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Any university building should do

There was no university in Cyprus before 1992. The first edifice of higher education I walked into was on the first day of my freshman year at Penn State. The Kern Building is an unremarkable 70s red brick square structure on the edge of campus behind the austere Fred Lewis Pattee Library.

Architecturally it exudes more bureaucracy than academia but to get there you walked past grand old buildings which you imagined had vaults filled with knowledge but which Penn State’s admission office chose to ignore for Orientation Week. It did not matter. The nondescript Kern Building was where I spent all of that first week, listening to seniors and graduate students talk about everything that was on offer outside my degree. It was where I understood what the university experience could open up. In my subconscious it is forever associated with the best time of my life.

Most first year students of the 2020-21 academic year are unlikely to have been to their campuses. Among those who have, some are unlikely to have veered out of their halls of residence. With the second wave of the pandemic many have been forced to return home. Most have probably not met their professors.

One University of Cyprus professor told me that he is likely to meet his current 1st year students in person when they become 2nd year students. Another, at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, unhappy at the prospect of a Zoom session with his first-year students twitted that he donned his thermals and set up a tent on campus to hold one-on-one meetings with them.

Clearly professors and students seem sick of the restrictive online environment in which they have been forced to operate. For years now any reservation about the high-tech online shift that steamrolled through tertiary education was answered by the ominous “this is where things are going” and “students these days live their lives online, this is what they know, it’s what they want”. Well, suddenly this is being challenged by the revelation that students don’t actually want that for their university experience.

They crave meaningful learning that can only derive from person-to-person contact. A real space in which a charismatic teacher conveys knowledge and insight; Cheerful or perhaps grim, but real and there. Students need the spontaneity of a class, the laughter and the grumbling. They need people that grab their attention, they need interruption, certainly the room to exchange opinions. They need the motivation that will elicit the desire to impress a teacher in the next class. All those things that can lead to more questions, to memorable moments, to more learning.

The experience of the process of acquiring knowledge is an intrinsic part of the value of the knowledge acquired.     

In our metrics-fixated and rankings-obsessed culture you wonder how student satisfaction might be rated this year. Will it be judged on the quality of the online connection or the ‘screen engagement’ of the lecturer? Universities might not dare ask the question.

There is no doubt that universities have had to deal with an unprecedented crisis. They have raised their game – in terms of technology – to meet the challenge and they have managed to keep education going. What they have done is commendable. But talk of embracing online education as the new norm once the pandemic goes away poses huge risks. It would be a mistake to consider that going back to the pre-pandemic state of affairs would be a return to normality.

That normality was already steeped in difficulties and tensions. Universities had long lost their way. Most academics I speak to are disillusioned with academia. They have felt tired for years. Tired of the corporatism, the data driven outcomes, the culture of fundraising, the low pay, the tyranny of administration, the detachment of students who are there to get a degree and little else.

The online shift will reinforce this mindset against what professor Nancy Rothwell describes as the ‘transformational university experience’ where students learn much more than what a chosen subject provides.

The crisis is a punch-in-the-face opportunity to rethink the meaning of universities altogether. Lucy Kellaway the former financial journalist turned high school teacher wrote recently that she noticed an unusual hunger for knowledge when her pupils returned from the lockdown. “Is it”, she asked, “that having been deprived of education for so long, the students now value it more?”

When university councils and senates sit to consider their post-pandemic strategies, they would do well to think beyond innovative supposedly one-way solutions and to address the old but fundamental question about why students are at university.

Perhaps it’s not just about the hot-shot job pursuit our culture has oppressively imposed on them. Perhaps it is about discovering the pleasures of learning. That might even help academics rediscover the pleasures of teaching. These two groups will always be the crucial ingredients. And they need to come together anew and in person. Any old building should do.

Photo: Pattee Library, Pennsylvania State University (www.psu.edu).

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It couldn’t happen here.

Ece Temelkuran lost her country to Tayip Erdogan’s religious-nationalist populism and has since gallantly been fighting to get it back. One of Turkey’s most popular journalists she is now an international author and activist in exile. In How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship she has produced an important and eloquently written book.

Some parts will prove awkward for readers whose countries had been on the receiving end of Turkey’s bullying and expansionism long before Erdogan’s theft made it worse for the Turks themselves. But trusting in Temelkuran’s obvious sense of history and in her intellectual integrity, she is likely to be aware of some of her readers’ potential discomfort.

The good thing is that her campaign to help build a new Turkey would not only reverse the deterioration since Erdogan’s election in 2003 but could also address the ills that preceded, perhaps even triggered, his arrival.

For a long time the West’s reading of Turkey had suffered from the absence of Turkish voices able to articulate the complexity of Erdogan’s playbook. It was not easy to understand how an imperfect democracy with no theocratic symptoms where the army had a disproportional role was dragged down the path of religious dictatorship. The West’s view was partly blinkered by the size of Turkey’s market and its geopolitical value. Some European capitals played along with Erdogan not out of any misreading or ignorance but out of willful capitalist self-interest.

The legendary journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, who used to work at Milliyet where Temelkuran was also an influential columnist, used to be the go-to source for deciphering Turkey’s politics. Useful though his analysis was, Birand often spoke as a representative of Turkey. Temelkuran brings something different. She writes as a representative of a universal, stateless liberal democratic movement, who just happens to be Turkish. Her Turkish experience is authentic, her concern is genuine, her arguments are rational and convincing.  

It is a painful sign of the times that her analysis of the dismantling of Turkey’s institutions should serve as a manual on what should not happen elsewhere, and of all places in the United States and the United Kingdom.

During the early years of Erdogan’s AK Party Temelkuran toured the country and listened to the growing voice of a new formation labelled “the real people”. She became increasingly alarmed by how the marginalized, the desperate, those who claimed had been “disrespected” by the establishment, had begun to organise.

Under Erdogan the movement would soon pounce on the status quo, demand respect for their re-discovered religion. His cronies would go on to rig elections and spread fear among a retreating secular Turkish society.

Reasonable people in Istanbul would tell her “It couldn’t happen here” but it was already too late. The tactic was simple, says Temelkuran, “… spread confusion or start a fight between the established centre-right and centre-left politicians, poke away at the country’s fragile compromises and wallow in the disarray by stating that neither side was in touch with the demands of the real people…”

Erdogan distorted the narrative, reorganized financial and economic relations, steamrolled constitutional changes. He infiltrated institutions, including the judiciary and the army, imprisoned journalists, quashed any dissent and inevitably secured the devotion or submission of the masses. One morning the Turks woke up and exclaimed ‘This is not my country”.

Forced to flee Temelkuran explains how she later heard reasonable people in Washington repeat “It couldn’t happen here” just weeks before Trump’s election in 2016. She heard the same thing in London after the Brexit referendum.

The United States is not Turkey, and Trump is not Erdogan. But the hashtag #ThisIsNotMyCountry has been trending ominously in US social media feeds for some time. Trump may not be locking up journalists but he has eroded the US public’s faith in journalism. He may not be corrupting trials but he is insidiously shifting the balance in the US Supreme Court.

Information came to light this week in the New York Times on how Erdogan has actually compromised Trump by getting him to halt a criminal investigation into a state-owned Turkish bank suspected of violating US sanctions. Erdogan and his family have a stake in that bank. It is obvious that all this is not just about one country. The populist political mafia is colluding and spreading its dogma everywhere.

As the eastern Mediterranean’s tectonic plates shift and California’s winds blow reminding Erdogan and Trump who is really in charge, it is important that the US and Turkey are snatched back from these demagogue thieves and that the competent democratically-minded are returned to manage the impending crises. Their dynamic must be interrupted.

A Joe Biden victory on Tuesday could be a first step and one that would agitate Erdogan. A Biden defeat would mean that serial robberies will continue on an international scale.