By Heather O'Neill
November 23, 2009
Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna, president of University of West Georgia, is a star on the higher education scene.
Now in his 16th year at UWG, Dr. Sethna is the first known person of Indian origin ever to become president of a university anywhere in America. He is also the first person of any ethnic minority to become president of a college or university in Georgia other than of a historically black institution.
Among other accomplishments, during Dr. Sethna's tenure, UWG has acquired university status, achieved designation as a member of the robust tier of doctoral comprehensive universities, started Georgia's first advanced academy for exceptionally-gifted high school students and increased in student size by almost 50%, while substantially increasing the University's admission standards.
In addition to his work as president, Dr. Sethna has remained active in teaching and scholarship. He has taught undergraduates every year since arriving at UWG, which is extremely unusual for a university president.
Dr. Sethna has been married for more than 35 years to Dr. Madhavi Sethna, also a faculty member. They have two children: Anita Sethna, MD, who is currently doing a Fellowship in Facial Plastics, and Shaun Sethna, JD, a graduate of Georgia Tech and Columbia Law School, and a patent attorney at a major national law firm.
Dr. Sethna speaks to Heather O'Neill about his life experiences, about overcoming prejudice and about how his humble beginnings help him encourage students to pursue higher education in a down economy.
Heather O'Neill: You were born in India but have lived in the U.S. for many years. When did you emigrate and what were the circumstances?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: I was born in India, and came to the U.S. in 1973 at the age of 25, having completed a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering (at IIT-Bombay) and an MBA (at IIM-Ahmedabad). I came to the U.S. to do a Ph.D. in Business at Columbia University in New York City, with the full intention of returning to India after completing my Ph.D. and perhaps working here for 18 months just to gain some American experience. While doing my Ph.D., I worked for two years on Park Avenue at the corporate headquarters of Lever Brothers (a multinational marketing company).
I completed my Ph.D. in 1976, and started working as an assistant professor at Clarkson University in upstate New York. I was promoted early to Associate Professor in 1979-80. In late 1979 and through part of 1980 I did return to India and worked for an American company there. In 1981, I was faced with making a 2 x 2 decision: America vs. India, and Academics vs. Industry. I had done well in both and enjoyed both. I did not actually make the "final" decision until 1981, eight years after my arrival in the U.S.
Heather O'Neill: Your education has taken place in the United States and in India. What are the major differences you see in the education available in India and in the United States? What prompted you to choose to continue your education in the United States over India?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: I had two degrees from India (Bachelors and MBA) before I arrived in the U.S. I earned two more degrees at Columbia University (M. Phil. and Ph.D.), so if anything most of my post-high-school education has been in India.
Leslie Stahl said, 'Put Harvard, MIT and Princeton together, and you begin to get an idea of the status of IIT in India. IIT is dedicated to producing world-class chemical, electrical and computer engineers with a curriculum that may be the most rigorous in the world.' And, 'With a population of over a billion people in India, competition to get into the IITs is ferocious. Last year, 178,000 high school seniors took the entrance exam called the JEE. Just over 3,500 were accepted, or less than two percent. Compare that with Harvard, which accepts about 10 percent of its applicants.'
Correspondingly, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) which was set up in India by Harvard Business School, is arguably one of the best business schools in Asia.
Columbia University is certainly one of the best universities in the world, and so I have been fortunate and honored to be educated in excellent institutions. Later on, I attended post-doctoral programs at Indiana University and at Harvard. Each of these, of course, has its own strengths and limitations, and I am proud and honored to have been part of each.
I have made my life here and am very happy here, and proud of American higher education. I do believe that it is still the best in the world, and needs to be supported and applauded.
Heather O'Neill: Your undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering, and your Masters is in philosophy, but you also have a Ph.D. in Business and an MBA. What were your original career goals and how did they evolve over the years?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: A little background is necessary: I grew up in a family of very modest means--my family income was 500 rupees a month. In today's terms, that would be approximately $11 a month. Admittedly, that was a long time ago--when the Earth was cooling--and exchange rates were more favorable to the rupee, and the cost of living was lower, but no matter what "adjustment factors" one uses, it was not a lot of money.
Even with that level of income, there was never a question mark associated with the phrase "college graduation." My parents instilled in me the belief that higher education was a must, and that more and better higher education was what I had to shoot for. They made untold sacrifices and to a lesser extent so did I. Everything I am I owe to them and the messages they sent. I try to instill those same messages in my students.
I started my college education at a liberal arts college, and did two years of arts and sciences (with the emphasis on the sciences). After that, I applied for and studied hard to get into the IIT.
I went to the IIT because it was my father's wish that I try to reach for the stars. I did not want to go there. It was my parents' desire. IIT was very, very tough to get into and even tougher to get through (Leslie Stahl wasn't kidding when she said it was the most rigorous curriculum in the world). Today, I cannot thank them enough (both of them have now passed away) for that desire, and, yes, that pressure.
Towards the end of my time at IIT, I appeared for both the GRE (for an engineering Masters) and the GMAT (for an MBA). I finally decided to go the MBA route because of the corporate ladder--engineers with MBAs had a faster track to the top. My parents could not have afforded to send me to the U.S. at that time, and I had no assets of my own, so I looked at Indian opportunities.
And again, it was my father's wish that I shoot for the stars with the MBA at IIM, which had the Harvard aura and was (and still is) the best MBA option in India. Again, my preference was to go elsewhere, but I went there to please him, and again, he was right!
When I came to the U.S. to earn my Ph.D., I chose Columbia for essentially two reasons, namely the top name in consumer marketing (my chosen field) was at Columbia, and it gave me the best financial aid. My Masters in Philosophy was picked up on the way to a Ph.D., so that wasn't a major decision in itself.
Heather O'Neill: You are the first person from any ethnic minority to become president of a predominantly white or racially-integrated university or college in Georgia and the first Indian-born president of a non-minority college in the United States. Did your appointment feel ground breaking?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: I didn't even know the Georgia background when I was a candidate! My residence at that time was in Texas, where there were non-majority presidents of universities. I became aware of this issue only after I took over as president and then I heard that there had been some community members who had objected to my candidacy because, "Georgia was not ready for this."
When these people heard of my candidacy, they called the Speaker of the House, members of the Board of Regents and other important people to raise objections. To their credit, while I was unaware of all this, the Search Committee, the Chancellor, the Regents, the Speaker, were aware of the concerns about my ethnicity, and they did not give in to the pressure. I admire them for doing so. They could have just as easily chosen someone else, but this was the choice of the campus and the search committee, and so the Chancellor and Regents interviewed me, and appointed me.
A bit of humor: Since there had been so much overt hue and cry about my ethnicity, the Chancellor (who was very firm on the decision) wondered what the press would say when my appointment was announced. He laughed out aloud when he read the headline: "Texan Named to West Georgia Post."
With regard to being first in the nation, though I suspected it, it was not clear until later that I was the first Indian-born university president. Interestingly, even now, over 15 years later, there are not very many. It doesn't impact me a great deal. I jokingly say that at national meetings of presidents, that African-American presidents often sit at tables (for meals or other purposes) with other African-American presidents, and so too for Hispanic presidents. If I tried to do that, I would probably be dining alone! In any case, I choose to mix with others because learning takes place with people with different backgrounds.
Heather O'Neill: How did you win over the naysayers?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: There are some now whom I would count as great supporters, and others that if I were here for another 50 years would not convert.
The way I handled it was to invite everyone to my office, or to another meeting place, and talk with them about the goals of the institution and the things that I felt we could accomplish. I didn't mention my background and I never mentioned that I knew it was an issue. My issue was: How can we come together to make this work?
I arrived at UWG in 1994 and by 1999 I was chosen as Citizen of the Year by the county and state. Shortly after that the local paper published a list of movers and shakers and I shared honor with the university, as the number one mover and shaker in the area. To come to that in such a short period of time is a tribute not to me but to the accomplishments of the university and the community.
Heather O'Neill: How have you been received at UWG and in Georgia in general?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: My colleagues at UWG have been wonderful. As I said earlier, it is to their credit that the Search Committee was not fazed by the ethnicity issues. When I found out about the situation in the community, I went out of my way to invite the major players to my office and talk with them and befriend them. Most of them were fine once they got to know me, and one of them became a good friend and supporter.
Yet, there are still those in the community and the state who, more than 15 years later, will never get over it, and the ethnicity issue will flare up occasionally, but with a miniscule minority. Each of us has just to deal with it.
Heather O'Neill: How has your appointment changed the experience at UWG for minority students?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: I hope positively. My personal views are that both parties, the majority and the minority, need to work at these issues. The way of large parts of the world today is to try to create divisions; divisions of ethnicity, religion, gender, race, viewpoint, sexual orientation, etc. That is the way that many "leaders" gain a constituency. I am opposed to such behavior, and want my students to work together, play together, eat together, study together, and learn from one another.
Heather O'Neill:Having come from a modest background, do you have strong feelings about the rising cost of college tuition? How do you counsel parents and students who fear that an undergraduate or master's degree is out of their reach financially?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: I realize that my answers may be biased by the fact that I have lived in Georgia for over 15 years. In Georgia, tuition is relatively low and Georgia has something called a HOPE scholarship which pays the college tuition of students who graduate with a 3.0 average in college prep courses. Of course, tuition is not the whole cost of college but it is a huge chunk. The state will pay the tuition as long as the students maintains a 3.0 average. If not, if the student messes around his or her freshman year and their grades drop, the state stops paying.
I ask to be invited to speak in front of middle school and early high school students to remind them that their GPA is entirely in their hands. I tell them that they can start choosing the right courses and getting the right grades.
The lesson is this: From the time a child is in the 7th grade, parents and children need to set the goal not just of getting in to college but of graduating from college, and everything that the parent and child do needs to be towards that goal.
I realize some states are more expensive than Georgia but I think we need to start college preparation earlier. And there are always options. Most of the national flap about tuition increases surrounds very expensive private schools. You don't have to go to a private school, and you don't have to go to school out-of-state. You can go to school locally. If there is an urge to get a college degree, you can make the sacrifices to make that happen.
Heather O'Neill: What are your future plans for the University?
Dr. Beheruz Sethna: To build a Destination University with a three-point plan: first, academics, second, a vibrant social, cultural and athletic campus life, and third, first-class facilities.
We already have national excellence in several academic fields, and will continue to expand that set and expand the number of students who take advantage of that set. We have a national-caliber program for exceptionally talented 16 and 17-year old students which allows them to study on campus for their last two years of high school, them matriculate as college juniors, doctoral programs for students at the other end of the spectrum, and excellent opportunities for everyone in between. We are also continuously enhancing our campus life experiences and facilities, and doing very well on those dimensions as well.