University President Dr Beheruz Sethna retains a child-like curiosity.
Georgia Trend Magazine raved that Dr Beheruz Sethna, president of the State University of West Georgia, “is one of the many energetic leaders galvanizing the West Georgia community and has pushed the standards of his university far beyond its traditional, second tier roots.”
In an exclusive interview with Little India, Sethna, who has been ranked amongst Georgia’s 100 Most Influential Georgians, shares why the journey has been so gratifying and why he still looks at the world through rose tinted glasses.
You were an only child? Were you spoilt?
If you could spoil someone with maybe Rs 5 in the early 1950s! No I wasn’t. I came from a very small nuclear, middle class family. I remember, I had asked my mother just after I had finished middle school how much money my father made and I think it was Rs 500. So even in those days it was not a lot of money.
Both my parents were a very strong influence and made it very clear that if we have to go without the cool stuff it was okay. I had minimal pocket money and was told that everything that they could afford to save was going into my education. I had a couple of unmarried aunts who may have spoilt me a little but they didn’t have much money either. My father was a very simple man-he was very self-disciplined and very gentle kind of a person. The whole extended family relied on him for everything.
You went to IIT Bombay after a year at St Xavier’s college. Was it your parents’ dream, as was often the case-be a doctor or an engineer, or did you have a natural flair for electrical engineering?
I went into the room, the acting director was seated at the table. He said what do you want. I said electrical. He said that’s closed, choose another one. I said I don’t want another one. He said, WHAT? He almost had a heart attack. Normally in IIT they really don’t care, but he was so surprised, because no one turns down admission to IIT, that he said let me tell you about the other engineering programs. I said no and walked out of the room. I think I must be the only person in history to turn down admission to IIT.
I phoned my father from the pay phone from the IIT building and told him what I had done. I thought he would have an apoplectic fit. He was quite upset and genuinely hurt. I think he would have emotionally accepted it, if I hadn’t got in. Anyway, he said you just have to work harder and appear again. I did and got a rank of 144.
This time he came with me, and even though the rank was high enough for me to get into electrical engineering, he said go in there, I don’t care what you do, which engineering you want to go to, just comeback with an acceptance. So I did.
So what did IIT teach you?
I was pretty miserable in IIT. It was not a breeze for me as it was for others who were at IIT’s top end of class, But IIT taught me there is no shortcut to hard work. In IIT you are rubbing shoulders with some of the most brilliant people in India and I was certainly not anywhere in the category. In my 4th and 5th year, I had no recollection of going to bed. I used to fall asleep only through sheer exhaustion. What I did not realize was that I was involved in too many extracurricular activities; I was general secretary, which is like student government president. They realized that position had such a heavy load and split it into 2-3 position in my 4th year. I was also very active in theater and drama in IIT and all that added to lack of time and though I was taking my studies seriously, but then there are only that many hours in the d. Due to that I believe that I learnt leadership skills at IIT.
There was an observation made recently by someone that just because a university boasts of a reputation of having nationally and internationally acclaimed faculty members, it does not make those professors good teachers automatically.
At another time we were in the process of choosing an undergrad thesis, and everyone had to write it. The top 20-25 percent students get their first choice of topic; others have to struggle through their second and third choices. I remember raising my hand and requesting a 10-minute break to look at all the information again and delete the choices that were already taken and get ourselves organized. The professor who was also the department chair looked like I had exploded a bomb in his class, yelled “Absolutely Not,” and then later hauled me to his office and said “that was very stupid, you showed a great sign of weakness and someone like you holding a public office should not have shown such weakness.” Well I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now! Today when I am asked how I have been voted best professor for so long or how do I manage to motivate my students to do so exceedingly well, I say I had great role models at IIT. I simply don’t do what they did!
You went to IIM, Ahmedabad, after that.
I had come to IIM with the belief that that an MBA from here would be an asset to my resume for the corporate world, but by the time I graduated I felt I wanted to teach. There was no PhD program except for the one they had in IIM called fellow of business administration, but they felt I had already done all the advanced courses and the next step should be to go abroad for further studies. I was accepted at Harvard and Wharton, but chose Columbia because Columbia gave me the best financial aid offer.
So what are the impressions of America and Columbia?
Very traumatic! From the moment I landed at the airport, when I couldn’t find the telephone directories, to the people who were unfriendly and rude, made me quite miserable. To add to that there were problems with my grant money. 80 percent of the aid was a grant and 20 percent a loan for which I had to have an American co maker, someone who would co-sign.
Sitting in India, I had no idea what a co-maker was. When I looked at the grant money, having been frugal all my life, I thought I don’t need that remaining 20 percent or this co maker, I can live comfortably off the grant, so I didn’t bother. I came here and was told no loan no grant, so find a co maker. My parents knew no one here, they were simple people with zero connections, and neither did I. While Columbia let me attend classes, since the bulk of the grant money went for tuition, I had to live on whatever I had brought from India, which was very little. I lived for 5 months on loaves of bread and cans of spaghetti balls, stretching it for weeks and literally had painful hunger pangs all the time. I was not allowed to work, being a foreign student and was even turned down for on campus employment. If and when some relatives and friends visited USA, and I knew some of the Air India crew, who would take me out to lunch. My starving lifestyle was a legend, and you could say until I found a co maker, I literally ate off the goodness of people.
As far academics went, there was a saying at Columbia as you started – “look to the right, look to the left, for the person on either side of you won’t be around.” That was how tough the program was. I did very well with the quantitative subjects thanks to the IIT drill, but economics was my nemesis there too. I did work hard and was the only one to get honors in the mandatory economics minor.
So did you get into teaching after graduating?
You have been voted as one of the best Professors apart from being an excellent administrator. What made you that good!
I think having roughed it out so much at IIT, I went to the other extreme and was exceedingly compassionate and believed just about anything my students dished out. Even after their 4th and 5th grandmother died, I would buy the story! Jokes apart, I have been in this business for 38 years, and have taught the same classes again and each time I try to make it different, more stimulating, and challenging, something I don’t think I saw any professor at IIT do. I was shot down every time I would try to ask a question. I think the relationship professors have with their students here is so much healthier.
I tell my students, the bar is set very high, and you will have to do your darned best to reach that bar, but I am here with you every inch of the way. You can stand on my shoulders to reach for that bar, or climb on my back, and I don’t think they have let me down in return.
I also remember a time when a student at Clarkson was in academic trouble and was going to be thrown out. He requested me to allow him to transfer to my department. Normally the answer to that would be a no, but we talked and somehow I believed in him and agreed to the transfer. He did brilliantly and many years later we bumped into each other at Niagara Falls and he was really happy to see me and said how much he has appreciated being given that second chance.
Another time I was a senior manager at Richardson Hindustan in India and the company is known for its cutthroat dog eat dog reputation. I just came out of the office one day and saw some of the junior colleagues on their hands and knees looking for something. When they saw me, you know how it is when you see a senior officer in India; they scrambled and were very evasive when I asked what was wrong.
When I persisted they said their friend Deepak, had lost the screw on his watch dial. Deepak later went on to graduate from the University of Chicago and became the vice president of the most powerful company in market research in the United States. He met me years later and said he wanted to be like me, and related that incident which he said left a profound impact. I said what really happened. He said you went down on your knees and tried to help us find that screw. We never found it, but your humility left an indelible impression on me, and I decided that is how I want to treat people. Deepak was too big a shot then and didn’t need to say politically correct things, but this is what makes it all worth it, not the degrees and professional accolades I may have chalked up on my resume.
So you did leave Clarkson after 13 years and move to Lamar University Texas?
I heard about this later but my name was not among the top finalists. I had earlier never thought about racism in academia, because I had never been ambitious to be a big shot in administration. At times I was a reluctant administrator, because I would feel intensely about something and go to the Dean and say we should do it this way and he would say, sure, now YOU go do it!
It hit me only when I started applying for a dean’s position, and it seemed like I was hitting a brick wall every time. My colleagues told me to add all the interviews I had given to media, because a lot of time people wonder if Indians can speak English. Earlier, I had applied for a deans’ or assistant dean’s position in California and the person who gave me the hardest time was an Indian on the research committee; he went to the extent of asking me how could I even think an Indian would make a good dean. I could have sued him, had I known any better.
At Texas, the research committee handed their top 5 list to the executive vice president and he for some reason wanted to look at the ones rejected. My name was among the rejected. He asked why had I been rejected. The sheepish answer was we don’t know if he can speak English. The executive vice president said in that case just pick up the phone and call.
So they put me through a mock interview and at the end of it I was invited and then offered the position. So I did have to jump that proverbial extra hoop, which the others did not. I also had a special meeting with the board of regents so they could also see I could communicate!
So what was the experience like to be a dean of Indian origin, something that didn’t happen? I don’t think the ethnicity hurt me once we jumped over the initial hurdle, but we were up for accreditation and frankly the institution wasn’t ready and AACSB wasn’t happy. I had to personally inspire the faculty to make the changes necessary for us to get the accreditation. The other major event was that while I was away at a postdoctoral program at Harvard, the chancellor and president of the university who didn’t get along for years were at loggerheads. Then I heard that the president had been fired. An interim president was appointed. He was also the executive vice president, but then he got fired, so in one shot the president and the executive vice president were both gone. The angry faculty filed a no confidence motion against the chancellor, which was unheard of. So in all this chaos the only permanent office bearers were the deans who tried to run the institution as the chaos continued. The president chose me as interim executive vice president, saying oh its only for a couple of months and I said it had better be, the AACSB is coming for their second round of review so I have to be back as dean. Those couple of months lasted two years! The two days that the ASSCB came I jumped into being dean again, but that was that.
Well as if that wasn’t enough, the day I walk into my office as executive vice president, someone pokes their head through the door and says guess what the vice president of business and finance shot himself in the head last night, and then within hours came the other crushing news that a massive state audit had discovered deficiencies at Lamar in 50 different areas, due to utter bad management. The report was several inches thick. The Interim president came to me and said you are the only guy capable of ever reading that report, please help us out of this mess. So the first thing we did was to appoint an interim vice president for business and finance and for two years, he and I worked like crazy and dug the institution out of years of neglect.
State University of West Georgia must have seemed like a cake walk in comparison since that is where you went after 5 years at Lamar! But the question that comes to mind is after so many accolades, and achievements why West Georgia?
This exists unfortunately in academic life far more than it does in the corporate world. When I got the presidency at West Georgia, I became the only man in the history of Georgia to hold that position in any private or public university, who was not white.
My appointment ruffled a few feathers and I don’t blame them. They had never seen a president who was not white and had nothing to judge me by. I walked up to my detractors and told them upfront, look I have no time or inclination to keep looking over my shoulder to see who will stab me in the back. I hope you will be on my side. I have not faced too many problems and the State University of West Georgia has notched up several outstanding accomplishments as a result of having outstanding people around me.
When I joined 52 percent of the entering class was on learning support. Today it is .5 of 1 percent. The advanced academy program for kids who are gifted but bootstrapped for money has done very well. Students from here are turning down Stanford, Harvard and MIT. We have students who have received the Goldwater scholarship. We dominate the field of undergraduate research, and in the past four out of six years more of our students have won a place in the national collegiate honors council than any other university in the USA. NASA had a competition for space research and our students beat the students at GA TECH. We have just crossed the 10,000 mark in student enrollment. I initiated the first honorary degree and the doctoral program, we have increased the financial endowment to five times, and I have to thank my colleagues all of whom have worked hard with me.
You are a great advocate for public education.