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Dispatches from the present

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Impious Generation

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Can Candan, a soft-spoken 52-year-old, lives a fifteen-minute drive from Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, where he has taught a course on documentary cinema since 2007, until his dismissal last week. His syllabus featured a quote from the Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha: “Reality is more fabulous, more maddening, more strangely manipulative than fiction.” The past seven months have proven the point to be true.

On January 1st, Melih Bulu, a businessman and academic from outside the university, was appointed as Boğaziçi’s new rector. Two days later, Candan tweeted a letter signed by Boğaziçi scholars who objected to the appointment because of the rector’s links to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Candan’s tweet was among the social media outcry that catalyzed student protests that, seven months on, show no sign of stopping. The new rector had been a candidate for the AKP during the previous elections, and his appointment was seen as part of a government strategy to control one of Turkey’s few remaining independent institutions.

Candan’s post was liked and shared by thousands. Soon students began strategizing, and over the next fortnight, they pitched tents outside the rector’s office, watching reality become more fabulous than fiction. Fearing that AKP wanted to turn their university into an outpost for political favors, they demanded loyalty to BU’s legacy: self-rule, meaning independence from the orthodoxies of the Council of Higher Education established by the military junta in 1981. The new rector represented the long arm of Ankara; students wanted someone who could counter it. They feared the appointment would open the floodgates to further interventions in their freedoms—from punishment of their sexual identities to prosecution of their political views. After all, the government’s stated aim is to raise a “pious generation” and oppress dissenters, even the pious students among them who abhor centralized bullying. The takeover followed a pattern similar to other public institutions Islamists have conquered in the country in the past decade: appointments of party loyalists at the top; the sacking of progressives, feminists and critical thinkers; and the incremental destruction of hard-earned legacies.

Founded in 1863 by two Americans of Huguenot descent, BU is the oldest American college outside of the United States. Its idyllic South Campus, where Candan’s class normally met, overlooks the Bosphorus Strait. South Campus’s 118 acres house dormitories, tennis courts, an Olympic swimming pool, a cinematheque and a world-famous organ donated in 1914 by a philanthropist from New York. It is also home to the Van Millingen Kütüphanesi, said to be Turkey’s first modern library. Sixteen thousand students were enrolled at Boğaziçi in 2019, 1,200 of them from forty countries.

Candan dates the start of troubles with the government to about 2018, when turnstiles were installed at the university gates. This was two years after Turkey had been placed under a state of emergency after an attempted coup. “The South Campus resembles a botanic garden,” Candan recalled thinking, “it should be open to everyone.” Soon the campus culture at BU began to erode. An LGBTQ student club was denied official candidate status; speakers invited to campus came under review; staff had to self-censor to keep their jobs. Since the powder keg exploded in January 2021, students have pulled no punches and scholars are tweeting their dissent boldly. Unsurprisingly, the jingoist Turkish press has branded them “degenerates.”

People have been watching the unrest on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. For those stranded at home—bookworms, graduates, prospective students—the South Campus protests represent something worth defending: the ideal of college life. International solidarity has arrived in the form of a petition signed by Judith Butler, David Harvey, Sally Haslanger and other leading scholars who support academic freedom at BU. Meanwhile, press are not allowed inside South Campus, and the official media haven’t covered the demonstrations, so Candan and his students have taken it upon themselves to compile a visual archive of the moment.

During the protests, Candan has visited South Campus and its ivy-covered courtyard every weekday. He says they’ve revitalized him; he got to meet friends he hadn’t seen for months, and his life regained meaning. The protests also allowed Candan to meet with his students in person for the first time during the pandemic. That came with its own challenges. He couldn’t immediately identify students behind their surgical masks. When they approached him, he made educated guesses based on their eyes and voices.

Nearby, student protesters waited outside the rector’s building. “Scholars are by their nature more conservative, more interested in keeping their jobs and salaries,” Candan says. “With students it’s different. They see that this concerns not only the present. It’s an assault on their future. They’re running, and we scholars can barely keep up.” The new rector, wary of a confrontation, arrived clandestinely each morning. At day’s end he left the building from a rear door.

Dozens of police vans sit outside the South Campus. In January, when the protests started, police snipers could be seen perched on rooftops of nearby buildings, their guns pointed at the entrance. Security personnel placed a single pair of handcuffs on the campus gates during protests. Three armored vehicles with water cannons, used for riot control, regularly patrol the area. Some undergrads fear stepping onto the campus and being detained. There are limits to what the students can do, but despite knowing what happened at the Gezi protests in 2013 they seem unabashed. Still, not knowing the future scale of the crackdown is uncanny. “These are our best-educated kids,” a middle-aged woman shouted during a recent protest. “They didn’t leave Turkey despite offers from abroad. Now they’ll leave the country because of this.”

Unlike 2013’s Gezi protests, though, it’s impossible for supporters to show solidarity simply by turning up (the college entrances continue to be strictly regulated and the campus remains closed on the weekends). And, just as students feared, the rector has appointed allies to top positions, proposed new faculties suspected to be part of a plan to bring in supportive staffers and launched a purge of dissident scholars. Then, suddenly, just after midnight on July 15th, Erdoğan fired Melih Bulu. His deputy, Naci İnci, provisionally took over the role of rector. Students cheered; there were celebrations in the campus; social media was ecstatic. A few observers warned against a mood of foolish optimism. On July 16th, İnci dismissed Candan from his post. He pointed to a disciplinary investigation over his posts as a reason; besides, the new rector claimed, Candan had not applied to be reappointed to his academic position after his term ended on July 16th.

Despite these maneuvers, students are determined to continue the struggle. Ultimately these protests are about what university life should or should not be: a space where students get intimidated by party loyalists, or a space where they find their agency and intellectual freedom. There is a real possibility that students may be risking their academic careers by defending purged professors like Candan for their college’s legacy. And yet, undeterred, they keep on chanting.

Photo credit: Hilmi Hacaloğlu – VOA