A Letter to Alumni and Friends of the Center for Photochemical Sciences
I never imagined anything would make it necessary for me to send all of you an open letter, years after nearly all of us have left Bowling Green.
But Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened world tensions to the point that I felt I need to say something and something to each and every one of you -- and that I could not let the moment pass without doing so.
I was chair of chemistry at BGSU from 1974 to 1996, and after that director of the Center, which I founded so that we could be on the cutting edge of a new science – and grant Ph.D.’s in a hard science for the first time in the college’s history. We were the campus leaders in graduate education, and so I got to choose the first students that came to the University to be in our program.
They came -- many of you did -- from the former Yugoslavia, then from the People’s Republic of China, from Poland, from Romania, from Bulgaria, and the countries of the former Soviet Union – former or current communist countries all.
For decades, the repressionist governments in those places had prevented almost any of their citizens from traveling to other non-communist countries.
And as a result, I was so excited when a student from the People’s Republic first applied for admission to our masters’ program; and even more excited when Dekai Lu arrived. Within a few years later there were hundreds of Chinese on campus, but Dekai was the first.
I didn’t know what to think a few years later when then-President Paul Olscamp asked me to go with him to Russia to visit the Mendeleev Institute of
Chemical Technology. Russian scientists of that day published only in their own journals -- in Russian -- and American scientists seldom paid much, if any, attention to what they published. What could I find of scientific interest there?
However, the university didn’t ask me to do much of that sort of thing, so after long discussions with my late wife Sue, whose parents were critically ill at the time, I agreed to go. This was in 1990, and things were beginning to open up.
But I had been subjected to years of television propaganda about Russians, most of it nasty. Though the Cold War was ending, those opinions had been deeply ingrained. So I was very surprised to find scientists who would soon become good friends at Mendeleev, colleagues who were wrestling with all the things I was, such as paying the bills, educating kids, staying quiet in restless societies, getting our universities to do what we thought was best, arguing with colleagues and administrators. Any thought of a “cold war” wasn’t much on their minds.
That gave me an opening. Throughout my life I have been both a research
scientist and a people guy. I was fundamentally interested in how I could find
scientists as interested in doing science, as I was, and beyond that, young people that were searching for the opportunity to do the same.
I guess we connected! Powerfully, and for years – and thank God we did.
I remember, too, that on that first visit to Moscow, restrictions had been relaxed, and the once stony-faced young men guarding the customs gates smiled while letting us through, while laughing at how strange we looked.
So it is with shock and horror that the sense of freedom and openness we all
sensed at that time of glasnost seems to have come crashing to an end – hopefully, not forever.
I think we try to live by the words John Donne wrote long ago:
No man is an island; no man stands alone; each to another, each to his own.
Yesterday I asked President Rodney Rogers of BGSU to write a letter to all alumni about the situation. I hope it will appear soon. But I also have asked the
governor of Ohio, Michael DeWine, to increase opportunities at the graduate level for students forced out of Ukraine as refugees. Hopefully, that will happen too.
And I know that many of you have close friends and relatives across the global spectrum of countries that have been impacted by the shocking events in Europe. If there is anything we can do to help you during this anxious time, please let us know.
In the meantime let us pray for peace in all the cities of Jerusalem, and in whatever way each of us finds most fitting.
My best to you all and God bless,
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, NY.