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Turkey's President Takes Rare Step Back in Face of Protests

FILE - Students of Bogazici University rally against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's appointment of a new rector for the school, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 27, 2021.
FILE - Students of Bogazici University rally against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's appointment of a new rector for the school, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 27, 2021.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a step back and - after months of protests by professors and students - removed a controversial rector he had imposed on a leading university in Istanbul. The school, Bogazici University, is regarded as a center of liberal thought and academic freedom.

Bogazici University professors clapped to music in celebration Erdogan’s dismissal of their rector, Melih Bulu, by a midnight presidential decree.

For months, Bogazici instructors have held daily protests against Erdogan's initial appointment of Bulu, again by decree. The university academics traditionally elect Bogazici rectors. Bogazici Professor Can Candan welcomed Bulu's removal.

“It's the result of six-and-a-half months resistance. And It's extremely significant because this has been a role model for the whole country. Because if you resist peacefully and in a very determined way, we will eventually succeed," Candan said.

Police had violently broken up many demonstrations by students and academics over Erdogan’s decision to impose Bulu.

A large number of students had been arrested, some in dawn raids by heavily armed anti-terror police. The crackdown drew swift condemnation domestically and internationally, including from the United States.

Teaching in English, Bogazici has historic ties with the United States. It is among Turkey's top universities, with a reputation for liberal and independent thought, which has made it a target for Erdogan, says Bogazici academic Seda Altug.

“It has been targeted for some time because of its liberal environment, liberal teaching environment, because of liberal student activities, and because of that very liberal atmosphere has led many controversial and many taboo topics in Turkey to be discussed here without any kind of violence, “ Altug said.

Turkey’s government has been facing growing criticism over removing hundreds of academics from their posts as part of what it says is an anti-terrorism crackdown.

Erdogan has so far given no explanation for his decision to remove Bulu, which followed a meeting of Turkey's higher education authority, where the Bogazici University unrest was discussed.

Some prominent members of Erdogan's ruling AKP party had started to warn of growing unease among supporters over the government's stance on dissenters. Opinion polls indicated strong sympathy for the university protesters, even among some Erdogan supporters.

Professor Candan, while welcoming Erdogan's move, remains cautious.

“The struggle continues. Just because he has pulled back doesn't mean we all be able to elect our own rector. The struggle continues. But it's definitely a big success on the road to some big changes not only for Bogazici but also for other institutions of higher education,” Candan said.

Students and academics are calling for a return of elections by academics for all university rectors' posts. It remains unclear whether Erdogan will seek to impose a new rector for Bogazici University.