A Conversation With an Advocate For Academic Freedom

ISTANBUL—A road that snakes through hillside towns in northern Istanbul leads to one of Turkey’s most exclusive higher learning institutions: Koç University.

There, the university’s president, Umran Inan, governs with a hands-off approach from his office overlooking a campus courtyard on the edge of the Bosporus. The fans of his style say that it should serve as an example for the region.

“The correct thing to do is to hire and appoint the best academics and let them do it, you see?” said Inan, who spent most of his career at Stanford University in the United States before returning to Turkey five years ago. “You get the best results by not being in the middle of it.”

Inan says the philosophy reflects that of the Vehbi Koç Foundation, which doesn’t seek to influence the university’s curriculum even though it supports the university with $30 million annually. Just over two decades ago, the Turkish businessman and philanthropist, Vehbi Koç, founded the university.

Now, as one among dozens of foundation universities created by wealthy families in Turkey, it is educating more than 5,300 students, most of them drawn from the top 3 percent of students who have taken the national university placement exam—a requirement for all Turkish students seeking to attend a local university. The university also has about 140 Ph.D. students each year. Its faculty members primarily hold doctoral degrees from top-tier universities across Europe and the United States.

“This is in fact the Ivy League of Turkey,” says Inan, who sat down with Al-Fanar Media on a recent afternoon to talk about his governance model, Turkish higher education and the university that is perched amid wooded hills.

What is the vision and mission of Koç University? 

Koç University was founded to pursue excellence in research and education in Turkey. If you think about that broadly in the context of the size of Koç University versus the rest of the educational landscape in Turkey, I think the mission crystallizes in the area of setting a good example for what excellent education and excellent research and pursuing the boundaries of knowledge can be.

At the same time, I think in the area of science and research and development there is real potential, because when you bring such a high concentration of great minds—both students and faculty—together, then you actually have an opportunity to discover things and find impactful new things that might actually have bulk effect on the economy. The next big invention that may actually have a huge impact on the Turkish economy is likely to come from places like Koç University.

But in the area of education, the number of students that Koç University has will always be very small compared to the total number of students [in Turkey]. But those students will be tomorrow’s leaders. They will carry a lot more people in their coattails in the companies they form and the leadership levels that they come to.

What do you do to promote interdisciplinary research? 

We do interdisciplinary research promotion by… not having boundaries between departments. We also give out seed research grants in the university—both centrally funded and funded from outside—that basically are completely interdisciplinary. These are faculty who may have opportunities to think well outside their boundaries, because seed research programs are for curiosity-driven research. They are not for research that is along the lines of their typical lines of research. And then we have interdisciplinary seminar series that encourages people to go and listen to one another. And then, our faculty are able to supervise Ph.D.s in different departments, so a person in physics may be able to supervise a Ph.D. in some other department and vice versa. So, structurally we eliminate these boundaries as much as we can, and in the education we do it by having a liberal arts core. We have a liberal arts core that is common to all faculties, all schools.

How do you view Koç University’s role in the region? 

Koç University can just as equally serve as an example for any and all universities both in Europe and in the Middle East, in our region. It’s a small university with relatively small resources that has been able to harvest a high concentration of excellent minds—both students and faculty—and with the right governance model it has been able to free them so that they are able to do great things. This governance model itself can be a very good example for people.

People produce the best and the most when they are the freest. So, you basically create the free environment and then you protect the free environment at all costs, and that, I think, for the brightest people, is the best thing that you could do. If others see that when you do that, huge leaps follow, then obviously that would be contagious.

By governance model do you mean the hands-off approach you are describing? 

Yes, a hands-off approach. You appoint somebody—don’t look over their shoulder. You let things happen, get out of the way. That’s very important because the other side of the coin is extreme control, micromanagement. And that then drives faculty and students crazy and they are not going to excel in their environment.

What does Koç University do to connect to other universities internationally and also regionally? 

We have a huge number of universities with which we have exchange programs. 90 percent of our faculty are Ph.D.s from abroad, so basically, all those people who came from those universities have connections that they are maintaining, that are very fruitful and through those connections we have established exchange programs. We are trying to do joint research and faculty visits.

You spent much of your career at Stanford University in California. What do you bring from your experience there to Koç University? 

I probably have a leg up with respect to other people in this country because I have seen the model and lived inside the model that works best—this idea of a free environment and what drives academics to excel, what drives them to do great research and teaching and integrate research and teaching inside one another. I’ve seen that environment and Stanford is one of the best schools for that.

I’ve also graduated 60 Ph.D. students at Stanford and understand what it takes to be working with Ph.D. students and the tremendous amount of leverage that one can gain from these young people doing research.

That experience has crystallized in my mind and allowed me to focus on the right things for a research university. What makes a research university great is faculty and students and they need to be focused on research excellence. A research university should above all emphasize research but then also emphasize teaching.

What do you do to encourage an environment with the best faculty? 

You just keep the bar high. The criterion for promotion and evaluation and hiring of faculty here is based on outside letters. When an assistant professor is to be promoted to associate professor, we get letters from about 10 people in their area globally and their views—of these colleagues, peers—become paramount. No other criterion is more important than those letters. And that way, people who are really good come because they pass the bar and then when they come other people who are good come to work with them. It’s like a snowball. People come to quality. Quality faculty brings quality people.

What is done well in Turkey when it comes to higher education? 

The best [universities] do trigger each other to excellence… If you create the marketplace, then the marketplace competition itself rules. Here in Turkey, that has been very good. The other thing is that the single exam with which people enter universities by and large is working… Yes, it is a single exam. Some dimensions are missing and some people are probably falling through the cracks, but by and large, it brings a level of equality of opportunity in a place where there isn’t one and the person from the deepest ranges of eastern Turkey may in fact, if he or she is bright, score a high score and enter this university or other great universities.

There is no influence peddling. No one can call me because I didn’t make an objective judgment and say: Why didn’t you take this student? 

Unless the person actually does perform in the exam and enter, I can’t [accept them into the university]. I don’t know if that is the case in the other countries, but if it is not then it is a leg up for Turkey.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Disclosure: Koc University hosted a workshop sponsored by Al-Fanar Media and the U.N. Democracy Fund for Arab journalists interested in writing about education. 


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