Sunday, August 10, 2008

Contestation In Public Education

President Gül recently appointed new rectors to 21 universities and did so on apparently political grounds. Although the president has the authority to choose rectors from among a list given to him by the Higher Education Counicl (YÖK), Gül is being criticized on grounds that his selections were political. Rectors at public universities are chosen in a three-step process. First, the university prepares a list of six potential candidates who are elected--and ranked accordingly--by faculty vote. Second, YÖK narrows this list to three candidates by eliminating half of the candidates on the list. In the last phase, the president determines the rector from the list of the final three candidates supplied by YÖK. The criticism of Gül follows his selection of candidates that were not opposed to lifting the headscarf ban in universities earlier this year. Out of the 21 rectors chosen, Gül refused to appoint nine of the 21 top candidates chosen by universities and later approved by YÖK. YÖK, now chaired by Gül appointee Professor Yusuf Ziya Özcan, is also being criticized for removing three universities' first picks from the lists that were sent to Gül.

The charges of politics are familiar and are, of course, particularly fervent since they occur in the area of education--one of the most contested areas of public life. As political sociologist Berna Turam has written, contestations over education are especially fervent and numerous insomuch as what Turks are really debating is "the future direction of the Turkish Republic. The Turkish state, like many other centralized states, is indeed institutionally unified. However, it is a "unified disunity" to use [Joel] Migdal's term" (Turam, Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 87-88). This "unified disunity" places great stress on the Turkish state since it is easily pulled in different directions. As the state accommodates an increased number of conflicting interests, and in Turkey's case, possibly worldviews, the social actors who were once in conflict become state actors in conflict. As Turam further quotes Migdal, as various actors are incorporated into the state, if those actors are opposed to the status quo, what is likely to develop is a game of push and pull between the new and old actors that will alter the social and ideological underpinnings of the state. However, as Turam dismisses the fears of "hardcore secularists" as unjustified, arguing instead that such contestations are "organic extensions of a transition from authoritarian rule," it seems that the degree to which both sides--not just the established Kemalist class--are willing to work together "will determine the limits of cultural diversity and political pluralism in Turkey." If Turkish politics becomes reduced to factions in which one side shamelessly promotes its interests and ideas over that of the other with no real dialogue or desire to compromise existent between the two, the balance between cohesion and disunity that Turam lays out will surely tip in favor of disunity and therefore reduce democratic possibilities.

Instead of such fights over appointments, analysts on both sides of the aisle have suggested that the president's appointment of university rectors unnecessarily entangles universities in state politics and sets up state educational insitution's to become political fighting grounds (see the columns of Yusuf Kanlı and Fatma Dişli, the latter of whom seems to think wise the recommendations of Milliyet's Fikret Bila). While the entanglement of higher education institutions in high state politics is unavoidable to some degree, the suggested decentralization of state involvement in university governance might indeed bring welcome relief to stress that almost reached a breaking point earlier this month, especially as I am not at all convinced that contestations in the area of university appointments can be dismissed as a benign and ordinary part of transition from authoritarian rule.

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