Dr. Beheruz Sethna

The State University of West Georgia President
Retains a Child-like Curiosity.

By Kavita Chhibber

 

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?
The only natural flair I had was a fondness of tinkering with radios! No, it was my dad’s dream. Several years before I was eligible to even apply for IIT my dad would go around with a cutting of the IIT ad in his pocket, making it very clear that was where he wanted me to go. I went through the whole gamut of attending coaching classes for the entrance exam, went to St Xavier’s college for one year, because as an SSC student I was eligible to apply only after a year and got the rank of I think 524! It was a comfortable ranking to get into everything else, but the prestigious electrical engineering program that I wanted. So I went for the so-called interview to IIT. I was enjoying the life at St. Xavier’s and really didn’t want to go to IIT. After all that’s where all the girls were and IIT doesn’t have too many! Jokes apart, I had a lot of friends at Xavier’s.
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.
In my time in IIT I rarely saw a professor who taught well, and a lot of them were exceptionally brilliant researchers and nationally famous guys. In the five years I was there all I saw was their rear ends most of the time, and all they did was write equations on the board. When they were done, they would erase them and continued writing more equations in their place! Nobody talked to us or explained things to us. I didn’t see anyone really enthusiastic about teaching. I felt that the entire environment at IIT was ruled by fear and intimidation by the faculty, and some of the professors were very unkind to people like me who were struggling to keep up. I still remember at one point in my fourth year, I met with a serious car accident and later at mid terms contracted chicken pox. I was quarantined in the University hospital. After I was discharged I went to various professors to help me make up. There was one who had really made my life miserable and he said to me, I don’t believe you had chicken pox. You just pretended to have it to get out of mid terms. I am and going to set a really tough paper for you to teach you a lesson. How one can fake chicken pox is beyond me.
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.
Well at different points I had wanted to go abroad for undergraduate and graduate studios but my father just looked at me in the eye and said I really don’t have the money and that was okay. I applied to IIM, and the Bajaj Institute in Mumbai, very certain I would stay on in Bombay and not go to this weird sounding place Ahmedabad. Well my letter of acceptance took later than others to come due to a postal glitch, and for some strange reason, even though I had been accepted at Bajaj, I didn’t like the fact that I hadn’t heard from IIM. The letter did arrive and when it did, I realized that since I had been so antsy about it I should go and I’m very glad I did.
Not only did I get an outstanding education, I met my wife Madhavi there and I loved most of what I did there. Economics was always my nemesis, and people from Delhi school of economics blew everyone out of the way, but I met exceptional professors and realized that I really belonged in this discipline.
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.
I had initially planned to go to India, research and write my thesis on family planning in India which was a hot topic in the 1970s, but a critique I wrote on an article in Science magazine on a particular way of analyzing human behavior, changed that. Professor John Howard and Dr Jag Sheth had developed a model of consumer behavior, which was highly acclaimed and was at that time the ranking model of consumer behavior in America. With my technical background I used some concepts from electrical engineering to analyze human behavior as a controlled system. It was a completely new thing. The traditional path to human behavior is through sociology and psychology; you don’t get too many electrical engineers going into marketing and consumer behavior. I took advantage of the fact that all the data was already there and used their data to validate the highly acclaimed national model. I ended up with better results in certain parts. So it was plain sailing after that and I became the record hold for the fastest PhD ever in business school graduating in 28 months.

So did you get into teaching after graduating?
Well I had worked for Lever brothers in New York when I was doing my PhD for almost two years. I enjoyed the corporate world, but had no idea if I would be a good professor. Columbia did not have an undergrad business program, so I had not taught at all, even as a doctoral student there, but my commitment to going into the academic work remained even then. I finished in1976, but waited for my wife Madhavi to finish her master’s degree in education before joining Clarkson University. I was there for 13 years except for one year when I took leave of absence to get back to corporate life.

You have been voted as one of the best Professors apart from being an excellent administrator. What made you that good?
I remember the first day I walked into class and saw this student sitting with a dog. My Indianness really asserted itself and I was about to say something, but then I asked myself is there any disrespect intended at me? I am glad in retrospect I didn’t say anything. The dog was extremely well behaved and there was indeed no disrespect intended and in the very first semester they rated me one of the best professors at Clarkson’s business school.
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.
Recently, some students from my class won the national award in research. These were undergraduate students and they beat every other undergraduate and graduate team in social sciences. So obviously the standards I set are very high. But I am right there with them working late into the night. No professor at IIT would have done that.
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?
Well, I thought I would retire at Clarkson. I was very happy there. It was the perfect place for children to grow. We didn’t have fences, we left our doors open, but Madhavi wanted better opportunities for herself which she was not getting in a small town, so it was essentially to please her that I moved. There was a dean’s position open at Lamar University in Texas, and so I decided to apply.
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?
Good question and the honest answer to that is, there aren’t many presidents of universities who are not born in this country, even today. With all that I have accomplished, had my name been John Smith, I would have to ward headhunters off with a long stick, but my name and background are still a disadvantage.
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.
I tell people if your last name is Gates and your father’s name is Bill, by all means go to Ivy League schools, but if you are bright you can succeed anywhere. Ultimately your worth is never judged by the degrees you hold, but what you make of yourself as a human being. My son, who bought a Harvard law school mug home when he was a child and has wanted to go there since, just turned Harvard down and went to Columbia Law School because they gave him better financial aid. He joked that that little mug made it very hard to turn Harvard down, but that he does not regret his decision. My daughter also did not go to the most expensive school that gave her admission. They both drive old cars, and understand the value of money. People have told me I am an inspiration because I value academic freedom, understand the pleasures and pains of being a professor and have no problem going down on my hands and knees to clean up after a big bash at the university. I think what I really want to be remembered for is for the difference I have made in the life of a student who reached his full potential because I believed in him or her. I want to retain that child like curiosity, my sense of humor and the knowledge that success and adversity are all transient. I have no desire to be remembered as a mature wise old man!

                                                                                                                                                                      All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber


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