President David Boren decided to suspend all of the University of Oklahoma's study abroad programs in the Republic of Turkey indefinitely after the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning for the country given growing concerns about its safety and security, according to a statement given by Suzette Grillot, Ph. D., dean of the College of International Studies.
The decision came just as 16 OU students were preparing to leave for their "Journey to Turkey" — the OU in Izmir trip, which was worth six credit hours. Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, was going to be an instructor for the program.
"It's an exceptional trip through Turkey — three weeks of beautiful hotels along the Aegean coast. It's beautiful. We go to Cappadocia, we go to the Black Sea, and that's been running for now ... I guess 2013 was the first year we did it. We were supposed to do it again. It's gone every summer. And it was cancelled a week before we set to depart," said Landis. He also said that disappointed students were allowed to keep any scholarship money and were encouraged to travel elsewhere.
But OU in Izmir was cancelled mid-May — before the recent coup attempt on July 15 and even before the Istanbul airport bombing June 28.
On March 29, the U.S. Department of State ordered the departure of family members of U.S. Government civilians in Izmir province, which was then updated on July 26.
The U.S. Department of State has since warned all U.S. citizens of increased threats from violence from terrorist groups throughout Turkey; citizens abroad are especially encouraged to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey, according to the U.S. Department of State website update on July 18.
Southeastern Turkey, which borders both Syria and Iraq, is the Kurdish-majority region. Kurds are an ethnic minority that have significant populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkey disallows the classification of minority identities and considers all people within its borders to be Turks, whether or not those individuals consider themselves Kurds, Arabs or Alevi. Turkey has been in conflict with the Kurds since the Kurdistan Workers Party — categorized as a terrorist organization — began its separatist insurgency in 1984. In 2013, Ankara — the capital of the Republic of Turkey — and the Kurdistan Workers Party agreed to a cease-fire, but in 2015 hostilities resumed.
Turkey is afraid that the civil war in Syria and against ISIS — a fight in which Kurdish forces have played a major role — will bolster a Kurdish bid for independence.
"There was no big cataclysmic event that triggered it, but things were going downhill in Turkey," said Landis, mentioning that before Boren's decision in May, there had been several bombings in Istanbul and Ankara by ISIS and by Kurdish groups — the Kurdistan Workers Party and its offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons.
According to Landis, President Boren wanted to internationalize the College in regions of national security importance that have been overlooked by other American universities as well as to encourage students to branch out by going to places that are understudied and a little more dangerous.
"He saw Turkey as very important ... and obviously he didn't want to close the program down because of some political turbulence, because that only makes it more important and vital. But there's only so much you can do if you're president of a university in terms of ignoring the State Department and lawyers," said Landis.
According to Dean Grillot's statement, students in previous OU study abroad programs in the Middle East have been removed from their program early after heightened security concerns arose.
Programs are reinstated once it is safe to reestablish student travel to that particular destination.
Whether or not OU resumes programs in Turkey depends on the U.S. Department of State pronouncements and what happens in the region. "Turkey looks like it's headed in the wrong direction," said Landis, citing political instability, growing authoritarianism, the two-fronted war with ISIS and the Kurds.
Combine that with a sweeping consolidation of power following the failed coup, and it is all the more uncertain when OU students will be able to study in Turkey once more.