Published Saturday, November 03, 2012

UWG president: U.S. has to think globally

By W. WINSTON SKINNER

winston@newnan.com

Dr. Beheruz Sethna, president of the University of West Georgia, told members of the Newnan Rotary Club on Friday that the official vote on the new Newnan campus is expected early in 2013.

Sethna, speaking to the club’s luncheon meeting at Newnan Country Club, said the University System Board of Regents is expected to vote in January on a proposal to have a UWG campus at the historic Newnan Hospital campus on Jackson Street.

“It’s a very, very exciting time for the University of West Georgia and Coweta County and the city of Newnan,” he said.

Sethna said there had been some discussions about the proposal in the past couple of days. “These decisions were made sort of above my paygrade,” he said.

Rotary is a club comprised of leaders in business, industry and the community. Sethna told club members UWG is looking forward to “a continuing wonderful relationship with all of you.”

Sethna’s remarks on the campus were brief and at the beginning of his talk. His main topic was “Leadership in a Flattening World,” and he stressed he was speaking for himself, “not representing any institution.”

He remarked on an article by Derek Sivers, “Fish don’t know they’re in water.” He said he found the piece “very revealing” and expanded on its themes of understanding the world and its differing cultural norms.

Sivers’ premise is that people, like fish, “can’t see the water until they get outside of it,” Sethna said. People tend to surround themselves with people who think as they do and then have a hard time seeing that what they term as universal norms and values are actually cultural.

“We tend, all of us, tend to choose people who think like us. Therefore, we are surrounded by water, and we can’t see our water until we get out of it,” Sethna said.

Sethna noted that in Singapore and in Italy, there is a tendency for successful men to live at home well into their thirties.

Speaking of the situation in Italy, Sethna said, “Mom does their laundry. Mom makes their bed. ... These are CEOs, entrepreneurs – and mom takes care of everything.”

Americans tend to equate such behavior with being a loser, but leaving home at 18 is not a natural course of behavior in many cultures.

“I’m not saying it’s good or bad or right or wrong. I’m just saying it’s not universal.”

Sethna grew up in India, but has lived in the United States for decades and is an American citizen. His parents were “of very modest income.”

By American standards, though not those in India when he was a boy, he grew up below the poverty line.

He was eventually “able to move my parents into a better home – what you would call a condo,” Sethna said. “In Britain and in India, you call it a flat.”

He said the dwelling was very small but did have a guestroom with a tiny, attached bathroom. When Sethna took his family to India, he, his wife and their two children stayed in his parents’ home.

“We would use that small room and that bathroom, not because we couldn’t afford to stay in a motel room. My parents would have been devastated if we had not stayed with them,” he explained.

He said American parents often have a policy of letting their children make their own mistakes. “If it’s a matter of painting their room pink with polka dots, that’s okay.”

He added, however, that “if it’s a decision that involves them stepping off the edge of the world” – quitting school or making some other decision that will negatively affect the course of life – people who care about them should intervene.

“I’m not going to let this person step off the edge of the world. I’m just not. If I see that person doing something dumb, I’m going to try to reach out and stop them,” he said.

Sethna said England was the undisputed leader of the world a century ago. The country was the richest in the world, had the largest military, had the strongest educational system on the planet, and was the leader in business, finance and innovation. The British pound was the monetary standard for international commerce, and England’s citizens had the world’s highest living standard.

No one country holds all those positions today.

“This is a moral for us. America is still considered the leader of the world, but nothing guarantees – except us – that we will continue to be – 100 years from now – the leader of the world. The only people who can make that happen is us, and it’s not going to be easy,” Sethna said.

Putting the situation in first person terms, Sethna said, “That’s why I have to change. When the world gets more flat, I have to get more flat with the world. I have to realize the flattening of the world.”

He said the United States ranks second among all nations with citizens ages 35-64 holding college degrees, but 10th in the percentage of those ages 25-35 who hold a high school diploma or an associate’s degree.

“That’s not acceptable,” Sethna said. “We have to realize this slippage, and we have to have the will to fix it.”

Solving it will not be easy. “None of this comes by saying to your kids, ‘it must be your teacher’s fault.’”

The American tendency to take the teacher to task or allow the child to take an easier course “will never happen in most countries on the other side of the world,” Sethna stated.

“Why do we care about the countries on the other side of the world? Because the world is getting more flat. There is no other side of the world today,” Sethna said.

Higher education is part of the key to America remaining the global leader. Higher education is something “America absolutely needs to invest in.”

“Leadership is still ours, but to be the leader, you have to join the world,” Sethna said.

He noted that the United States, Liberia and Myanmar are the only three nations not using the metric system. “Three of us against the world – and these are our two partners,” he quipped.

“Those incredible walls” that once separated nations and cultures no longer exist, Sethna said.

“The world is becoming more flat. We have to be aware. We have to be aware our culture is not the only culture,” We may still think it’s the best one, but it’s not the only one, and we have to respect the others.”

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