There is something tired about buzzwords like ‘leadership’, ‘thought leaders’, ‘leadership abilities’ hanging on for dear life, even though they have become such overused clichés that our eyes glaze over and ears go into instant shut down mode the minute we hear them. Relentless over application and regurgitative overuse has forcibly squeezed out of “leadership” the essence of the concept the word once held. The weird thing though is that while the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.
I met Dr. Beheruz Sethna in summer last year when he was visiting the country. From my previous interaction with him, I knew that while was still Professor of Business he had recently stepped down as the President of the University of West Georgia (UWG) after 19 years. Here was a man who had gone over to the land of opportunity in the seventies to form a part of the responsible workforce of doctors, engineers and teachers that characterised the Indian diaspora of the time. He had gone ahead and broken the mold to transform a modest liberal arts college to a full-fledged university of national repute and in the process becoming the longest-serving university president in Georgia among both public and private institutions. He is also the first known person of Indian origin ever to become president of a university anywhere in America. Our herd-minded media had gone into a frenzy of patriotic pride the day Nitin Nohria became a Harvard Dean, but they would be hard pressed to know who Dr. Sethna was. But Harvard was already Harvard before Nitin Nohria, while UWG was made to what it is today largely due to the institution-building efforts of Dr. Sethna. Not only that, his transformative contributions in education have led to him being voted among the 100 most influential men in the state of Georgia as many as 6 times!
Corporate psychobabble notwithstanding, most of us are curious about impossible-to-define qualities that define leadership and one of the best ways to decipher them is by delving into the lives of leaders. I share this almost biographical interview with Dr. Sethna in the hope that it will enable us to decode some of the mysterious qualities that capture the essence of a great leader.
QB: Tell me a little bit about you, your early years in Bombay and about your entry into IITB?
I was the only child of a small middle class family in Mumbai. My father was ex Air Force who worked for a small private firm in Mumbai. My father always wanted me to get into IIT and as early as my ninth standard, my dad cut out the advertisement for the IIT exam announcement to show me that this is where he wanted me to go. It is a different matter that my grades actually went down after that before they went up. In my tenth I did miserably in Maths and Gujarati simply because I had not studied and prepared well. With some coaching and tuitions I did manage to turn things around in my SSC exam (I got 95% in Maths where I had got 35 in my 10th) and managed to get into St Xavier’s college. People might not remember but those days a SSC student was eligible to apply for IIT only after a year of Science.
The first time, my JEE rank was good enough to get me into any other department in IIT Bombay and Electrical Engineering in any other IIT, but not into the prestigious Electrical Engineering program at IIT Bombay that I wanted. Those days there was a big blackboard outside the interview room and the departments that were already full were marked with a big X. Before I went in for my interview I had seen that EE at IITB already had an X mark against it and I knew that it was not available as an option. Still when I went into the interview room; the acting director asked me “what do you want”. I said Electrical in Bombay. He said “that’s closed, choose another one”. I said “I don’t want another one” and I left. I didn’t want to face my father so I phoned him from IIT to break the bad news. He was upset with me, but by the time I got back home he had time to calm down and he told me “You’ve done the wrong thing. Doesn’t matter now, you study harder, and appear for the exam again and next time maybe you’ll get it.”
Dr Sethna transformed a modest liberal arts college to a full-fledged university of national repute and in the process becoming the longest-serving university president in Georgia among both public and private institutions. He is also the first known person of Indian origin ever to become president of a university anywhere in America.
The second time my father came with me. Even though my rank was high enough to get into EE and there was no X mark on the blackboard, he said “Go in there, I don’t care what you do, which department you want to go to, just comeback with the acceptance paper.” So that’s the story of how I got into IIT, something that I have always been extremely thankful to my father for.
QB: The decision to go to IIMA after IITB was that also prompted by your father? Take us through the subsequent years.
Yes that decision too was prompted by my father. There are two instances of prophetic coincidence with my IIM entrance as well. I took the IIM entrance exam at my old college at St Xavier’s and the professor who was invigilating happened to be my former professor. I almost walked out without writing my roll number and it was sheer coincidence that I remembered after walking out of the examination hall and fortunately for me my former teacher who knew me allowed me to check and write my roll number down. Without that there would have been no IIMA for me. In my final months at IITB, I already had acceptance from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute and I would have been happy enough to go there and not to IIM. But while we were waiting for the results, some of my hostel mates had already received their acceptance letters and mine had not come in. It was only during those 3-4 days of anxious waiting that I realized that I really did want to go to IIM Ahmedabad.
I looked them in the eye and told them “remember that all of you had said that in a few years I would move onto a bigger, better, and more prestigious institution? – You were right, I did. And as long as I am President, each day I am going to keep moving to a bigger, better, and more prestigious institution
While management school was a choice I made as a step in the right direction for a subsequent corporate career, it was at IIM that I discovered I really belonged in the discipline and that I wanted to teach. I worked for a brief 3-month stint at Clarion Advertising Agency during the interim period of waiting before leaving for the US for my doctoral degree. I had admissions into Harvard and Wharton, but I settled on Columbia University as it offered me the best financial aid, and because the biggest name in my field of interest was there – I ultimately did my dissertation under him.
QB: You met you future wife at IIM?
Yes we did and Madhavi was one year junior to me. It was a campus friendship that had no romantic element to it. Even after I finished IIM we met a few times at Bombay where I was working at Clarion but it was still as friends. It was only when she returned to IIM for her final year and she was of an age when she was technically in the marriage market and we would exchange letters where she wrote to me to tell me about all the different boys she had met that the penny finally dropped. I would promptly write back finding a million flaws in all of them. This went on for some till finally both of us got the message. It wasn’t a grand romance; it was more of a realization that it would be nice to spend the rest of my life with this person. We have been married for more than 40 years now.
QB: Did you get into academics immediately after your Ph.D. or did you take up a job? Have you ever taken up a corporate job?
I worked in the corporate world in two stints. The first time was when I was a doctoral student when I worked full time for Lever Brothers, which was at that time the HQ of the Unilever Corporation in North America. After that I joined Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York where I continued till 1979. My wife however always wanted to return to India, so I took a year’s leave of absence and we sold off everything except our car and returned to India. I first joined Tatas where I used to work part-time for TCS and part-time for TMTC. I moved to Richardson-Hindustan, now known as Proctor & Gamble, and although I enjoyed the experience tremendously there was some internal turmoil in the company and after a great deal of soul searching I decided to return to the US. I continued at Clarkson and stayed there for a total of 13 years.
QB: The decision to get into academics – was it by chance or design?
It was by design, but in the first five years there were also a lot of questions within, as I enjoyed both corporate and academic life. It was only in 1981 when I had arrived at a proverbial crossroads with job offers both in the corporate and academic worlds, both in India and USA, that I finally settled on one cell in that 2×2 table – academics in the US. I had the Richardson Hindustan job which was still open while I had an offer from their competitors Warner-Lambert in the US. In academics I still had my existing job and an opportunity to join IIMA in India. I had a tough decision to make and it was then that I decided to return to my academic life in the US, at Clarkson University.
QB: You joined Clarkson University and were there for 13 years in positions of increasing responsibility; then you moved to Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas and then from there to what was then West Georgia College? With your kind of academic credentials and pedigree you could have been anywhere. So the question remains, why West Georgia?
The honest answer is that even today there aren’t many presidents of universities from India. My name and background were a disadvantage and unfortunately these differences were far more marked in academic life than in the corporate world. When I got the presidency at West Georgia, I became the only non-white person in the history of Georgia to hold that position in any private or public university (except for Historically Black Colleges, of course).
At my final interview with the Chancellor and Regents, a member told me that West Georgia was a nice place but it had been asleep for the last 20 years. To me the college did have potential but it was not immediately apparent. Barring some exceptional individual students, its overall academic performance was mediocre at best. 51% of the students who enrolled were on remedial education during the first year which meant that they were not even ready for college. This is what I had to and wanted to change. I had a vision before me.
In my speech during my first faculty meeting in September 1994, I told the faculty “We will build an institution where on selected dimensions we are going to be the nation’s best, on selected dimensions we will compete against Harvard, and on selected dimensions we are going to beat the nation’s best. I don’t know what those dimensions are yet, but we will discover them together”. I saw something that others could not see. To be at a place where more than half the students weren’t even ready for college and to believe that it could be of national caliber takes a huge leap of faith and a lot of confidence. After the faculty meeting, one of the senior faculty members told me that half the faculty thought I was crazy and the other half knew I was crazy. But I have been lucky and with the help of several exceptional individuals we did achieve what we set out to do.
West Georgia became a University, and not only that but by the time I had stepped down in 2012, the University’s reputation had elevated with enrolment increasing by 50 percent, and the number of remedial students dropping to a negligible fraction of one percent. We obtained new construction and major renovation funding totaling about one-third of a billion dollars for UWG, and in 19 years more than doubled the square footage of an 88-year old campus. As a matter of fact it was in this period that we added more facilities square footage than every other previous presidential administration combined in its 107-year history. We increased investments in UWG’s students, faculty and technology by several millions of dollars Approximately 90% of UWG’s current faculty members were hired during this period and land holdings were increased by more than 70%. The endowment increased by about 11 times the level it was when I joined. We awarded more degrees than every other presidential administration combined. We won approval for UWG’s first four doctoral programs; awarded the first Ph.D. in University system of Georgia history outside of the four research universities and created Georgia’s first and only Board-approved Honors College and the Advanced Academy of Georgia (for exceptionally-gifted students to complete their last two years of high school and first two years of college simultaneously); Academy students have gone to the best universities in the world, such as Yale and Oxford. We inherited a college, and left the next president a SACS Level VI University; this is the highest level possible – every top university you have heard of in the region, public or private, is SACS Level VI.
QB: It is obvious that Institution building is what drives you. Are you a driven individual and a workaholic?
Guilty as charged. My vision was all consuming and I would score a big F- when it came to the issue of work life balance. There was some semblance of work-life balance when my children were young, but when they grew up and left for college, my wife Madhavi bore the brunt of my all-consuming passion. When I first came to UWG, most people believed that this was just a jumping-off point till I moved onto a bigger, better and more prestigious institution. I cannot tell you the number of times I had to hear this. I remember that into the 5th year of my presidency I was at a dinner function with the Board of Trustees when I looked them in the eye and told them “remember that all of you had said that in a few years I would move onto a bigger, better, and more prestigious institution? You were right, I did. And as long as I am President, each day I am going to keep moving to a bigger, better, and more prestigious institution.”
QB: But this still begs the question, why didn’t you? By this time with the list of your accomplishments, your ethnicity should not have been a deterrent? You must have had many opportunities?
There were two occasions when I came very close to moving. The first time was to The University at Albany (what used to be called SUNY-Albany). It was one of New York’s four flagship universities and hence a very prestigious position. Presidential selection is a long drawn out process and in the final stages when it was down to the last five at the campus interview, I was the last person to be interviewed. The next day a report appeared on the Albany city press where some members of the Search Committee went public saying that “Dr. Sethna is a clear choice. After that, there is no second, third or fourth choice”. In no time the news was all over my campus in UWG.
Our Provost, the second in command, had just moved to an interim presidential position in another university. Another Vice President was close to retirement and UWG was going through a difficult time. It seemed that suddenly the University would lose its top leadership in one go. It was a simple question from my secretary that sealed my decision. She looked at me and asked “What’s going to happen to us?” I simply couldn’t do it after that. I withdrew my candidature. When you spend so long at an institution, you become emotionally attached and I could not bring myself to leave.
The second time was an altogether different situation. The university was going through considerable turmoil because of some of the Provost’s and my necessary but unpopular decisions. If I had left the university then, there would have been chaos, and I could not make myself walk away from a bad situation. This time there was a revered and respected alumnus, a veteran of WW II, who convinced me to stay back. He looked me in the eye and asked “Would it give you more satisfaction if you went to a more prestigious institution, or to help West Georgia get to that place?”
QB: While talking to you, I get the impression that you are a positive person no matter what the circumstance. Is that so?
Yes I’m very positive. My my wife always accuses me of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses; she keeps telling me “How can you go through your whole life like that”?
One of the characteristics of pragmatic, positive people is that they don’t choose to focus on the negatives but that does not mean that they don’t see them. We’ve gone through a lot of difficulties in our lives. Even UWG went through difficult times with a lot of cut backs and it is not easy running an institution when you have to keep cutting budgets. I used to tell my senior colleagues that I don’t care what you might be going through inside, but you hold a public position so always have to walk tall and keep a smile on your face. There is a saying “I don’t whistle because I’m happy; I’m happy because I whistle!”. There were quite a few faculty members who were critical of my outlook but I’ve always maintained the belief that when you are holding a position of influence, you need to radiate positivity. People have to be inspired and motivated by you. I have put in a conscious effort to stay positive no matter how tough things were at home or work.
QB: Let us talk a little bit about lighter things. I need to scrub up the dignified presidential image a little bit. At IIT Bombay you were one of the students responsible for organizing the cultural festival, Metamor4sis. What was the idea behind that?
I’ve always thought that Metamor4sis was a precursor to Mood Indigo. I was in my third year at that time and the General Secretary of H4. We had enough of the run-of-the-mill hostel functions and we decided to change that. We wanted a really awesome performance for which we invited the best talent in IIT as well as the best talent from town. We had a go-go girl (I must point out that she was fully clothed in a suit from chin to toe) dancing in a cage on the stage that caused quite a stir among the faculty and especially the Director. We had invited the entire Institute including the Director, Brig. Bose. He was away on that day, but when he came back and heard about the event, he was absolutely furious. So I went to his home at night and explained to him that the go-go dancer was fully clothed and there was nothing inappropriate about the dance. He was much calmer after that and I still think of the function as an amazing success.
QB: I’ve heard a lot of stories that Hostel 4 had a group of ‘Mad Bawas’. Share some of your experiences in H4 with us.
The mad bawas were the 4 bawas who lived in a row in one wing in H4. We were a “little” loud at times. I remember one incident where we carried my Java Motor Cycle (it was more of a moped really) all the way up to the top floor because we wanted to get it into someone’s room to play a prank. Because we could not get it in through the door, we first disassembled and then reassembled the motorbike inside the room. When the poor unsuspecting soul opened the door to his room I rode out nearly giving him a heart attack. Another time we stole a monster-like figure that was a prop in a play and placed it in another person’s room while he was sleeping. We lit candles around the figure so that when he woke up he was really frightened. The maddest act was when we went to the airport to see the first jumbo jets which had just arrived in India. We climbed over the barriers and walked onto the runway to get close to the jumbo jet. Not satisfied with just touching the massive wheels, we tried to touch the metal body part and were jumping up and down to touch the wheel well. We had only just merely brushed against it when we got caught. Luckily those were the days before all the terrorist threats, so we got off by being just thrown out of the airport. Come to think of it, I guess the ‘mad bawas’ was an apt tag for us. I hope the statute of limitations has run out on that incident (in 1971); if not, I deny all of it!
QB: What was the purpose of your visit to India?
I have always had a desire to work for the underprivileged children. But even though I have been speaking about it with my family for the last 15 years or so, the President’s job had been so all consuming that I could not do anything about it. Then, a few years ago two of my aunts passed away leaving me a flat in Mumbai bequeathed in their will. I sold the flat and put the entire sum in a bank and set it aside to help other people. I used the interest generated for the education of underprivileged kids.
There is an orphanage school called Balgram in Lonavala that I had heard about and I was interested in sponsoring the education of a child. With my experience in fundraising for scholarships, I knew that the best way was to create an endowment so that each child can sustain itself without being dependent on the donor. I started with one child and over the years it went up to eight. Every year when I came to India I would make a day trip to Lonavala bringing the kids some toys and gifts. The children would have fun and learn something, but somehow I felt that wasn’t enough. When I gave up the presidency and was a full-time professor, my teaching responsibilities only took up only 10 months, leaving the remaining two months free. So now I can also give something of me (my time) and not just the money.
This year I came to India with two bags full of educational toys and science experiments with the hope of getting most of the students interested in science. My second agenda was to get them to speak in English and use the language in their daily conversations. I used to teach them by first explaining principles so that they learn the hypothesis, and then give them a toy so they can test it through play and practice.
When I asked Dr Sethna if the experience was all that he hoped it would be; he responded by telling me that he had hoped for enthusiasm but what he got was more than what he had expected and that was extremely satisfying. He went on to share that he loved teaching and more than that the learning that happens through teaching – both for the student(s) and the teacher. He explained his experiments and how he had to prepare for these classes with a lot of animation and you could see his almost childlike curiosity and joy even after 40 years spent in the business of teaching and learning.
True to his vision, UWG today does compete against the nation’s best on selected parameters. UWG is national leader in the field of undergraduate research. It is nationally recognized in the field of academic debate beating Harvard in four national competitions in the last five years of his presidency. The growth of the University has had far-reaching impact of the local economy with the university accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars on the local economy annually. Four times during his Presidency, Dr. Sethna wrote a column entitled “Don’t look at me; someone else did it” turning that well-known phrase of apportioning blame on its head and giving all the credit away, naming individuals within the institution to be credited for UWG’s transformation. No leader accomplishes the impossible alone. Neither did Dr. Sethna, but others followed where he led.
For me, American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and professor of English, David Foster Wallace captured the best definition of this essence of leadership. To him a leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. This ‘power ‘ or ‘charisma’, a leader’s real “authority”, is a power we voluntarily give him, and we grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, we almost always like how a real leader makes us feel, the way we find ourselves working harder and pushing ourselves and thinking in ways we couldn’t ever get to on our own.
A leader’s life is about giving himself away to causes that transcend the individual. As we leave Dr. Sethna to continue to do that with the children of Balgram, I am left with the conclusion that a true leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own, and I hope that this interview inspires you to do just that.