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Turkish Authorities Face Backlash As Students Protest University Appointment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Turkey is seeing some of its biggest student protests in years. The unrest started when the Turkish government imposed its choice for who should run one of the country's premier universities, breaking a long tradition of independence. Scores of people have now been arrested, and the protests continue, with authorities worried the unrest could spread. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports both students and faculty oppose the move.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The university is named Bogazici, which is Turkish for the Bosporus Strait. It's been one of the city's elite universities since its founding as an American school in the 1860s. For the past 50 years, it's been a Turkish state university. The school's leaders have always been chosen by internal election, until now. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government announced in January that it was installing Melih Bulu, a local official from Erdogan's ruling AK Party, to head the university.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: Protests broke out on campus, and they were met with a massive police presence. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in a television interview, likened the demonstrators to a mob bent on destruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULEYMAN SOYLU: (Speaking non-English language)

KENYON: He said they brought gridlock to the university, calling the demonstrators, quote, "a rampaging minority trying to turn this place into an ideological center." But neither official outrage nor police intervention seems to have dampened the protesters' enthusiasm. One of them is Can Candan, a lecturer at Bogazici. He says it's no surprise that there's been widespread outrage at the government's move to abruptly end a 150-year-old tradition of the university selecting its own leaders.

CAN CANDAN: And this appointment of a new rector, somebody we know nothing about, after a process in which nobody asked our opinion or input or our vote, is unacceptable to us.

KENYON: Amid the tensions, the interior minister tweeted a photo of an LGBT poster displayed at one of the protests, saying Turkey shouldn't have to tolerate the demands of, quote, "LGBT deviants." His tweet was tagged by Twitter for violating its rules on hateful conduct.

I reached Bogazici student Ihsan Ozdemir at an Istanbul bus stop waiting for a ride to campus. He said students were astonished at Soylu's comment.

IHSAN OZDEMIR: It was a horrible statement, I think. We couldn't believe that. I mean, the interior minister is supposed to hold the peace in the country, but he was targeting a group of people who are already disadvantaged in this country.

KENYON: Despite the large number of detentions, Ozdemir says they're not wavering in their demands.

OZDEMIR: We want all appointed rectors to leave their positions and all universities make a - have an election and choose their rectors. And we want our friends to be freed. I mean, we want everyone to be freed. We did not do anything unlawful.

KENYON: Candan, the faculty member, says ever since the 2013 Gezi protests over building on a city park which mushroomed into a broad anti-government protest, there's been an ongoing assault on Turkish institutions with a history of upholding secular, liberal values. He says there aren't many left.

CANDAN: Obviously, the judiciary has been under attack for a long time. And institutions of higher education also have been under attack for a long time since - especially since 2016, with the failed coup attempt followed by the state of emergency.

KENYON: Several thousand academics were among those sacked after the coup attempt. So far, the government has taken a hard line, dismissing criticism from the U.S. and European Union. Today, Turkish police arrested scores more people in connection with the protests. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.