For over 30 years, the Turkish government-funded Institute of Turkish Studies (ITS) was the only U.S.-based nonprofit that supported the development of Turkish studies in U.S. higher education. Widely recognized as one of the most prestigious centers for Turkish studies, the ITS awarded research grants to more than 400 scholars in the field throughout its history.
The ITS aimed to advance the field of Turkish studies and improve the American public’s understanding of Turkey by awarding grants to scholars, hosting lectures and conferences, helping U.S. universities develop Turkish studies programs and supporting the publication of books and journals, according to the ITS mission statement.
Despite its academic reputation and historic support of scholars, when the Turkish government decided to stop funding the ITS in 2015, Jenny White, who served on the ITS board for nearly 20 years until its closure, was hardly shocked.
“We were all horrified, but not particularly surprised,” White said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “These are the sorts of people they do not want to be supporting because they are the ones who will have a critical mind.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had begun consolidating power four years earlier and White, now a Stockholm University professor, said the fate of the ITS paralleled political trends in Turkey.
In defunding the ITS in 2015, the Turkish government condemned the Georgetown University-affiliated organization to close. The institute maintained operations through its own fundraising efforts, but it ultimately shut down in September 2020.
Several years earlier, Turkey experienced the unprecedented pro-democracy Gezi Protests in 2013 and a failed coup in 2016. Since that time, the Turkish government has repressed the press and academia and has closed thousands of private schools, foundations and associations.
According to former ITS Executive Director Sinan Ciddi and former ITS board members Walter Denny and Steven Cook, Turkey’s decision to defund the ITS came amid rising government pressure to blindly support and loyally promote Erdoğan. The ITS was caught in the line of fire of government repression that has characterized Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic Turkey, they said.
A History of the Institute of Turkish Studies
The Turkish government founded the ITS in 1982 with a grant of $3 million, which was placed in a trust. Initially completely independent from Georgetown University, the institute established an official relationship with the university in the late 1990s, according to Georgetown professor of Turkish studies Sinan Ciddi. Ciddi served as executive director of the ITS from 2011 until its closing in 2020.
Georgetown provided the ITS with office space and administrative assistance, but the university did not have a say in the institute’s operations. Georgetown also supplemented the salary of the institute’s executive director after the ITS lost funding from the Turkish government, according to Ciddi and ITS meeting minutes obtained by The Hoya.
Ciddi said the ITS’ annual operating budget mainly came from the interest earned off of the grant money, as well as other donations.
A board of governors whose members included top scholars in Ottoman and modern Turkish studies led the ITS. Board members were mainly tasked with reviewing research grant applications from scholars in the field, according to White.
White suspected the ITS was a component of Ankara’s strategy to improve the public image of Turkey in the eyes of the United States. This tactic was effective because the ITS was not an inherently political organization, she said.
“In terms of bang for your buck, this is the best advertisement that there could have been for Turkey,” White said.
Over the years, scholars criticized the ITS for allegedly advancing Ankara’s political agenda regarding sensitive topics like the Armenian genocide. For instance, scholars and members of the Armenian diaspora criticized Heath Lowry, the founding executive director of the ITS, for denying the Armenian genocide.
In 1995, UCLA students protested the establishment of an ITS-endowed Ottoman studies chair in the UCLA history department because of the ITS’ perceived historic views on the Armenian genocide.
In 2006, after insisting on the importance of researching the Armenian genocide, former Binghamton University professor Donald Quataert resigned as chairman of the ITS board of governors.
Two years later, in an open letter to Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, the nonprofit Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom wrote that Quataert resigned because of pressure from the Turkish government. Several other ITS board members resigned in support of Quataert. Turkey’s ambassador at the time, Nabi Sensoy, denied that he played any role in Quataert’s resignation.
In its final years, the ITS was emerging from the long shadow historically cast by its relationship with the Turkish state, according to Nicholas Danforth, a fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy who received an ITS grant while pursuing his Ph.D. at Georgetown during the 2012-13 academic year.
“It was supporting serious, cutting edge research on all aspects of Turkish history, including issues that had often been too sensitive for scholars to touch,” Danforth wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Through its support of scholars and academic programs in the field of Turkish studies, the contributions of the ITS to the field are undeniable, according to White.
“The ITS has supported almost every single major scholar of Turkish studies in any field in the United States,” White said.
The ITS never sought to involve itself in the politics of Turkey or any other country, according to several former board members, including White and Denny.
The ITS was an impartial supporter of Turkish studies that valued academic freedom, according to Denny, who served on the ITS board for over two decades and is now a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“We made every effort to be as unpolitical as possible,” Denny said. “Never in my term on the board did I ever see any political decision made on the basis of Turkish domestic politics.”
The ITS mission statement also confirmed the organization’s efforts to remain apolitical.
“The Institute is an independent, tax exempt organization and does not seek to influence legislation nor advocate particular policies or agendas,” the institute’s website said in 2013.
But Ciddi said the apolitical nature of the ITS likely contributed to its defunding. As Erdoğan began to consolidate power — starting in 2010 during his tenure as prime minister, lasting through his election to the presidency in 2014 and continuing today — the government sought to increasingly control civil society groups, according to Denny and Ciddi. The ITS was one among many.
The Turkish government’s efforts to censor the press and academia escalated in 2014, one year before it decided to defund the ITS, according to former ITS board member Steven Cook, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ciddi believed the Turkish government did not see the point in researching subject areas like regional art or ancient civilizations, which did not have an obvious political agenda, and so the government did not think the ITS benefited Turkey.
“For the most part, they were displeased with the kind of research we funded. For them, it seemed like esoteric, academic mumbo-jumbo,” Ciddi said. “There was always a discord between the academic research and how that helps Turkey.”
Former ITS board member and current Binghamton University professor Kent Schull agreed that the defunding of the ITS underscored political trends in Turkey.
“They started to pull back soft power where they felt they could not control,” Schull said. “Erdoğan felt very threatened and started to lash out on other things. He started to increase powers in his own hands, and when Gezi pushed away on these developments, he couldn’t take it. He cracked down hard.”
Unceremoniously Cut Off
Between 1982 and 2014, six Turkish diplomats served as ambassadors to the United States, and the ITS maintained cordial relationships with all of them, according to Ciddi.
Ciddi alleged that the dynamic changed with the seventh ambassador, Serdar Kılıç. Kılıç began serving as Turkey’s ambassador to the United States in April 2014 as political tumult rose in Turkey. He left the post in February 2021.
Historically, the institute had dinners in the fall and spring at the Turkish ambassador’s residence. They were always cordial, and board members looked forward to attending, Ciddi said.
“Wonderful affairs — great dinner and great conversation,” Ciddi said. “Nothing political and no asks. It was very, very respectful.”
But the May 2015 dinner — the first one with Kılıç as ambassador — played out differently, according to Ciddi.
“Something was awry, and he wanted something else,” Ciddi said.
At that dinner, Kılıç had a private conversation with career U.S. diplomat Ambassador Ross Wilson, who was the chairman of the ITS board of governors at the time and recently served as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, according to Wilson and Ciddi.
Wilson alleged that Kılıç was concerned that some recent work from the ITS was negative toward the Turkish government and expressed interest in redirecting the work of ITS to politically benefit the government.
“Kılıç expressed concerns about what he felt were negative, politically-oriented programming and statements by the ITS director and expressed interest in reorienting the work of ITS in ways that would have greater political impact for the Turkish government,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“I responded that I would discuss his concern with the board and that ITS as an organization did not aim to be political, but that the organization had been set up to provide for independent, academic management to support academic ends,” Wilson wrote.
Kılıç did not respond to The Hoya’s two requests for an interview.
Ciddi viewed Kılıç’s alleged request as an effort to pressure the ITS to celebrate the Erdoğan government’s so-called accomplishments.
“They want your active participation in clapping for what they are trying to achieve politically at home and abroad,” Ciddi said. “If you’re not celebrating what they’re doing, then you’re just as culpable as the guy who crosses the red line.”
After that meeting, the ITS operated business as usual, Ciddi said. But when the time came for the fall dinner at the ambassador’s residence, the embassy told the ITS that the ambassador had a prior engagement, according to Ciddi.
In early September 2015, Saltzman and Evinch, a Washington, D.C. law firm representing Turkey’s U.S. embassy, called the ITS to notify the institute that it was losing its trust funding, according to Ciddi.
David Saltzman of Saltzman and Evinch declined to provide comment to The Hoya, saying the Turkish embassy did not clear him to respond. The Turkish embassy also did not respond to The Hoya’s multiple requests for comment.
The ITS protested the decision, with Wilson writing a letter to Kılıç in an effort to reverse the funding decision.
“Whatever may be the intention now in considering an end to the trust arrangement, it will almost certainly be interpreted widely in ways unhelpful to Turkey, injurious to the personal and other relationships that you and I have cared about, and detrimental to the kind of support and sympathy your country and government get here,” Wilson wrote in the Sept. 27, 2015 letter obtained by The Hoya.
In the letter, Wilson also said Turkey had accomplished its goals with the ITS of increasing U.S. appreciation of Turkey.
“ITS beneficiaries have touched thousands of others, making friends for your country across a broad front, and they have helped to foster and then further the tremendous increase in American public interest in Turkey that has developed over the last 10-20 years — exactly the purpose for which ITS was created,” Wilson wrote in the letter. “Turkey has received a huge return on its investment.”
But the Turkish government maintained its decision. Kılıç sent a letter the same day to the ITS about defunding the organization in which he confirmed the government would provide the ITS with enough funds to meet its outstanding financial obligations.
In that letter, Kılıç wrote that Turkey cut the ITS funding because the original trust agreement had expired in 1988.
“Since that time, Turkey nonetheless continued to support ITS,” Kılıç wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Hoya. “It has been established that treating an invalid Trust Agreement as valid may cause problems in Turkey in light of Turkish domestic law. Therefore, the Government of Turkey has determined to retrieve the funds in the corpus of the Trust.”
Although Kılıç was correct that the trust agreement had expired, Ciddi questioned what prompted Turkey to act over 20 years after it had expired.
“They had a point, but the problem with that was the terms expired in 1988 — and since then, no one has been asking questions,” Ciddi said.
Ciddi interpreted the decision to defund the ITS as an indication of the government’s lack of understanding about how U.S. nonprofits operate.
“They want organizations to sell an unsellable message that the Erdoğan government is a good government that is a responsible international actor, that he’s a world leader,” Ciddi said. “If you don’t do that, then they say, ‘We will take away our money and give it to someone who is willing to do it.’”
According to Denny, the ITS fell because it refused to be actively pro-Erdoğan.
“This is just a reflection of the larger problem of Erdoğan’s way of operating in Turkish society: that if you are not vocally for him, he does not want anything to do with you,” Denny said. “This business of loyalty became so important.”
After Turkey cut the organization’s funding, the School of Foreign Service (SFS) provided the ITS with additional financial and administrative support, but it never considered replacing the funding the institute lost, largely because the SFS does not have any centers that focus exclusively on one country, and the SFS does not fully fund any of its centers, according to SFS Dean Joel Hellman.
Following the defunding of the ITS, the organization had enough funds to continue operations for three years, so the organization remained open in a scaled-back capacity as it launched a fundraising campaign, according to May 2016 board meeting minutes obtained by The Hoya.
The organization’s fundraising efforts were ultimately not enough, according to White.
“We tried to do individual fundraising,” White said. “But it did not work because I think people were scared of the government.”
In November 2018, the board of governors discussed suspicions that Turkish politics led to the decline in donations to the ITS, according to a copy of board meeting minutes obtained by The Hoya.
In a June 2019 letter signed by the ITS board of governors, the ITS announced that despite receiving funding from individual donors and groups like the Turkish industrial conglomerate Koç Holding and Turkish holding company FİBA Group, the institute could not financially sustain itself and would close its doors Sept. 30, 2020.
The Final Moments
The Erdoğan government continues to hinder academic freedom, including recently with the 2021 political appointment of a rector to Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious academic institutions, according to White.
The very structure of the ITS set it up for trouble from the start, according to Hellman, who added that the defunding and closure of the ITS is an example of how international affairs can directly impact the university.
“An institute funded to study a single country, funded by the government, is highly unusual,” Hellman said in an interview with The Hoya. “The problem with such an arrangement is that it becomes very, very susceptible to government interference in their work.”
The closure of the ITS was a loss for the Georgetown community and the field of Turkish studies, according to Hellman.
“It was a unique and important body,” Hellman said. “And anything that limited its ability to do its mandate is harmful to the cause of our understanding of Turkey.”
Despite the closure of the ITS, several former board members, including Denny, reflect on their time with the ITS with pride.
“We all felt that it was one of the great privileges we had in our lives to serve on this board. We really believed and continue to believe in ITS and its mission,” Denny said. “If I have even the remotest chance of getting into heaven on judgment day, my best bet — my best ace in the hole — is going to be that I worked for ITS all those years, and we did so much good.”
The ITS held its final board meeting on the morning of Nov. 7, 2020, about six weeks after the organization formally ceased to exist, according to meeting minutes obtained by The Hoya.
At the last meeting, the board discussed how to disperse the remainder of the ITS funds, which amounted to around $60,000, to continue supporting Turkish studies in the organization’s final moments. The board had previously agreed to disperse the funds equally between the American Research Institute of Turkey and the American Association of Teachers of Turkic Languages.
At the last minute, Schull suggested the ITS also donate $8,000 to the Journal of Turkish Studies, which was struggling financially at the time. The board unanimously agreed.
Ciddi said that while the field of Turkish studies owed much to the ITS, the field was no longer dependent on the organization, according to the minutes.
“Turkish Studies in the United States is now self-sufficient and growing on its own, which effectively means that the original mission of the institution has been accomplished,” the minutes read. “The final board meeting of the ITS concluded with expressions of both regret and satisfaction.”
A Hoya staff writer contributed writing and reporting to this article. They requested anonymity due to safety concerns in Turkey.