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Professor Ozan Varol: A Contrarian Thinker

On September 12, 1980, Turkish generals staged a coup d’état that unseated an elected civilian government. During the following three years of military rule, hundreds of journalists were attacked, thousands of teachers were dismissed, 650,000 people were arrested, and more than 1.6 million people were blacklisted, according to a later accounting by the Turkish Parliament.

Professor Ozan Varol, who was born in Istanbul less than a year later, says the negative consequences of that coup reverberated for decades and led him to believe—as most people do—that “all military coups are bad for democracy.”

Fast-forward to 2011, when militaries in Tunisia and Egypt sided with democratic protestors and convinced longtime authoritarian leaders to abdicate power. Varol says he remembers watching the Arab Spring unfold from his Chicago apartment and reconsidering the conventional wisdom on military coups. “I remember thinking, ‘What if I’m wrong?’”

Six years of research later, he’s convinced he did hold faulty assumptions. His 2017 book, The Democratic Coup d’État, examines a wide range of military coups across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America and analyzes the conditions under which some coups, in fact, usher in a transition to democracy.

“The word coup brings to mind dark images of generals deposing democratically elected leaders so they can run the country themselves as dictators,” Varol says. “In the book, I push back against that assumption and show that there’s this subset of coups in which the military actually performs the opposite function.”

His book has won plaudits from scholars and lay readers alike, garnering headlines in a wide range of media outlets, including Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, CNN, the Washington Post, Slate, and Foreign Policy.

The thesis of Varol’s book exemplifies the kind of contrarian thinking he has become known for. He bills himself as a contrarian on his personal website, where he offers The Contrarian Handbook to visitors and posts weekly blog entries on critical thinking and creativity. He also has a weekly podcast, Famous Failures, in which he interviews authors and entrepreneurs about their failures and what they’ve learned from them.

Varol traces his contrarian impulse to the rigidly conformist culture in which he was raised. Attending grade school in Turkey, he says teachers called students by numbers rather than names, and educational advancement relied mainly on one’s ability to regurgitate facts. “If you deviated from the norm,” he says, “you’d end up in the principal’s office.”

Varol came to the U.S. in 1999 to attend Cornell University, where he majored in astrophysics and worked on the operations teams for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers. But while at Cornell, he recognized a desire “to apply my critical thinking skills to something more practical,” he says, and pursued a law degree. After graduating first in his class from the University of Iowa College of Law, he clerked for a federal appellate judge, worked at a San Francisco law firm, and taught at Chicago-Kent College of Law. He joined Lewis & Clark Law School in 2012.

Since then, he has established himself as a leading voice in constitutional transitions and an expert in Turkish politics as well as a favorite among students, who praise his clear instructional style and enthusiasm for the subject matter he teaches.

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