The University’s decision to cancel a panel discussion regarding the rule of law in Turkey has sparked national conversation among scholars regarding political pressure from the Turkish government and its potential to interfere with academic freedom at Columbia.
The panel, originally to take place on Columbia’s Morningside campus on Thursday, was organized in partnership with the Human Rights Foundation, Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression program, Columbia Human Rights Institute, and the International Commission of Jurists. Panelists consisted of speakers from within and outside of Columbia; the original lineup, first set in February, included Director of the Global Freedom of Expression Project Agnès Callamard; Sarah Cleveland, faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute; and Director with the Open Society Justice Initiative Amrit Singh.
Before the cancellation of the event, the panel underwent a series of changes when Callamard and Cleveland dropped out and were replaced by Director at Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights David Phillips and Director of Freedom of Expression At-Risk Programs Karin Karlekar, who is also a staff member at PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting free speech worldwide. An extra panelist, the executive director of The Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, Sinan Ciddi, was also added.
Panelists were informed of the cancellation on Monday night, but were not provided an explanation by the provost’s office. A member of the HRF who called the panelists said that the composition of the panel did not meet the University’s “academic standards” and lacked a variety of Turkish voices, according to Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Steven Cook, Alp Y Aslandogan, executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, both of whom were also on the original panel.
In response to the cancellation of the event, PEN America expressed its concern that influence from the Turkish government played a role in the cancellation, writing that the University was “approached by a representative of the Turkish government” protesting the event.
Three of the panelists raised similar questions about the panel’s cancellation and the potential for foreign interference in academic freedom, particularly given communication between the Turkish government and the University.
“I was shocked,” Aslandogan said. “I and many of my friends believe in America [to] emphasize our freedom of expression, but now this freedom has been taken from us because of an authoritarian government and the pressure they put on third parties.”
However, a University spokesperson attributed the abrupt cancellation to “irregularities” in planning and clarified that the panel will be rescheduled for later in the month. They attributed the decisions to a lack of transparency concerning panel participants and insufficient consultation in the steps taken to rectify imbalances in the makeup of the panel.
“The decisions of several Columbia faculty and sponsoring institutions to withdraw from Thursday’s panel discussion were a direct consequence of irregularities in the planning that occurred. … Other reasons that have been publicly suggested for the postponement are mistaken,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Spectator.
Turkey is the seventh highest source of foreign gifts to the University, according to data released by the Department of Education. In 2011, Ipek Cem Taha, BS ’93 SIPA ’93, founded Columbia Global Centers in Istanbul, welcoming the provost and former SIPA Dean John Coatsworth to help the launch. In an effort to extend Columbia’s international reach, President Bollinger has also established eight global centers, one of which is situated in Istanbul.
The debate over the panel’s cancellation is also not the first time that the Turkish government’s influence on American educational institutions has come into question. Political unrest in Turkey has been described by American and European scholarly groups as a “massive and virtually unprecedented assault” on principles of academic freedom of expression, which many report has impeded academic collaboration between the United States and Turkey.
Cleveland said that she decided to pull out of the event shortly before its cancellation due to a lack of transparency in the panel’s last-minute scheduling, making clear that her decision was not motivated by foreign pressure.
“The planning of the conference lacked the consultation and transparency essential to the event’s academic integrity and produced a panel without the diverse perspectives required for our participation,” Cleveland said in a statement to Spectator.
However, Ciddi pointed out that it seemed uncommon for the provost to intervene in such a small event, and questioned the role of finances in the cancellation. Aslandogan also questioned why a notice for cancellation came just days before the event was scheduled to take place.
“I’ve organized a whole bunch of events at Georgetown and other universities, [but] I’ve never see a provost weigh in on a speaker event. I should also ask, if the provost or the University felt uncomfortable with the event, why haven't they said anything for the past weeks? Why wait until the last 72 hours?” Ciddi said.
Aslandogan argued that his own presence on the panel may have been a contributing factor to the cancellation. He has been the center of much controversy in Turkey due to his outspokenness against the current government and due to his organization and its associated movement being labeled as a “terror organization” by the current Turkish government.
He cited various events at which he had been scheduled to appear in which Turkish officials had put pressure on organizers to cancel, such as his appearances before the British parliament and when he spoke on international affairs in Melbourne, Australia.
Cook, who was the scheduled moderator for the event, expressed concern as to the precedent that the panel’s cancellation may set for other universities.
“I think it sets a terrible precedent Columbia...” Cook said. “I was stunned; I have never seen anything like this at a university before. It was very disappointing.”
Regarding the Turkish government’s contact with the University, PEN America cautioned universities on increasing interference in academic freedom and emphasized the need to make decisions that supported free speech above such pressure both in the case and moving forward.
“The direct intervention of the Turkish government in an effort to influence the event creates at the very least a perception that Columbia may have been influenced by Turkey in its decision to call off the event. … Universities, scholars, and free speech defenders must be vigilant in resisting such interference and avoiding even the perception that decisions may be shaped by government pressure,” the statement said.