Tag Archives: higher education

Mobilizing for academic freedom and the future of higher education

Growing student debt, rising tuition, institutional racism, and the concerns over the attacks on universities’ autonomy have triggered protests over the past decade that have opened up further analyses of young people’s political participation (Cini and Guzman-Goncha 2017, Earl, Maher and Elliott 2017, Türkoğlu 2019). As social movement scholars that study movements in the field of higher education, we usually focus on the students or the faculty as the main actors in these mobilizations. It is often harder to study the gray area where potential stakeholders might choose between the roles of bystanders and participants because of their personal ties to the hallowed halls. The alumni stand in this gray zone. When the president of Turkey appointed a former politician from his own party, who has never held an administrative role in a public university, as the rector[1] of Boğaziçi University, the infringement on academic autonomy not only mobilized the students and the faculty but also the alumni.

Government restrictions on academic autonomy and the opposition to these restrictions have become increasingly common in the past few years. In the United Kingdom, the government announced sanctions on universities to “protect free speech” which education unions interpreted as yet another government intervention to limit academic autonomy. In the United States, only a couple of years ago, President Trump signed an executive order to ensure “free speech on college campuses” which was a triumph for conservative student activists. In France, the government announced an investigation into social science research as part of their mission against what Macron and his ministers call “Islamo-leftism.” Government authorities use this label for scholars who advance “radical” and “activist” ideas such as “systemic racism” in France. Not surprisingly, academic institutions issued public statements to convey their opposition to the attacks on academic freedom. As government policies aiming to limit academic freedoms lead to mobilizations big and small in different countries, a noteworthy mobilization for the defense of academic freedom has emerged in Turkey.

Boğaziçi University campus in Istanbul has hosted faculty and student protests for two months. Student protests are quite common in Turkey and elsewhere. Faculty protests are less frequent but still not too extraordinary. However, it is quite uncommon for all faculty to protest the appointment of a university president turning their back against the rectorate -rain, shine, or snow [see the photo above, credit: Can Candan]. Furthermore, they have refused to take part in administrative duties until the newly-appointed rector resigns. To put these protests in context, I should note that the higher education system in Turkey has taken a turn towards hyper-centralization since 2016, when the government consolidated all of the decision-making powers regarding the inner workings of universities through government-appointed rectors. Boğaziçi has had a somewhat unique position because it was able to maintain a decentralized consensus-based governance structure in a public university and enforce a merit-based system that kept the university among the highest-ranking research universities in Turkey. What is also quite uncommon within the global context of mobilization for academic freedoms is to see students arrested, LGBTQ students demonized, academics targeted in delegitimization efforts, and the university gates handcuffed.

Nevertheless, these repression tactics and the attacks targeting prominent faculty seem to have backfired. The faculty of prominent public and private universities issued public statements in support of Boğaziçi university faculty and students, college students in various universities organized solidarity protests and issued public statements, even the high school alumni from different cities signed open letters. The international community including the EU raised concerns that carry political weight as 60% of the Turkish citizens still favor EU accession.  More importantly, the majority of the Turkish public favor university-held elections for rector appointments, including those who voted for the governing party.

Amidst all these developments, the alumni of Boğaziçi University also mobilized. Alumni associations issued a joint declaration to voice their disapproval of the government-appointed rector and articulated their commitment to Boğaziçi values including academic freedom. They have organized petition campaigns and coordinated protest activities online. Only a small number of alumni have been allowed on campus due to the pandemic restrictions but alumni associations have been sending representatives to stand with the protesting students and faculty in front of the rectorate. In a survey I conducted with 1,131 alumni who graduated from different departments in different decades, more than 99% favored a mechanism that involve an election within the universities (see in Turkish Türkoğlu 2021). This is an important finding because the sample included alumni who voted for different parties, left and right. While protests in the streets are a high-risk activity due to the pandemic and government restrictions, a majority (around 70 percent) participated in online protests/campaigns. Even those who did not participate in the protests approved of the opposition for the most part. These surprising results, in a country where the political culture is deeply polarized, indicate an important venue for the study of social movements that aim for higher education policy change.


[1] Rector is the highest administrative position in a university in Turkey. The position holds extensive administrative and academic powers such as faculty and staff hires, budget allocations, revisions of university regulations, and approval of academic activities including grant applications and academic conferences.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

How Occupy Influenced the Election – Beyond the Pepper Spraying Cop

Postcard for recent Occupy the Regent actions with student and labor activists across the state of California.

With all of the Monday morning quarterbacking after the election, what is often left out of the equation is the Occupy factor. Many dismissed Occupy this past year as ineffective, disorganized and, well, dead. Many asked why Occupy wasn’t working within existing political structures to effect change. But like many social movements before it, working “within the system” can mean something broader than running candidates or lobbying legislators.

On November 6, Californians voted to approve Proposition 30. This is a tax on the rich to fund public services. Californians making more than $250,000 are now required to pay extra taxes to fund public education, as well as other societal needs. Think about that. Taxing the 1% to support the 99%. Hmmm…now where did that come from? Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under Daily Disruption

Following Mayer’s Bridge-Building, Boundary-Spanning Path Requires a Movement in our Profession

By Jackie Smith

When thinking about Mayer Zald’s impact on the study of social movements and global change, what is most striking is how he helped build bridges between disciplines and perspectives that are structured in ways that virtually ensure that no cross-fertilization of ideas will occur. At a time when our universities and core institutions of the academy such as academic freedom and tenure are being seriously threatened, it is useful to think about why people like Mayer are so rare in the academic profession. Mayer’s writings on organizations, firms, and social movements can help us look closely at the organizational “prisons” in which we work, and his example as a mentor and catalyst of ideas provide insights on how to respond to the challenges of our time. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements