Turkey’s University Leaders Are Expected to Face Loyalty Inquiries

July 21, 2016

Danielle Villasana, Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Turkish flag hung over an entrance to Istanbul U. a few days after a recent coup attempt. A government crackdown on academics and university workers was underway this week.
The Turkish government’s post-coup demand for the resignations of 1,500 university deans appears to be a blanket measure that will allow for case-by-case examinations of political loyalty, Turkish experts on the country said on Wednesday.

The government has dismissed four presidents, or rectors — the heads of Dicle, Gazi, Yalova, and Yildiz Technical universities, Turkish press reports said.

But the 1,500 deans do not yet appear to have been formally removed, giving the government time to consider its next steps, said Dani Rodrik, a native of Turkey who is now a professor of international political economy at Harvard University.

The action is part of a nationwide search for allies of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who has been accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey of orchestrating the attempted military coup against his government on Friday.

Turkey’s military has a nearly century-old history, dating to the country’s founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, of overthrowing any government it regards as posing a threat to Turkish democracy and secularism. But in a largely unprecedented response, Mr. Erdogan was able to quickly beat back modern-day Kemalists, helped by large numbers of civilians who took up arms to resist the coup.

The moment appears to have been the culmination of a simmering dispute between Mr. Gülen and Mr. Erdogan, once allies who shared some degree of interest in imprinting more of an Islamic character on a nation that physically and culturally straddles the divide between Europe and Asia.

Mr. Gülen and his followers have a purer devotion to the question of religious influence, while Mr. Erdogan appears "personally pious but not an Islamic ideologue," Mr. Rodrik said. Followers of Mr. Gülen, especially in the Turkish judiciary, helped Mr. Erdogan over the past decade by bringing legal cases against more traditional Kemalists in the military.

But as the Kemalists were removed, backers of Mr. Gülen slowly advanced in the military, eventually reaching the point where Mr. Erdogan saw them as a threat to his democratically elected government, Mr. Rodrik said. The attempted coup, in which at least 260 people were killed and more than 1,400 were injured, appears to have been started by some in the military sympathetic to Mr. Gülen who felt they were getting close to being purged themselves, Mr. Rodrik said.

The 1,500 university deans are among more than 50,000 people in Turkey who have been jailed, fired, or suspended from their jobs by the government since Friday.

A Change of Tactics

"This whole thing is just awful," Mr. Rodrik said of the likely culling of Gülen sympathizers from academic ranks. Gülenists have usually been regarded as nonviolent, tame by the standards of "radical Islam," he said, and the coup seemed to mark a change of tactics. Still, assessing who in Turkish academe is truly a supporter of violence on behalf of the Gülen agenda is likely to be difficult, he said, and likely to squelch notions of free academic inquiry.

"I can’t understand how any legitimate academic could support the Gülen movement in light of the kinds of things they’ve done, even before this coup," Mr. Rodrik said. "But I also understand that the vast majority of Gülenists are well-meaning, pious people who believe in charity and dialogue and things like that."

Another Turkish academic in the United States, Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, said he had similar fears. Mr. Kirisci, a former professor of international relations at Bogaziçi University, in Istanbul, said he visited Turkey two weeks ago and now is worried by reports that all Turkish academics are prohibited from even leaving the country.

Gülenists fearing the possible uneven application of law following the attempted coup, however, may have themselves to blame, he said, given the legally tenuous cases they brought against the Kemalists they successfully had removed from the military in recent years.

The Gülenists did not much respect the rule of law, Mr. Kirisci said, "and now those who are pursuing them, we’ll see whether they will respect the rule of law or not."

"The rule of law is an interesting principle," he said. "If you don’t respect it, there could come the day when it’s used against you, and it’s not respected."

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at