Open Letter to David Harvey

Dear Mr. Harvey,

Ever since we heard about your visit to İstanbul on June the 9th, not only we are looking forward to listen to your valuable elaborations of the crisis of capitalism and urban struggles but we also deeply feel the need to acquaint you with the most recent implementations  of the Istanbul Bilgi University, (legally a non-profit private/foundation university and practically a  ‘chain store’  of the Baltimore based Laureate Education Inc.) where you are going to give your speech.

Since we know your  meticulous  research both on urban rent and class struggles, we feel obliged to let you know that Bilgi University is not  only  one of the major agents of gentrification around its three campus locations but also it has violated the freedom of expression and the right to unionize of its staff. Kindly allow us to go a bit into details.
All three campuses of Bilgi University  are located in the city center, in the middle of working-class neighbourhoods heavily under pressure either of classical gentrification, high-rise, new upper-class residence formations or state-led appropriation by  dispossession. The Santral campus, where your first talk is going to take place, is located at the end of Haliç  (Golden Horn) basin, once an  industrial  zone, now under heavy attack of different sorts of capital. Similar to and as a more mature  gentrification  model of “Docklands-London”, in recent years many vague proposals about the Golden Horn basin have been spelled out by metropolitan planning office (IMP). Sometimes dreams of a “slicon valley” formation, other times a mediocre Richard Florida  inspired creative industry centre,  occasionally  plans of bifurcation through tourism industry are all in the air. But  meanwhile  the driving away of the old residents and working classes is increasing through different strategies. 1- Through privatization of public land and assets (by agents like Bilgi University, Kadir Has University, Koç Museum of Industry, Haliç Congress Center, etc) 2- Actual or planned destruction of complete neighbourhoods via the power of central government, and metropolitan and district municipalities (Yahya Kemal, Fener-Balat-Ayvansaray, Karadolap, Akşemsettin, Yeşil Pınar neighbourhood and Suleymaniye region just to mention a few) 3-Massive gated communities, office buildings through public-private partnership/planning in Cendere Valley, north of the basin, leading up to the business district of Maslak.  Since the so-called “Law of Disaster” which  basically  equips the government with an immense authority and renders even the ‘sanctity of the property right’ meaningless has been accepted in the parliament, a further attack around Haliç is also to be expected.

The Santral Campus of the Bilgi University/Laureate is not only situated at the geographical center of this massive urban rent process, but  sociologically  speaking, the mainly upper-class student profile of the university (apart from those with scholarships, the monthly fee of the  university  is approximately three times more than the monthly minimum wage) also provides part of the actual and potential clients of the gentrified areas. Also somewhat reminding us the relation of Columbia University with East Harlem inhabitants, there is an explicit class tension between the campus life (fashion weeks, expensive and loud concerts, privatized cafes, posh wedding ceremonies, luxurious car advertisements and launches etc., there is no single spot at the campus where one cannot dwell without consuming) and the surrounding working-class neighbourhoods,  occasionally  also resulting in the harassment of neighbourhood youngsters by private security.

The Santral Campus of Bilgi University  used to be İstanbul ‘s oldest power station  facility  and is actually one of the city’s few remaining industrial and cultural heritages. After its appropriation by the Bilgi Education and Culture Foundation from the Ministry of Energy in 2005, legally the founder of the Bilgi University, the campus was  officially  opened in 2007. Because of the heavy bill of the renovation/restoration costs, the Foundation had to first take loans from Laureate Edu. Inc., subsequently de facto selling all the University including buildings and staff ( !) to the Laureate International Universities Network in 2009, the trademark of Laureate Edu. Inc. You might know well the type of for-profit university companies, subsidized by Pell Grants and grown big within the finance-led accumulation regime of the 1990’s.  Laureate operated within the NASDAQ stock exchange until 2007, the time it was taken out of the stock exchange by a management private-equity buy out. Since then Laureate belongs to a private equity consortium that includes the infamous private equity fund Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. It is specialized in taking over highly indebted and future-promising universities such as Universidad Europea de Madrid and Bilgi. The former’s takeover has also triggered a land rent scandal back in 1997. The legal framework of how a for-profit university company operates within the Turkish legal system where profit-making at/out of the universities is still forbidden is an obscure issue. Clear is, that Laureate keeps warm ties to the current liberal-conservative regime. In 2010 it has granted the honorary doctorate to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mainly for its ‘immense efforts for the alliance of civilizations’ by its European centre, namely the Universidad Europea de Madrid.

After Laureate took over the  University in 2009, it pushed the button for  further  commercialization and neoliberalisation of the education either by practically closing down theory-based departments such as Computer Sciences, Political Economy and Social  Philosophy, Photography and Video, or by reducing the scholarships for departments such as History, Sociology,  Comparative  Literature, Mathematics. But the main attack was directed against the first unionization movement in a foundation university, mobilizing under DİSK/Sosyal İş-Service Worker’s Union since 2009, resulting in dismissal of around 40 employees in 2010 and 2011. These employees were mostly from the academic staff, were working in the least protected segments of the academic hierarchy (instructors and teaching/research assistants) and some of them constituted the backbone of the unionization movement at the university. The cases of 19 dismissed scholars are still pending at the Court of Labour and continue with public support. Immediately  most of them were replaced by new ones with at least 30 percent less  salary  and condemned to precarious working conditions. The  suppression  of the freedom of expression internally (disabling the all-accessible mailing lists, launching a disciplinary investigations for a scholar criticizing the dismissals and the overall Laureate/Bilgi policy of commercialization) has been a marker of the new ‘efficiency-seeking management strategy’ of Laureate/Bilgi. Just to give an example, Assoc. Prof. Esra Arsan get sacked last week from its department at the Faculty of Communication, allegedly because she considered to be ‘inefficient and moody’ by its Dean. She is a well known critical scholar openly criticizing the new policies of the university and an expressive journalist about the authoritarian tendencies of the liberal-conservative AKP and its Kurdish politics.

In short, Mr. Harvey, we do not only believe that Bilgi University is a neoliberal agent of gentrification, currently systematically causing rights violations during the process of the application of its ‘efficiency-seeking’ management strategy, precarizing academic and other labour, squeezing space at its campuses and lobbying for the opening of the Turkish university system to for-profit university companies, but also  practicing  “urban wash” by inviting prominent  Marxist  thinkers to make speeches and to get involved in ‘purely intellectual’  production processes. We know that you support and use “praxis”, as we do. We are inspired by your call for a class-based urban struggle. We feel obliged to share our knowledge with all our  comrades.

Best regards and with solidarity,

İMECE – Urbanisation Movement by People

www.toplumunsehircilikhareketi.org

(one of the many social movements in Turkey, fighting for urban revolution and justice)

Istanbul, 3 June 2012