Analysis |

Erdogan-picked University Chief Gave Students the Perfect Way to Fight Back

Bogazici University's new rector confessed his love for Metallica, whose 'Master of Puppets' has become the anthem of a protest against President Erdogan’s heavy hand in Turkey's higher education system – where he seeks to reconcile traditionalism with aspirations of international prestige

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Students of Bogazici University hold placards during a protest in Istanbul, January 6, 2021.
Students of Bogazici University hold placards during a protest in Istanbul, January 6, 2021.Credit: Huseyin Aldemir/AP

“Obey your master/Your life burns faster/ Obey your/Master!/Master!/Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings/Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams/Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing/Just call my name ‘cause I’ll hear you scream/Master!/Master!”

These words, from the stage-rattling song “Master of Puppets” by the heavy metal band Metallica, were intended to show how drugs and alcohol impacted the minds of the band’s members. But on Wednesday, this powerful song had another mission. It echoed from speakers and throats of young students as protests broke out on the campus of Bogazici University in Istanbul. From there it lit up the streets, where they clashed with Turkish security forces armed with clubs, tear gas and guns. Metallica won the honor after the university’s new rector, Melih Bulu, said in an interview that he likes hard rock and is a fan of the band. The Metallica-loving professor then felt the full force of the group.

The words of the song are well suited to the atmosphere at the university since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed Bulu to the role by presidential decree on January 1. Last Monday, the first wave of protests erupted, and two days later the streets burned with another wave of demonstrations. More than 36 students and faculty were arrested and many were injured in the violent clashes, and the story isn’t over yet.

This was the first time since the 1980 military coup that a rector was chosen for Turkey’s most prestigious university who was not a faculty member, and not by election, as was customary. Faculty members who joined the students’ protest wrote that the appointment was “another step away from democracy, intended to undermine academic freedom in the independence of science and the university’s democratic values.”

After Erdogan used the authority he granted himself in 2018 to directly appoint rectors and presidents at other universities, he came out against the fortress of academic liberalism and the intellectual left in Turkey and appointed Bulu, an active member of his own Justice and Development party. He even ran for a seat in the Turkish parliament on that party’s ticket in 2015.

Bulu, of course, has impressive academic credentials. He holds a degree in business administration from Bogazici University, received his doctorate and was rector at two other universities before his current appointment. At the time, it was suspected that he had plagiarized parts of his doctorate from another book, but the case was closed.

Police in riot gear clash with students of Bogazici University, in Istanbul, January 4, 2021.Credit: Zeynep Kuray/AP

Bulu tweeted a letter to the “Bogazici family” in which he told with his readers what an honor it is to have been appointed rector, and that he so fondly recalls the campus restaurants and the food they served, and how he would share the food off his plate with the cats that would jump into his lap. Truly flesh of the university’s flesh. But the students refuse to be impressed. They see before their very eyes Erdogan’s heavy-handedness in the appointment of the rector-politician, the firing of hundreds of faculty members at universities since the failed revolution of 2016, and, no less so, Erdogan’s speech at the inauguration of the Ibn Haldun University campus in October.

“Mainly because of the media, the impact of traditional education has waned, including that of the family. The gap created between the minds and hearts of our children has been filled by subjects rooted in Western culture…our children are receiving education, but we don’t have enough human resources to make ourselves more secure,” Erdogan said. “We are raising a younger population but we cannot carry out the vision for our civilization. The media has modern infrastructure but it does not reflect our voice and our thoughts,” said the president who for years has crushed the media in Turkey, shut down newspapers and television stations and appointed his people to head them.

This was an aggressive speech, but a frank one, in which Erdogan outlined the boundary between the education to which he aspires and the danger that threatens Turkey’s culture: those same Western ideas and components that are pushing out tradition. But then Erdogan appoints a rector who takes pride in his affection for heavy metal music to a university that teaches in English and seeks a spot on the list of the 500 best universities in the world, those that are judged by Western criteria. It will be interesting to see how Edrogan plans to resolve any conflict between “traditional education” and the vision of the new rector, who plans to expand computer science, engineering and the natural sciences.

Students of Bogazici University gather during a protest against the new rector in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2021. Credit: Huseyin Aldemir,AP

It is too much to expect consistency in Erdogan’s conduct; even the people closest to him no longer understand where he is leading the country. One after the other, senior members of his Justice and Development party have dropped out and established new, competing parties. While they have yet to gain much traction, they show the frustration in the party and the political leadership.

The latest to cut ties with the leadership is Bulent Arinc, former speaker of the Turkish parliament and a senior member of the party advisory council. He left the party about a month ago after Erdogan shot a few poisoned arrows at him because he dared to come out against the arrest of Selahattin Demirtas, the former chairman of the pro-Kurdish HDP party and the philanthropist Osman Kavala, which has been detained for three years now. That was unforgivable. It’s still not an earthquake, nor a sign that the party and its leader are falling apart, but when recent polls are showing that its approval rate has plunged to about 28 percent, the presidential palace will have to reinforce its windows.

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