At Boğaziçi One Feels Important As An Individual (May 22, 2015)

Prof. Üstün Ergüder Writes About the Stormy Waters of Higher Education and Boğaziçi University

 “I am not young enough to know everything.”  These words of Oscar Wilde’s, displayed on Ergüder’s office wall, greet his visitors.

Eager to learn about the unique experience of “not being young enough to know everything,” and to talk about a variety of topics ranging from Boğaziçi’s basic values to its culture of democracy and entrepreneurship, we met with Üstün Ergüder, former President of BU, to talk about his recently published book, “Yükseköğretimin Fırtınalı Sularında: Boğaziçi Üniversitesi’nde Başlayan Yolculuk” (Higher Education’s Stormy Waters/A Journey Starting at Boğaziçi University).

Ergüder’s book invites readers to share his memories: from his childhood in Ankara in the 1940s to his years as President of BU, and to various leadership duties in civil society - the journey of a lifetime.

 “You Cannot Change the Past So I Have Always Looked Forward”

You have served as the President of one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey for two terms (1992-2000).  You had held various administrative positions before that. During an important period of transition, you initiated very important structural changes.  So your book deals with the history of an institution but also your own story.  Can you talk about the book’s writing process?

I had no intention of writing a book but I always had this idea in mind:  Boğaziçi had been creating an important history since 1971.  Apart from a few pieces that Abdullah Kuran wrote about that period of transition, there was no documentation on Boğaziçi’s institutional history after 1971.  I wanted this book to sort of trigger certain things. But I had made a mistake; I had not noted everything down.  I have a good memory; but at certain points when I thought I might miss something, I received considerable support from my editor Aytaç Demirci.  I am grateful to Demirci for the interviews, achieves, and newspaper clippings in the book.  My aim was to write history.  Aytaç urged me to include my personal history.  Apparently that section received much interest.

As for the process of writing, I wrote truthfully about what I remembered and believed.  I have had no quarrels; I did not want that to happen.  Before my term, there had been ample criticism directed at Presidents; you cannot find much criticism during my term.  I like to look forward. The past is past; you cannot change the past.  Therefore it is necessary to look forward.  That has always been an important precept for me.

“I Wrote to Pass Down a Written History For Boğaziçi”

Who did you write this book for, or who would you like to read this book?

I thought most of my readers would be from the BU community. I wanted to write as objectively as possible. Öktem Vardar, the current President of TED University and my former Assistant President, often said, “Write about this term.”  That is why I started to write this book soon after my second term as President ended.  However, to be able to assess certain events correctly, you need to distance yourself from them and consider them critically.  You need to view from afar a job that you loved and sometimes hated...  So I wanted to wait for a while to distance myself, but then I realized I had waited too long.

I started writing in 2000; the book was published in 2015.  During that process I took part in the establishment of Sabancı University, and was part of the Education Reform Initiative.

My opinion while writing the book was that only members of the Boğaziçi community will read this book. So I was planning to have it published by Boğaziçi University Press. During that time Gülgün Çarkoğlu, a former student, and her husband Ali Çarkoğlu   were running Doğan Publishing, and they wanted to see my book.  Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about having the book published by such a big publisher like Doğan Kitap.  They and my editor Aytaç Demirci believed that the book would attract a much broader audience.  My basic purpose was to pass down a written history of Boğaziçi.  The section where I told my personal history was, for me, secondary.  Contrary to what I thought, my childhood and early youth in Ankara became the most popular sections.

One Who Can Manage Change Can Succeed

A statement you have made in the book and also in a newspaper interview is very interesting.  You have talked of Boğaziçi as an “Island of Civilization”.  What are the factors or the values that rendered Boğaziçi an “Island of Civilization”?

Boğaziçi gives people a very rare gift: value as an individual.  We are not an individualistic society.  People are always oppressed – be it by the family or by organizations... A person feels important as an individual at Boğaziçi.  Boğaziçi is the place where I believe I found myself.

A culture of respect for change and diversity underlies the past of this institution.  When I was a student at Robert College, most of my friends were Jews, Turkish Jews and Armenians.  We learned to respect each other.  The idea of an island of civilization gained in value in my thinking while looking at Boğaziçi from afar.  Our faculty members want to return there despite all because there they have something that is quite rare in Turkey:  freedom and the opportunity to live together in civilized relations.  Boğaziçi is an institution where you can say what you want to say in an environment of civilization and peace.  It still maintains that position.

During your term as President you led the way for many changes: the changes in the Rectorate building, the quadrangle in the South Campus, which is admired by all today despite the criticism it received at the time, two storeys added to the YADYOK building, the restoration of Albert Long Hall.  You state in your book that managing change is not easy.

Where there is a heavy institutional culture there is also conservatism.  You may be enslaved by that conservatism, or you may use it in the right direction and take the institution much further.  It is very important, therefore, that a person who can manage change become President.

I have always upheld this principle:  People may not applaud me today but let them applaud me after 10 years.  For example, during the transformation of the quadrangle, or Orta Saha as it was referred to, many theories were put forward. Had we listened to all of them, we couldn’t have achieved anything. To run a horizontal institution such as a university, you need to create different procedures. 

The Formula for Successful Management:  Mutual Respect, Transparency and Trust

The book offers clues as to the culture of doing business in Turkey.  For example, you talk of an entrepreneurial university model, particularly in a state university…

Everyone objects to the term entrepreneurial, because it immediately brings to mind the concept of the market.  I don’t use the term in that sense.  Entrepreneurship in a university is different because a university is a horizontal organization.  Everyone has the right to have a voice and to question.  Thus it is very different from market entrepreneurship.

Turkey is beautiful country, and it is not difficult to govern.  People in Turkey are used to a hierarchical administration.  People are suspicious of each other.  I for my part look at the Grand Bazaar model.  You go to a vendor; if you do not have enough cash to pay, he says, “you come back and pay tomorrow.”  You can do amazing work by observing that system, working together, trusting those around you, and being transparent.  This is what I experienced in the eight years I served as President of Boğaziçi University.  Respect, transparency, working together, and trust.  When you give these to people you can attain amazing results.

Isn’t this also related with the culture of democracy?

The word democracy sounds too populist to me.  I’d rather use terms like respect, transparency, the skill to listen.  You can be very democratic and very authoritarian at the same time.  Being democratic does not necessarily mean you are libertarian.

Beginning with your own experiences, you coach young people on leadership, in a way. For example, the “you must always win people over” gives us a sense of what lies under institutional success not only as an educator but also as an administrator.  What would you recommend to young people aspiring to become good administrators?

I would strongly recommend young people to listen.  An administrator gains power by listening to what is going on around him, keeping the radars open at all times, so to speak.  How is this done?  By being with people, by listening to them.

Everybody is talking about social media now.  In 1997 we formed the first social media in Boğaziçi with InstForum. There were heated discussions on any topic with InstForum, we would get some very harsh messages, too.  But you must not get angry while reading them.  If you do, you miss the message intended to be given to you.

Listening without getting angry is a skill indeed.  How do you manage that?

England has had a significant impact on me.  I lived in England from 1957 to 1961.  I learned to admire the equanimity and rationalism of the English. One evening an aristocrat was reading his newspaper in a double-decker.  The man sitting across from him, apparently a worker, got up and called him names.  When the bus stopped at his stop, the aristocrat got up, said “Good day sir” to the worker, and got off the bus.  I will never forget that. Had it happened here, knives would have been drawn.

There is another thing I find odd in Turkey.  In the media or on the street, people often say “we are an emotional society.”  In my opinion that is a very negative quality.  We exalt emotions, the English exalt reason.  Emotionality is the most important factor underlying failure.  I live moments full of emotion when I use my reason and am successful.