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Prof. Dr. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu

Can you briefly tell us about yourself? 

I was born and raised in Istanbul in the 50s, in Taksim. I spent my childhood years there until I graduated from the University of Istanbul, Faculty of Economics, with a major in Political Science in 1973. I attended a public elementary school in Fındıklı, called Namık Kemal İlkokulu and graduated in 1962.

Then I took the exams for the English High School for Boys (EHSB) and was qualified to enroll. I decided to attend that school practically by my own decision, my parents did not interfere so much. I attended the middle school there and then passed on to Şişli Terakki High School in Nişantaşı.

In high school, I was especially fond of Physics and Chemistry, so I was hoping and preparing for a career in Chemical Engineering. However, some family members who were Chemical Engineers and were actively working tried to persuade me not to go in their footsteps. They did not think that they were living up to their aspirations as chemical engineers at that time. So I decided to enroll in the Faculty of Economics. So did my wife to be, whom I met at Şişli Terakki. We started to date after we were enrolled at the Istanbul University. We got engaged before we graduated in 1972, and married right after we graduated in 1973 and then flew off to the U.S. 

How did you decide on your field of specialization? Was there a particular person or event that led you to choose your field?

At that time, the Faculty of Economics had an interesting arrangement for those students who scored above a certain GPA, they offered to enroll them in their Ph.D. program as juniors. So in my third year, I had started the Ph.D. Program in the Faculty of Economics in 1971.  So did my fiancée. We both attended regular classes and also Ph.D. classes, such as Advanced Mathematics and Advanced Statistics.

In the summer of 1972, İlter Turan, a young professor then, asked me to help him in conducting elite interviews with ex-ministers of the Turkish Council of Ministers. So I interviewed a few with him and compiled the dataset. Prof. Turan wrote one or two articles out of that data later on. But that started me with my sort of survey research experience that summer. He was also instrumental in bringing up to my attention that it would be possible for me to continue to a Ph.D. abroad, particularly in the U.S. 

How did you learn about the Fulbright Program?

In my senior year in 1972, I had started to search for opportunities to study abroad. In 1964, a Fulbright Scholar from the University of Iowa spent one year at Istanbul University, Faculty of Economics. The two universities had developed a relationship, and many of the faculty members, as far as I know like Toktamış Ateş, Önder Arı, İlter Turan, Şirin Tekeli, Cengiz Arın, perhaps some others that I have forgotten now, had spent an academic year at the University of Iowa. In our senior year, we had a faculty member, also from the University of Iowa, teaching a course at the Political Science department, Prof. William Welsh, an expert in East-European politics. He taught a course on international relations and I took his course. I guess I did well in that course so he wrote me a letter of recommendation. That is more or less the Iowa connection. Things moved very fast, I applied to a number of universities and I received acceptance from a couple of universities including the University of Iowa. They offered me a tuition waiver and a living stipend which helped me to make my mind up. I also won the Fulbright grant; but used it for health insurance and return ticket. 

How did you feel when you first arrived in the U.S.A.? What impressed you the most?

Travel then was nothing like what we have right now. We flew with Lufthansa from here to Frankfurt for a connection to Chicago, then another connection flight to Iowa. But because of a strike, we missed the connection. We flew on the next morning. Of course, there were no mobile phones, no direct phone connection at that time. So I sent a telegram to my professor, informing him of the problem. So we arrived at Chicago, big busy airport. Again by coincidence, we met some customs officer from Iowa and he gave us a little briefing about the place. He helped us with our luggage and we had the transfer. We arrived one day late according to the schedule. We got out of the plane, a cab driver approached us and he gave us an envelope. The letter said “take this cab, he knows where to take you”. So my professor took care of everything, he also hosted us for a few days until we found a place to stay. We found student housing, with a bus connection. We had no car at that time so we started up from the rudimentary level, but when you are 22 anything can happen. It was not that big of a deal making the adjustment. And one important thing to remember about Cedar Rapids is that the famous Czech composer Dvorak lived there and he composed his famous symphony “From the New World” there. 

Did you travel to different parts of the U.S. during your grant period?

My brother was also studying in Cleveland, Ohio so we went there. We had relatives living near Ann Arbor, Michigan, we also visited them. We also had a tour of the U.S. with two other Turkish graduate students, one was a post-doc fellow, Prof. Mustafa İlhan who serves at Hacettepe University, and another friend of ours, Gürol who had a 1973 Chevy Impala. It was a very nice car but it was about the time of the strict speed limits since there was the oil crisis, so we had to be very careful with that. 

How did your Fulbright grant help you in the USA?

My Fulbright grant which provided me with health insurance came in very handy when I fell ill and was hospitalized just before I returned to Turkey. They covered all expenses, I didn’t have to pay for anything at all. The fact is, at the end of your stay you have used up most of your resources, and are not left with anything extra to cover this kind of an emergency. I also used the return ticket of course, to come back to Turkey.

Looking back on the four years you spent in the U.S., how do you think it impacted your life, both personally and professionally?

The University of Iowa, at that time, was the most important institution on legislative studies. Either by coincidence or by design, they had accumulated some of the major researchers in the field of legislative studies. So, the connections I made there, and the work I was involved with helped me later on in many different ways. Where we lived, which was a student housing, there was a lot of interaction between neighbors who may not be attending the same programs of course. We were able to mingle quite a bit, that also created an opportunity to create a community. In the summers, we played volleyball every night. We shared information on when the computer center would be free. We started to help each other with babysitting. This of course made it a lot easier to adjust to the new environment and to the new culture.  We “scratched each other’s backs”.

I kept in contact with many of these people. For example, my advisor, Gerhard Loewenberg –he was a very methodical person. He would give me an assignment, to write a chapter; I would deposit it on time, then he would give me an appointment for several days later. When I’d arrive in his office, he would be ready with comments, corrections, notes, and suggestions on how to improve what I had written. When there was a problem with statistical methods, he would refer me to another faculty member to get feedback. Professor Loewenberg would give me dates, and would expect me to deliver on those dates.

His methods made it possible for me to write my dissertation in a much shorter period than it could have taken. I adopted his methods and standards as both a young academic, and all through my own career, with my advisees. I was also able to learn a lot from other staff members from other fields. Vernon Van Dyke taught us to read a lot, and how to read as well: skimming, focusing, identifying important aspects.  I took courses from methodology, economics, epistemology, philosophy… I didn’t only study legislature systems, I had instruction on international politics, methods of politics, comparative politics, comparative methodology, and research techniques.

I was involved in another research project, as a principal investigator, and not as an assistant this time, on rural political change. I worked on this after I got back from Iowa, from 1978 to 1980.  And for the second semester in 1980, taught Middle East Politics and Comparative Politics as well as the findings of this research in the University of Iowa as a visiting scholar. After the 70s, I produced some work on political culture in Turkey, with the help of that study, enabling me to have a relatively insightful look into the culture of rural areas and also understanding how politics interacted with economics at that level, the services provided by the state, how people were contacting bureaucracy and influencing political processes through voting and other participatory acts. We found out, for example, that the education level of women played a crucial role in their voting behavior.

Are you still working on this study? What else have you worked on through the years? What kind of projects are you currently working on?

No, not anymore on rural communities, as they have changed completely; now we have formerly rural, newly urbanized poor. I do a lot of election studies, at the time of elections. I work on participation – I have recently published a piece on 40 years of political participation – you see I have data, beginning from 1974 until 2014. I also do annual surveys for the International Social Survey Program with Professor Ali Çarkoğlu – we are the representatives of that organization of 45 countries, collecting data on various topics, such as social equality, role of government, citizenship, orientation of people toward work, nationalism, and religion; and periodically publish the results. I also did a project in the 80’s on legislative development out of which I published a few articles. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of interest in how the newly emerging states were going to be transformed. At that time, a professor form Hawaii, asked me to join a network on viable constitution – how to develop a viable constitution to help a new regime be established on sound footing, preferably democratically. So, from 1992 to 2002, I worked with that network, analyzing with 50 other members, many different constitutions, how they worked, and which fared how in terms of (1) producing legitimate political regime, (2) managing economic development, (3) managing political violence, (4) producing efficient government, well working bureaucracy, but not much corruption. These are the four basic criteria used to understand what makes a successful constitution. So, through the years, I have written on political representation, participation, regime characteristics, election laws and the election system in Turkey.

You have been in academia for 39 years. What do you like the most about being in academia? 

Trying to find answers to some riddles of the substance matter that we investigate. It’s a painstaking but joyful process. It’s especially satisfying when you have success in finding answers, then that’s very helpful, gratifying and fulfilling. I do enjoy teaching, mostly graduate students, although it seems there is less and less interest in instruction and student attendance in lectures. Helping graduate students with their dissertations, and then follow their academic careers also gives joy, it’s uplifting. Of course, there’s also a downside – you realize how “senior” you have become!

What would you advise to the students who are planning to apply for a Fulbright grant or exploring other grants and scholarships?

This process has changed so much. There is so much more available now, and so many ways to contact universities like face to face interviews with faculty members before you apply. Contacts matter a lot. Universities need to learn more about student applicants. If you can provide more information about yourself, then it’s helpful. Get to know faculty members of universities and departments you want to go to. American universities will start recruiting with American students, whose background and skills they know well. It’s not the same for applicants from Turkey. Some programs in a few institutions in Turkey are well-known. For students from other programs and institutions, they have low input. So, if applicants are able to provide some input by having some personal contacts, they can change many things -favorably or unfavorably! Students who apply to American institutions for graduate studies should target not only a few star universities, but more universities. I believe exploiting the opportunities you get effectively is more important than going after a prestigious name. Social networking and keeping up good relations can lead you to joining international research projects. Of course, you also need to deliver!