I once suggested that exploring the relationship between history and biography could reshape international studies in ways that help us to rethink the relationship between individuals and the world.[1] The life‘s work of Mr. A. Nihat Gökyigit makes that very point, for, in his own words, he has never appeared to know what “none of his business” means. Or perhaps he knows it better than anyone.

    There are few things that he has not made his business. A professional engineer with substantial business accomplishments, he is also a leading environmentalist, diplomat, philanthropist and patron of the arts. With some presumption on the university‘s part, we might also claim that he represents the University of Michigan‘s enduring association with the world at large.

    Born in Artvin, in Turkey‘s northeast, in 1925, Mr. Gökyigit came to Ann Arbor after World War II and received his MS in civil engineering from the University of Michigan in 1948. It was not until February 2003, however, that he returned to his alma mater to share what it means to embrace the world. He certainly embraced this university during the few days he was here.

    He began the day by meeting with Provost Paul Courant, visiting his old department, touring the Music School‘s Stearns Collection, and lunching with students from the Center for Russian and East European Studies and from the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Then at the International Institute he introduced his videos on regional development and protection of natural resources in the Caucasus and Central Asia to the public and to faculty and students from across the university.

    On the following day, he met with students and faculty from the School of Natural Resources and Environment, introduced another video on an orchestra he supports, and met with staff and benefactors of the University Musical Society, concluding the evening with a UMS performance. He completed his visit the next morning by meeting Turkish-American community members, a fitting end to a trip that began with Turkish graduate students.

    Impressive as his pace was at Michigan, it is what he has done beyond Michigan that makes him truly extraordinary. Together with another Michigan graduate, Feyyaz Berker and University of Illinois graduate Necati Akça Filar, in the middle 1950s he developed Tekfen, one of Turkey‘s leading construction companies. Over the succeeding decades, Tekfen has expanded to include more than 45 companies and 5,000 employees. He also extended the private sector through international associations, becoming co-chair of the Turkish-Soviet Business Council, which refocused on the CIS after the Soviet Union‘s end. In addition, he has represented the Turkish private sector in the Black Sea Economic Co-operation Business Council.

    Knowing that we all prosper when at peace, Mr. Gökyigit has sought to bring together the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea through the language they all share. The Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra not only enables the participation of an outstanding musician from each country bordering these waters, but also brings the heritage music of each people to orchestral elaboration. I never realized the kemancha‘s broad potential until I heard it alongside the Orchestra in the Sound of Three Seas. With that as background, I could hardly imagine what he considered the potentials of the Stearns collection for bringing together peoples well beyond even these three seas. His love for the diversity and harmony of music and peoples, along side his talent for business, is not the only combination of qualities that makes him so distinctive.

    Mr. Gökyigit‘s video on the destruction of the Aral Sea has brought to a broader public both the biophysical and social costs of this horrific ecological catastrophe. Area specialists and environmentalists certainly know this tale, as well as the frustrations accompanying its remedy. It is not clear how much can be accomplished by broader publicity without globally focused recovery efforts, but without that broader awareness, recovery cannot even be imagined. Recovery, however, is only one focus of his terrific environmental activism.

    Aware that one of Turkey‘s most precious reserves of biodiversity was at risk of destructive economic development, Mr. Gökyigit undertook an extraordinary enterprise to preserve Macahel with ecologically friendly development strategies. Discovering a pure Caucasian bee there (thought to be extinct in Turkey but highly regarded by honey producers for its resistance to disease, hardiness and productivity, and friendliness to handlers) he supported scientists and local volunteers to begin breeding the queen bees. He then helped to establish a local company in the center village, also enabling residents to learn more about apicultural science and economic opportunities. He has also established Biyotematur [2] in order to promote ecotourism so that this unusual environment could be preserved while at the same time supporting the local economy.

    By no means are these his only environmental efforts. As chair of TEMA, the Turkish foundation for combating soil erosion, for reforestation, and protection of natural habitats, [3] Mr. Gökyigit has taken his considerable accomplishment and leadership into the world of non-governmental organizations, helping to make one of Turkey‘s largest and fastest growing NGOs. Committed to integrating environmentally sustainable economic development, it is certainly part of a larger worldwide movement. TEMA itself has three members who are in the EU parliament and one member in the US Congress. Believing that environmental awareness should be made a key element of democratic public culture, TEMA works to assure that Turkey‘s elected officials and laws work to sustain the planet.

    When I consider the dangers facing this earth, whether in the cascade of ecological catastrophes or in the combustibility and contagion of national conflicts in the lands formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and its near abroad, the structural side of my sociological imagination can easily overwhelm and destroy both hope and vision. I can draw inspiration from social movements mobilized to challenge the deadly courses of self-destruction on which too much of our future seems to be tracked. I learn most from those who are themselves crossing all sorts of structural locations in order to realize the best of all possible futures, not only with the resources they can mobilize, but with the realistic utopian thinking they can inspire.

    Thanks to my colleague, Fatma Müge Gocek, I met Mr. Gökyigit and other distinguished Turkish graduates of the University of Michigan during a visit to Istanbul in 2001. I learned much from all of them during that visit, but this is more than a tale of alumni appreciation. We have much to gain by learning from the biographies of those who have crossed all sorts of boundaries in our efforts to reconsider a university of the world. I have long appreciated those well known to the world community, including people whose direct contact with this International Institute, from Vaclav Havel [4] and Madeleine Albright [5] to Oscar Arias, [6] George Mitchell, [7] and Salman Rushdie, [8] have moved us to new critical engagements. But it‘s also important to learn from others, perhaps less globally known, but just as visionary and committed to a world of which we should be proud to be part. It is especially nice when we learn from one of our own graduates, and are able to share their experience with others who work to transform the world.


      1. (2002) “Whose Biographies and Histories?” The Journal of the International Institute, 9:3:14-15. See also http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.310. return to text

      2. For more information about Biyotematur, see http://www.biyotematur.com or email <biomatur@biyotematur.com>. return to text

      3. <http://www.tema.org.tr>. return to text

      4. Vaclav Havel, “Truth in the Information Age,” The Journal of the International Institute, 8:2:1; http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0008.201. Michael D. Kennedy (2000), “The Global Politics of Intellectual and Institutional Responsibility,” The Journal of the International Institute, 8:1:10-11; http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0008.106. return to text

      5. (2003) “Culture, War and Humility Around A University of the World,” The Journal of the International Institute, 10:3:12-13; http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/journal/vol10no3/kennedy.htm. return to text

      6. Oscar Arias, “Moral Leadership in Today‘s World,” The Journal of the International Institute, 9:3:3; http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.303. return to text

      7. George Mitchell, “Is World Peace an Impossible Dream?,” The Journal of the International Institute, 9:3:1-2 http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.302. return to text

      8. Interview with Salman Rushdie, The Journal of the International Institute, 10:3; 6-7; http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0010.306. return to text