When Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump unveiled his roster of foreign policy advisers, few names stood out as well-known figures in Washington, save perhaps one: Walid Phares.
A politically conservative academic who has accused President Obama of “appeasement” toward radical Muslim terrorists, Phares is known mostly for his writings and foreign policy views, as well as his controversial political past. But he’s also a provost at an unaccredited university in Washington, D.C. The school, BAU International University, is part of a network of colleges and education companies owned by a Turkish entrepreneur.
Some students say the school’s leadership are now actings as mouthpieces and enforcers for the oppressive government of Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan.
Last fall, three students, all of them journalists working in the U.S., say they were dismissed from a master’s program at BAU because of their public criticism of Erdogan, both in published articles and TV broadcasts. The Turkish leader has fallen dramatically out of favor in Washington amid prosecutions at home of journalists, academics, and just about anyone else who dares to speak out against his policies.
The university students’ allegation that they were targeted for their anti-Erdogan views raises serious questions about academic freedom and free speech on college campuses. Phares, as provost, would have been in a position to endorse or oppose any decision to remove the students. Traditionally, a provost is the chief administrative officer a school, and at BAU, Phares is also described as its “chief academic officer.”
He also teaches at the school and has appeared in a commercial encouraging students pursuing foreign policy to take courses at BAU “that can only be done here in Washington, DC,” promising in-person meetings with leaders from the administration, Congress, and the press.
That promise of openness and access was in place when the three journalists enrolled last fall in a master’s level business program. But mid-way through the semester, they were shown the door.
One of the journalists, Adem Arslan, told The Daily Beast that the school’s chief operating officer, Ahmet Kose, said he had to leave the school last November because “we are under pressure from important guys.” Arslan said that Kose pointed to criticism that had come down from “the palace,” a reference to Erdogan and his senior officials, about Arslan’s journalism.
“They do not like your articles, books, and TV comments,” Arslan said Kose told him. Arslan told The Daily Beast that he presumes the government was upset with his 2013 coverage of one of the most serious political corruption scandals in Turkey’s history, a massive money laundering scheme that implicated political elites, including Erdogan, his son, and others connected to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which Erdogan founded.
To Arslan, his dismissal was a troubling sign that Erdogan’s muzzling of the press in Turkey was now reaching journalists working in the U.S.
“It was shock for me,” Arslan said. “I mean, we are in the U.S., this is a university. Moreover they invited me.” Arslan said that Kose had asked him to enroll in the master’s program and that he’d been given a scholarship. When he was dismissed, “I told them, this is illegal, but they do not care because they are afraid of Erdogan,” Arslan said.
Kose told The Daily Beast that he was on business travel and didn’t respond to questions before publication. Phares didn’t respond to a request for comment. And BAU’s president didn’t answer questions about what specific role Trump’s policy adviser had played in the students’ dismissals, or whether he objected to them.
“The dismissal of a student is a serious decision and requires certain processes that involves certain people. A provost alone cannot take such a decision,” Sinem Vatanartiran told The Daily Beast, without elaborating on what role Phares played.
Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent reached a fever pitch last week when members of his security detail physically assaulted journalists and protestors outside the Brookings Institution in Washington prior to a speech by the Turkish president.
The guards tried to physically remove Arslan from the room before Erdogan spoke. Another journalist captured footage of the confrontation. A guard stood menacingly over Arslan, now Washington correspondent for the Turkish daily Ozgur Dusunce. Arslan stayed in his seat, protected by Brookings’ own security staff, and remained for Erdogan’s address.
Outside the venerable think tank, the president’s toughs tried to block other journalists and protesters from entering the building. The scene devolved into shoves and shouting matches. Inside, Erdogan finally gave his talk and agreed to a few questions from the audience.
Only two people were called on. One was Suzanne Maloney, Brookings’ deputy director of foreign policy. The other was Vatanartiran, the president of BAU.
Vatanartiran’s question was a softball. “I’m really proud of you and our government,” she said, praising Erdogan for his leadership in the Syrian refugee crisis. “What do you think is the main reason behind the West being so ignorant of this problem,” Vatanartiran asked, setting up Erdogan to chastise European countries for not spending as much money as Turkey on refugee resettlement.
Vatanartiran disputed claims that her former students were dismissed because of what they wrote or said about Turkey’s leader. Rather, they hadn’t passed language proficiency tests that were administered last year, she claimed. A small number of other students, including non-Turkish ones, were also asked to leave, she said.
Facility with English hadn’t been an issue when those students were enrolled, Vatanartiran acknowledged. But the university is now in the midst of an accreditation process, which can help a school obtain grants and federal funding, and “we were warned strictly of complying the the required minimum standards of admissions.”
Arslan called that explanation a “disgusting lie. When they realized that this was a scandal, they made up a story about language proficiency tests.”
In exchanges with The Daily Beast, Arslan and another former student had no trouble communicating coherently in English. Arslan, who has written articles and authored books, has also published his journalism in English. On his Twitter feed, which has more than 300,000 followers, he writes in Turkish and English and responds to messages written in both languages.
Arslan said that he had decided not to pursue a legal action against the school to avoid becoming embroiled in another political debate. But, he said, he was given a language proficiency test just before he was asked to leave and scored higher than other students in his class. Arslan said that administrators told him the test was a formality for the accreditation process and that “we do not care” what he scored.
“BAU was a liberal university, but they convert to pro-government lately,” Arslan said. He described the DC campus as “like part of Turkish embassy.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Kose, the BAU official who Arslan said dismissed him, has worked as a research coordinator in the Turkish Ministry of National Affairs. From 2008 to 2011, he was the consular attache for the Turkish Consulate General in New York.
Kose is also the CEO of Mentora College in Washington, D.C., which teaches English as a second language. Mentora is part of a larger conglomerate, BAU Global, which boasts a network of “4 universities, 6 satellite campuses and 2 language schools,” according to its Web site.
The college is also the address of record for a number of real estate companies incorporated in the District of Columbia. One of them, Island Real Estate, lists Kose as an officer, along with Huseyin Yucel, the son of Enver Yucel, the chairman of BAU International University’s parent organization and the man behind the global network of education companies.
Yucel is a well-known Turkish entrepreneur with ties to the Erdogan’s AKP. He has advocated for a United Nations policy initiative, co-founded by Erdogan, called Alliance of Civilizations, which promotes countering extremism through cultural exchange programs.
Yucel has also been a vocal advocate for Syrian refugees who’ve fled their country by the millions amid a long civil war. He has pledged millions of dollars to educate Syrian refugees and provide them with training for new jobs in countries where they eventually settle, including Turkey. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of New York University’s Steinhardt School Dean’s Council.
For his part, Phares has been on the other side of BAU’s administration, insofar as he has criticized the Erdogan government. In a 2010 Facebook post, he called the AKP a “jihadist sympathizer.” A year later, in an interview in Spanish with One magazine, Phares said it was “no wonder” that Erdogan’s party had become “a model for the Muslim Brotherhood to follow.”
Phares was expressing opinions in line with Erdogan’s critics. But Arslan, the Turkish journalist, says he never met with nor heard from BAU’s provost when he was kicked out and told he’d angered “the palace.”