On July 19, 2016, Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) ordered the resignation of 1557 deans from all private and public universities following a July 15 coup attempt.
State authorities, including YÖK, have alleged that members of a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen are behind the coup attempt. They have taken a range of actions against members of the higher education community (among others) which they claim are intended to identify those parties involved with the coup attempt, and/or to eliminate the Gülen movement’s influence within Turkish institutions.
On July 19, YÖK officials demanded all university deans in Turkey, including deans at 1176 state universities and 401 Foundation (private) universities, to submit letters of resignation. According to YÖK, deans would temporarily step down from these administrative positions while retaining their academic responsibilities. In a July 21 press release, YÖK officials responded to heavy media attention around the decision, stating:
“The failed coup attempt in Turkey has provided strong signals that the responsible clandestine and illegal armed organization may have penetrated into our higher education system and this illegal organization may have established strong links with the schools and universities nationwide.
The resignation of the deans should be regarded as a precautionary measure to facilitate and precipitate the implementation of the necessary steps to reestablish the autonomy of our universities by severing possible ties with these clandestine and illegal organizations.
Desperate times may require desperate measures. As is known, decisions limiting the fundamental rights and liberties are made in case of state of emergency…”
On September 6, YOK announced that 1386 deans had been reinstated; however, this remains unconfirmed. The status of the 191 remaining deans is unknown.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the forced resignation of Turkey’s university deans as a part of a widespread effort to eliminate the influence of scholars suspected of association with a particular organization and suspected of participation in a coup attempt. While State authorities have a right to maintain order and respond to legitimate security concerns, such actions must comply with States’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, due process, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy, which are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.