Chemistry was the word of the day for Wednesday as the IU delegation – fresh (if not still a bit jet-lagged) from a productive start to the week in South Korea – entered into the China portion of its presidential trip to East Asia. Our arrival kickstarted a series of events and activities designed to celebrate – and recharge – the university’s longstanding engagement in one of the most strategically important regions of the world.
All of the elements that have helped IU establish its leading role as one of our nation’s most globally focused universities are at work in China, a country that impacts, in massive fashion, nearly every facet of current geopolitical affairs.
Since I did far better as a student in English than I did in the sciences, I’ll simply call those elements the four P’s.
For starters, there’s past history. IU’s ties to China, in fact, go all the way back to the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912), the last imperial dynasty of China, when IU graduate William Alexander Parsons Martin worked in Beijing as an interpreter for the American minister to China. He later taught international law and served as president of the School of Combined Learning in Beijing.
Then there are the programs. IU’s Bloomington campus possesses some of the nation’s pre-eminent scholarship in China studies, which encompass teaching and research programs on the culture and history of China as well as beginning and advanced courses in Mandarin, Cantonese and classical Chinese languages. IU also has one of the few highly prestigious U.S. government-funded flagship centers in Mandarin, which are focused on further developing best practices for the teaching of this language. It is one of several Title VI centers housed in the university’s School of Global and International Studies, which teaches more than 70 foreign languages annually – far more than any other U.S. college or university. All of IU’s programs are also supported by the IU China Gateway office, one of four such offices that constitute IU’s expanding Global Gateway Network.
Of course, schools, centers and programs are only as good as the people who drive them. IU has more than 8,000 international students. Of that number, more than 3,100 students are from China, making it the leading country of origin for international students at the university. Continuing an upward trend, China currently ranks in the top 10 countries where IU students choose to study abroad, and it’s now the No. 1 study-abroad destination for students from the IUPUI campus.
IU now also has more than 7,000 alumni affiliated with China. They represent some of the most loyal and dedicated graduates of the university, and we are looking forward to reconnecting with them later this week at the IU Is Global 2018 Alumni Conference and Reunion. So many of them have gone on to successful careers here and elsewhere around the world. Since the time of IU’s first Chinese graduate –Showin Wetzen Hsu, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at IU in 1909 before returning to China to serve in a number of high-level governmental and judicial positions – there has been a powerful tradition of IU alumni returning to render distinguished service to Chinese society as scholars, government officials and industry leaders.
Finally, there are the partnerships that IU has developed for many decades with several of China’s leading educational institutions. These partnerships have resulted in numerous student and faculty exchanges that have helped generate a greater level of understanding of a country that continues to have an enormous economic, cultural and political impact on the rest of the world and the most critical challenges facing the planet in the 21st century.
Honoring the past and celebrating new beginnings at Nankai
On Wednesday morning, members of the IU delegation set out from Beijing, where they’d only just dropped their luggage, to the coastal metropolis of Tianjin and to Nankai University, one of the top universities in China and the world for the study of chemistry. Remarkably, the chemistry department at Nankai itself has close to 400 faculty members, which would make it a “college” at some schools.
Beginning in the 1980s and until around the late 2000s, IU and Nankai had a graduate student and faculty exchange stemming, in part, from a long-ago connection with the Department of Chemistry in IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences. Nankai’s chemistry department was founded by professor Shixian Yang, who would serve as the university’s president from 1957 to 1969 and again from 1979 to 1981. Starting in the 1930s, Yang built connections with Eli Lilly chemists, and he spent time in the early to mid-1940s at IU, during which time he was instrumental in recruiting two renowned scholars to study at IU.
The late Binglin He and Ruyu Chen, who were husband and wife, are two of the most distinguished Chinese alumni in IU’s history, and both are known throughout China for their pioneering work in chemistry. Professor He began graduate work in chemistry at IU Bloomington in 1948, and he was joined six months later by his wife, Chen, in the same doctoral program. They both earned doctorates in chemistry from IU in 1952; four years later, they returned to China.
Here at Nankai, the campus has held extensive celebrations in commemoration of the anniversary of He’s birth 100 years ago this year and his numerous accomplishments. He went on to become known as China’s “father of ion exchange resins,” and he established the first ion exchanger plant in China. The practical applications of his scientific research include national defense, medical science and environmental protection. He was the founding head of the Polymer Chemistry Division, the founding director of the Polymer Chemistry Institute and chair of the Department of Chemistry, which subsequently became the College of Chemistry. He was also the founding president of Qingdao University, while continuing his service at Nankai.
His extensive list of awards and honors includes his induction into the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and he has been widely recognized for both his scholarship and his contributions to China’s national development. A memorial commemorating his life and work was established in his hometown of Panyu in Guangdong Province, and a statue of his likeness was added to the Nankai campus.
Professor Chen went on to become a pioneer in pesticide research in China, and she was also a prominent professor of chemistry at Nankai. She directed Nankai’s Pesticide Laboratory, one of the first laboratories of its kind in China, and she was awarded a patent for the development of a pesticide. In 1980, Chen was inducted into the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her numerous other awards and honors include membership in the United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Chemistry.
Together, the couple was not only known for being world-class scholars, but also for their deep concern for the personal well-being of their students and colleagues. To this end, Professor He divided all of his research, scholarship and prize money earnings between all the members of his teams, and he regularly gave his own share to graduate students who were experiencing financial difficulties.
On Wednesday morning, a special ceremony was attended by about 200 Nankai students, staff and distinguished guests, including Nankai Party Secretary Qingshan Yang. There, IU President Michael A. McRobbie formally recognized the career achievements of He and Chen – and all that they did to improve the quality of life for people in China and beyond – by posthumously presenting them with the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion. The prestigious honor is given to individuals who have represented IU and its ideals in extraordinary fashion around the world.
Accepting the honors for the professors was one of their sons, Norman. Choking back tears, he spoke lovingly and admiringly of his parents, whom, he said, he and many others looked up to because of what they accomplished in their search for knowledge and how well they served the Chinese people. Almost everyone I talked to agreed that Norman’s poignant speech – and the pride he wore on his face as he accepted the Benton bronze medal on behalf of his parents – made for one of the most moving IU awards ceremonies in recent memory.
They also added to a feeling, one felt throughout the day, that IU and Nankai – as they honored this special and shared past – might seize an opportunity to renew and reinvigorate their longstanding relationship. (Several IU faculty administrators traveled to Tianjin earlier this summer with this objective in mind.) What’s more, Nankai will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019, at the same time that IU kicks off its Bicentennial, and the two universities share a top strategic goal of becoming even more engaged internationally (meaning more student and faculty exchanges and other collaborative activities on a variety of fronts) as they enter their second and third centuries, respectively.
Translation: All of the elements are there to create a formula for strengthening an already proven and productive partnership.