On June 30, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree effectively closing Istanbul Sehir University, an institution established by former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. The decision to close the university followed the apparent deterioration of the relationship between Davutoğlu and Erdogan.
Istanbul Sehir University was established by Turkey’s Foundation for Science and Arts (BISAV) in 2008, and opened its doors to students during the 2010-2011 academic year. Davutoğlu was among its founders, while President Erdogan was an early supporter of the university, delivering the inaugural speech at its opening.
Davutoğlu served as the country’s prime minister from 2014 until he was reportedly forced to resign in 2016 following a disagreement with Erdogan over the scope of the prime minister’s powers. In September 2019, Davutoğlu, who had recently become an increasingly vocal critic of Erdogan, resigned from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and launched his own opposition party, known as the New Future Party. The following month, one of Istanbul Sehir University’s state-owned creditors, Halkbank, announced that it had determined that land it had previously accepted as collateral for a loan to the university was worthless; consequently, the bank froze the university’s accounts. An Istanbul court approved this action, leaving the university unable to pay back its loans and other expenses.
In December 2019, Istanbul Sehir University was seized and placed under the control of Marmara University, which had been designated as the university’s guarantor. On June 30, 2020, Erdogan issued a presidential decree stripping Istanbul Sehir University of its permit to operate, effectively shuttering it. According to the university, the decision impacted 400 faculty, 300 staff, and more than 7000 students, fifteen percent of whom were international students from 87 different countries.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about decisions by state authorities apparently aimed at targeting and ultimately closing a higher education institution. While state authorities have a right to impose administrative regulations on the higher education space, such actions must comply with states’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, due process, the right to education, and academic freedom, which are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party. Closures of higher education institutions, particularly when they arise out of political conflicts, have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom, undermine democratic society generally, and may represent a grave threat to higher education on a national scale.