The Turkish government has given $750,000 donations to Harvard and three other leading universities to endow chairs in Turkish studies, a move which has raised questions that the government may be trying to control the way Turkish history is taught.
The gift means that Harvard now has half of the $3.1 million it needs to endow a professor of Turkish Studies, according to the Boston Globe.
The Turkish government presented equal gifts to Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Chicago.
But critics of these moves have charged that outright funding from the government raises questions about how Turkey's conflict with its Armenian inhabitants will be taught in these universities.
Most historians, and virtually all Armenians, say more than 1.5 million Armenians were killed in an extermination program by Turks which began in 1911 and continued through the first World War. But Turkish officials say far fewer Armenians died in what was a tragic civil conflict.
"There's no problem as far as setting up a Turkish chair or program," Rouben Adalian, a historian at the Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington-based lobby, told the Globe. "But it is a very disturbing trend to have a foreign government funding a program and having the influence of that government worked into the arrangement in establishing the chair."
The controversy erupted shortly after Princeton used the money from the Turkish government to create an Ataturk chair in Turkish Studies. The post was filled by Heath C. Lowry, a lobbyist for the Turkish government and a supporter of the view that Armenian nationalists were killed in a civil war, according to the Globe.
For 10 years, Lowry had directed the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, a lobby set up in 1982 with $3 million from Turkey.
But such controversy may not occur at Harvard because critics of Lowry say they have no problems with Associate Professor of History Cernal Kafadar, a specialist in the formation of the Ottoman state, who is considered the leading candidate for the post.
Professors interviewed yesterday dismissed the criticism that Turkey's giving money to the institutions would have any effect on the progress of Turkish studies.
"I would not link the endowment to the question concerning the Armenian massacre," said Professor of Government Seyla Benhabib, who was born in Istanbul, but is now an American citizen. "That seems to be quite speculative."
"The government does not decide who these professors are going to be, and it is the university community that should always decide, on the basis of scholarly credentials and academic achievement, who gets this chair," Benhabib added. "The Turkish government should not and, I think, will not have direct influence as to who this chair will be occupied by."
Other professors agreed that the source of the funding was irrelevant.
"In the long run it doesn't matter [where the money comes from]," said Richard N. Frye, founder of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Khan professor of Iranian Studies, emeritus. "The fact that the government is putting up seed money is of no value because the politics is not going to be there."
"It will be a [professor of Turkish studies] who will be appointed, but that is the only thing that will be stipulated," Frye said.
Frye speculated that the gift from the Turkish government was motivated by the success of similar endowed chairs for Armenian studies. Harvard has had such a chair since 1959.
"They are simply in competition [for] a say of what is going on," Frye said. "That is what they are doing in academia. I think it is not a bad thing. I think it is not an attempt to get absolution but a competition."
Frye said the donations for Armenian chairs came from private sources, not government money, but he said the source of funding had no effect on determining who was chosen for the post.
"The universities do what they please as far as appointments are concerned," he said. "They have tried to please the people who have given the money and sometimes it has caused problems, but I don't see that happening with this type of donation."
Benhabib attributed the donations to a different source, however.
"I think that Turkey has always felt somewhat misunderstood by the West," she said.
"I think now there is a new generation," she said. "Our new prime minister Tansu Chiler is educated in America. She holds a degree in economics and I think her government is aware of the work they need to do in order to present Turkey's culture to the West."
Joe Wrinn, Harvard's spokesperson, declined to comment on the gift last night