In 2016, Cem Özatalay, a professor of sociology at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, added his name to a petition condemning state violence against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeastern region.
For Özatalay, the government’s actions, which have led to the deaths and injuries of scores of Kurdish civilians, demanded a strong response. He was not alone in his thinking: more than 1,200 academics and researchers from across Turkey joined in signing the petition.
The response from the Turkish government, which has become increasingly authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was swift and severe: It charged the signees with “spreading terrorist propaganda” and declared that they would be tried in court.
As the trials in December 2017 neared, Özatalay and the approximately 1,400 academics and researchers who signed the petition (200 more had joined their ranks after the government announced its charges) stood their ground.
“I had no plans to travel outside of Turkey,” says Özatalay, who has already had two court hearings, and, if convicted, could spend months or years in prison. “In my mind, I and my peers had the idea that we have to resist authoritarian politics.”
Maintaining that stance could mean time behind bars, but also time away from the research and teaching that is Özatalay’s passion and livelihood. A leading voice on the economic sociology of capitalism in Turkey, he was confronted with a difficult choice: stay in his home country and risk going to jail, or temporarily relocate to the United States where he could finish his research.
After discussing the idea with his wife, who months earlier had given birth to their first child, Özatalay decided to explore the possibility of leaving Turkey to come to the United States. He eventually accepted an invitation from The New School to continue his research at the progressive Greenwich Village University and become a scholar in The New University in Exile Consortium (The New UIE Consortium).
With The New School serving as the administrative base, The New UIE Consortium is a growing group of 11 universities and colleges from across the country — Barnard College, Brown University, Columbia University, Connecticut College, Georgetown University, George Mason University, Rutgers University-Newark, Trinity College, Wayne State University, and Wellesley College — that share a common mission and are joining forces to provide space and resources to support endangered scholars from around the world. The New UIE Consortium forms at a time of tightening U.S. immigration policies and threats to academic freedom everywhere from Turkey to Syria to Iran and beyond.
European scholars from the original university in exile. (Photo/The New York Times)
“We are honored to be joined in this bold and courageous effort by other leading academic institutions across the country,” says New School President David Van Zandt. “The time to step up and protect academic freedom — a pillar of our university’s history and mission — is now.”
The New UIE Consortium springs from The New School’s history and mission — namely, the first University in Exile (UIE), founded by The New School for Social Research in 1933. Created as Hitler was rising to power — a period in which Jews and those deemed politically hostile were purged from German universities — the original UIE provided a safe haven for scholars whose careers and lives were being threatened by the Nazis. It stood as a bulwark against brutal policies that undermined the independence of thought and research upon and for which universities are founded.
“The New UIE Consortium brings our institution’s roots — to confront threats to scholars around the world — into the present and future when it is again urgently needed,” says Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School and founder and director of The New UIE Consortium. “It is based on our conviction that the academic community has both the responsibility and capacity to assist scholars in need, by helping to protect the intellectual capital that is jeopardized when universities and scholars are under assault.”
In Turkey, that need is particularly acute. Ever since the attempted military coup against the Turkish government in 2016, Erdogan has moved to bring universities under his political control, breaking up institutions, censoring ideas, and purging hundreds of academics.
While Özatalay currently has his job, he can’t say for how long. Thanks to The New School and the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund, which is making his stay in New York City possible, he will continue to pursue his research on “the transformations and diversification of workers’ consciousness in neoliberal Turkey.” In addition, Özatalay will benefit from an intellectual community of refugee scholars, fostered by The New School, which will plan joint programming with other New UIE Consortium institutions.
In The New School, Özatalay has found an ideal home — a university where academic freedom is protected, independent thought is encouraged, and endangered scholars from across the world have found a safe haven.
“The New School has a history of taking in exiled academics and a tradition of critical thinking,” Özatalay says. “This, combined with the situation in Turkey, helped in my decision. It’s an incredible opportunity for me to continue my scientific activities in a critical environment.”