The flag of Turkey.

The flag of Turkey.

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Turkish academics targeted as government reacts to failed coup

In the wake of a failed coup attempt last weekend, the Turkish government has brought higher education to a grinding halt. It appears to be part of a massive political purge in which the government has arrested and fired thousands of people. And educators across the country are bracing for more bad news after the government this week suspended teachers and academic deans. "They are restructuring academia," says Caghan Kizil, a Turkish molecular biologist based at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany who has been in close communication with colleagues in Turkey. "People are very scared and not hopeful."

The coup itself only lasted a day. On 15 July, a faction of rebel soldiers stormed government and media buildings, blocked key bridges, and clashed with forces loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But by the next morning they had surrendered. With his grip on power re-established, Erdoğan then made an ominous announcement about the dissenters: "They will pay a heavy price." What remains to be seen is who "they" are.

In the span of a few days, more than 45,000 civil servants in the military and judiciary have been fired or suspended. Although there are ambiguous and conflicting media reports, it appears that some 15,000 staff members of the ministry of education also were fired, 21,000 teachers lost their professional licenses, and more than 1500 university deans were all but ordered to resign.

It may seem strange that the government can seize control of academia with a single decree. After all, the rectors at Turkey's 180 universities are chosen through a nominally democratic process in which faculty members at each university vote for their candidate of choice. But officials at the ministry of education—and, ultimately, Turkey's president—have the final say. "The university rarely gets its top choice," Kizil says. Erdoğan's allies occupy key slots, as the aftermath of the coup has made clear. "The university rectors asked their deans to resign and the implication was clear: Resign or you will be accused of treason and arrested."

The latest clampdown took place yesterday when the government ordered universities to call back Turkish academics from abroad. "They want to take the universities under their full control," says Sinem Arslan, a Turk doing a political science Ph.D. at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. "Academic freedoms will no longer exist. I don't think that anybody will be able to work on research areas that are considered taboo by the government or write anything that criticizes the government."

Turkish government officials say the coup was orchestrated by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a powerful religious leader who fled Turkey and has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. The purge aims to remove Gülen's support "by the roots," declared Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. But Gulen denied any involvement, and some see the purge as an opportunistic power grab by the ruling Justice and Development Party, and maintain that plans to squash dissent have been in the works for years.

The truth may emerge from an unexpected source: On 17 July, the organization Wikileaks released nearly 300,000 emails harvested—by unknown means—from Turkish government officials going back as far as 2010. This cache of private communications may shed light on the motives behind the new crackdown, and in turn kindle new fires for the Erdoğan government to put out.