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Gaza Shakes American Universities

“What makes America a superpower?” If you ask, I would say directly ‘its academy’. Yes, America has a very strong army, advanced technology, a robust civil society, and a vast economy. However, these are the results of a rooted academy.

In a country with about 4,000 universities, even the smallest provincial universities have standards that cannot even be imagined in Turkey. For example, in the USA, someone known as ‘Aktrol’, like Selman Öğüt, would not even be made a research assistant, let alone a rector.

Don’t get me wrong, the problem is not that Selman Öğüt is a supporter of the power; it’s academic theft! There was plagiarism, that is, theft in Selman Öğüt’s master’s thesis. Theft, especially academic theft, is absolutely and never acceptable here.

Moreover, his associate professorship thesis was also controversial.

Because in an email he sent to Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, he was asking for the arrangement of the associate professorship jury. Öğüt was able to become an ‘associate professor’ after the associate professorship interview was removed. Let alone top-tier universities like Harvard, Chicago, or Princeton, even provincial universities would not let someone who has plagiarism in their thesis through the door.

But our topic is not Selman Öğüt. Let’s say, “After feet became heads in Turkey, so what if Selman Öğüt became a rector!” and get back to the main issue.

As is known, the conflicts between Israel and Hamas and the operations undertaken by the war cabinet led by Netanyahu in Gaza are being protested all around the world. Especially in American universities.

Although the Biden administration and the mainstream media are entirely on Israel’s side, social media and civil society are standing up for the civilians massacred in Gaza.

The debate is big.

There are protests and actions in universities. Discussions about anti-Semitism are also growing.

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The issue is also on the agenda of the US Congress and there was a very heated session the other day. The rectors of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) testified in Congress.

There is much that Turkish universities can take from this heated session. Firstly, there are no rectors who get flustered at the sight of a president or a minister, let alone a deputy.

Indeed, in the US Congress, Harvard Rector Claudine Gay, Pennsylvania Rector Elizabeth Magill, and MIT Rector Sally Kornbluth faced persistent questions from Republican Congress members for three hours.

And not just any questions.

Congress members grilled the rectors. In response to the Republicans’ salvo from left and right, the rectors emphasized freedom of expression. Republican Congress Member Elise Stefanik asked Harvard Rector Gay if disciplinary action would be taken against students using slogans such as “From the river to the sea!” or “Intifada!”.

New York Congress Member Stefanik insisted, “Please answer yes or no.” but the rectors did not change their stance. Harvard Rector said, “It may be contrary to Harvard’s values but we maintain our commitment to freedom of expression, even if the views are inappropriate, offensive, and full of hate.”

Claudine Gay said they could act if ‘the statements encourage violence or turn into behavior that threatens security’, and they have a very strong disciplinary process, but this explanation did not satisfy the politicians.

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Pennsylvania Rector Magill also responded “Yes!” to the same congress member’s question about whether calling for “Jewish genocide” violates university rules.

Stefanik asked MIT Rector Kornbluth the same question. Kornbluth said it would come up if it targets individuals.

In response to Stefanik’s question about whether this violates the university’s rules, Kornbluth also answered that ‘it could be investigated as harassment if it is too much and severe’.

The responses of the three rectors severely angered Jews in America.

So much so that Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro found the statement of the President of the University of Pennsylvania Liz Magill ‘shameful’. The backlash against the rectors was not just in words.

Ross Stevens, the founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, one of the donors of the University of Pennsylvania, announced that they canceled a donation of 100 million dollars in response to Magill’s statements. There were many politicians who called for the resignation of the rectors.

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Following this, Magill made a mixed apology-explanation statement from the university’s social media account, but the reactions are not subsiding. There is also a strong effort to remove all three from office.

The issue is also one of the priorities of Congress.

As is known, the first amendment to the US constitution regulates freedom of expression. There is also quite a wide precedent on this issue. However, the Gaza agenda has also ignited discussions about freedom of expression. Let’s see where the struggle between those who defend freedom of expression and capital-lobby groups will evolve.

As I have explained in previous writings and broadcasts; Civilian losses in Gaza are shaking the West more than expected.

All three university presidents who testified in Congress are highly experienced names. They can guess what will happen to them when they do not give the answers the politicians want to hear. Nevertheless, they continued to defend freedom of expression.

I wonder how many people or how many rectors in Turkey could risk losing millions of dollars and maybe even their positions?”

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Adem Yavuz Arslan
Adem Yavuz Arslan
Adem Yavuz Aslan is a leading Turkish investigative journalist in exile based in Washington, D.C.
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