By Barlow Der Mugrdechian
A recent offer by the Turkish government to set up an endowed Chair in Ottoman and Turkish History at UCLA has engendered a firestorm of controversy. The proposed $1,000,000 donation would establish an endowed Chair in an area of study which has already caused much debate over the past twenty years at UCLA, most notably with the activities of Turkish History Professor Stanford Shaw who has for years denied the Armenian Genocide.
The UCLA von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies accepted a $250,000 down payment for the endowment in October-without however first consulting the faculty who would be involved in the decision making process regarding the Chair.
Because of the debate when the issue of the establishment Chair was publicized, UCLA has agreed to indefinitely postpone a decision on whether or not to accept the donation.
In a question which has as its core the issue of academic integrity, the History Department at UCLA was to have considered the endowment question at a meeting on October 31 but the meeting has been rescheduled for December 5. At stake is the academic integrity of UCLA, one of the finest public universities in the United States. How can UCLA accept money from a foreign government, which has been cited by groups such as Amnesty International, as consistently having one of the worst human rights record in the world? Is this what the University wants-to be associated with a government which is currently waging a vicious war against its own Kurdish population (not dissimilar to what happened to the Armenians in 1915)?
Under normal circumstances and without preconditions, a Chair in the field of Ottoman and Turkish history would be welcomed by especially by Armenians, who comprised a sizable percentage of the Ottoman population before the Armenian Genocide of 1915. As one of the areas of Ottoman History, the Chairholder would be able to study the valuable role that Armenians and other groups played in the commercial and cultural life of the Empire. What is not acceptable and where the objections lie are in significant conditions which the Turkish government has placed in the selection process of candidates to fill the position.
According to an article by Kenneth R. Weiss appearing in The Los Angeles Times, “the agreement limited the search to scholars who ‘maintain close and cordial relations with academic circles in Turkey’ and ‘whose published works are based upon extensive utilization of archives and libraries in Turkey.'” Such conditions are considered to be a violation of academic freedom. The first condition, because it implies that the scholar must be on cordial relations with academic circles in Turkey. What is the definition of this? Does it not really mean to be on good relations with the Government of Turkey-especially when that Government is so involved in the screening and often censorship of academic work? How could a scholar study the potentially sensitive period of 1876-1918 without fearing that their work would have to be acceptable to the academic circles in Turkey?
The second condition is even more egregious because it states what seems to be a normal and acceptable practice. The fact is that access to Turkish archives is extremely limited and that scholars have been denied a chance to study there for often capricious reasons. The archives of the Ottoman Government have not been opened for the period of 1894-1896 when extensive massacres took place against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and later in 1915-1918 when the Armenian genocide was unfolding in the midst of World War I. The control of the utilization of the archives and who has access to them by the Turkish Government has had, and will continue to have, a chilling effect on academic freedom.
In addition, why has the Turkish government begun a campaign to fund Turkish History Chairs at universities across the United States. Six other universities have already been funded, the most prominent of which was Princeton University which gave its Chair to Heath Lowry, former Director of the Institute for Turkish Studies in Washington, DC and a prominent apologist for the Turkish government.
If the past actions of the Government of Turkey are an example, then these “Chairs” will be used in an organized campaign to rewrite history and to promote the ìofficialî version of history according to the Turkish Government. Their goal will be to suppress the history of groups such as the Armenians-a people whose physical and material destruction has been a goal of Turkey for the past eighty-two years.
The establishment of an endowed Chair in Ottoman and Turkish History, with the conditions as currently set forth, is wrong. In an age where governments often have an interest in the suppression of independent scholarship, it would be a wrong step for UCLA to accept money from the government of Turkey, especially in the light of the fact that Turkey until today has not recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
All of those interested in this issue must make sure that UCLA will not accept such a gift from Turkey. The academic freedom of scholars and the academic integrity of the institution are at stake.