways.

As scholarly organizations, we collectively call for respect for academic freedom—including freedom of expression, opinion, association and travel—and the autonomy of universities in Turkey, offer our support to our Turkish colleagues, second the Middle East Studies Association’s “call for action” of January 15, request that Turkey’s diplomatic interlocutors (both states and international organizations) advocate vigorously for the rights of Turkish scholars and the autonomy of Turkish universities, suggest other scholarly organizations speak forcefully about the threat to the Turkish academy, and alert academic institutions throughout the world that Turkish colleagues are likely to need moral and substantive support in the days ahead.

(note: organizations wishing to be included as signatories on the above statement should contact Amy Newhall at

June 15, 2016

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) notes with concern the serious impact that sanctions placed on Iran by the United States will have on valuable scholarly activity.

Beginning with the 1996 passage of the “Iran and Libya” Sanctions Act, a series of legislative enactments and executive branch regulations in the United States have placed increasingly severe restrictions on activity involving Iran. As a scholarly association, MESA takes no position on United States policy toward Iran in general. The organization does, however, vigorously advocate scholarly research and exchange. 

In that regard, we note that the text of the relevant legislation and regulations shows evidence of attempting to carve out protections for educational and scholarly activity. Given the issues at stake, it is especially important that such activity be encouraged; it would be difficult to claim that this is a time when people need to know less.

Yet we write out of a strong concern that the efforts to protect scholarship and education are not effective. A whole series of activities that might be considered normal scholarly research and study—such as conducting a public opinion survey—requires application to the relevant executive branch body (the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Department of the Treasury) for a license. Such a procedure is cumbersome at best and adds to an already restrictive environment for polling in much of the region. 

Interest in other kinds of scholarly activity—including normal travel and research—would lead a scholar through a forest of legislation, regulations, and authoritative guidance in search of an answer on what is permitted, what requires a license, and what is forbidden. Even when officials provide answers with the best of intentions, guidance is complicated and sometimes indeterminate (using phrases like “case by case basis”). We are not only concerned that normal and salutary scholarly activity will be prohibited, but that even scholars in universities able to obtain helpful legal guidance will be discouraged from research and travel. Graduate students, independent scholars, and others who do not have such supportive research infrastructure may be at sea in determining what they may do.

In April 2016 we wrote out of a similar concern that amendments to the Visa Waiver Program passed into law would have an adverse effect on scholars who conduct research in a number of Middle Eastern countries.

We call upon lawmakers reviewing the long-standing network of Iran sanctions at this time, and executive branch officials responsible for implementing them, to take care not to continue imposing restrictions on the free flow of ideas and knowledge and to reach out to the scholarly community to understand the negative impact of these legislative decisions.

April 20, 2016

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) wishes to bring to the attention of executive and legislative branch officials in the United States the serious obstacles to scholarly exchange erected by recently legislated changes in the Visa Waiver Program governing travel to the United States.  We call on U.S. government officials to amend the law and to exert efforts when implementing the Program to ensure that academic inquiry is not impaired. 
MESA’s annual meeting—and many scholarly conferences, workshops, public lectures, and seminars—have been greatly facilitated by the Visa Waiver Program.  The Program has made it possible for scholars from many countries to travel to the United States for short periods and without undue advance planning and bureaucratic procedures. Without the Program, scholars are subject to lengthy procedures and opaque decision making; organizers of academic gatherings are forced to plan much farther in advance and make contingency plans for visa delays and refusals.

The benefits of the Visa Waiver Program are often reciprocated for U.S. citizens, who similarly can travel freely for scholarly purposes to a wide array of countries. 
Recent changes in the Program throw up significant obstacles that particularly affect MESA members, which may inspire reciprocal moves by other countries that could restrict the ability of U.S. scholars to travel abroad.  These changes, passed into law at the end of 2015, require citizens in Visa Waiver Program countries to obtain a visa prior to travel if they have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen since March 1, 2011. It also requires visas for nationals of those countries even if they are also citizens of countries eligible for the Visa Waiver Program.

Visits to these countries are part of the professional work for scholars studying the Middle East, and should not create extra visa burdens for them. A European specialist on modern Iran, for instance, should be expected to travel to Iran; avoiding the country would be detrimental to his or her scholarship.  In addition, academics born in one of these countries—some of whom accepted positions in Europe and elsewhere in search of academic freedom—would be denied eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program if they retain citizenship in their country of origin. 
Surely the purpose of the legislation is not to throw up roadblocks to international scholarly exchange that greatly enriches American understanding of the Middle East.

We understand that executive and legislative branch officials are now deliberating over a series of problems that have arisen from the changes made in the Program. We ask that they take special care to safeguard academic inquiry and scholarly exchange as they do so.