Doug Seserman came to New York as CEO of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last fall. After a successful business career in marketing for Quaker Oats and cable television, the Denver native took on a new challenge as he was turning 40, heading up the professional leadership of the Denver Jewish federation, a position he held for 15 years. During a recent interview in his Midtown office, Seserman said his connection to Israel is most profoundly felt through the Negev. So the opportunity to help realize David Ben-Gurion’s vision for the region by working with the university named for Israel’s founding prime minister seemed like an ideal choice.
What was it about the Negev desert that appealed to you?
I’m from Colorado so I guess I have that pioneering spirit the Negev is all about. I relate to the sense of inspiration and awe from the land as well as the focus on the new rather than the old. The Negev is 60 percent of Israel’s land mass, yet home to less than 10 percent of the population. Much of it is still undeveloped. I see the Negev as the new frontier for 21st-century Zionism.
People are attracted to the Negev for the future it represents. Of course, good jobs and a nice environment to raise families are important. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with its main campus in Beersheva, plays a key role. What Stanford University has meant to the development of Silicon Valley, Ben-Gurion University means for the development of the Negev, which some refer to today as Silicon Wadi. BGU has become an entrepreneurial high-tech oasis of innovation in the desert. Beersheva is the cyber capital of Israel, and BGU is the engine that makes it happen with its leading research and academic departments. It’s also a key contributor of culture and arts to the community.
In raising awareness about the region and raising funds for the university, how do you approach the American Jewish community?
Our key message is combining the great work of the university with the strategic importance of developing the Negev. Pursuing Ben-Gurion’s dream to develop the Negev is above the “political fray” when it comes to supporting Israel. The Negev was part of ancient Israel. It is uncontested land and will be part of any future plan for Israel. Also, for those under 40, who may not be driven by a historical obligation to Israel, we emphasize with pride Israel’s contributions to modern society: helping solve world problems like the need for clean water, medical advances and research to cure diabetes or Alzheimer’s, artificial intelligence, robotics and cyber security to combat terrorism. We are an apolitical connection to the future of Israel through investing in its most important renewable resource — the best in higher education for its young people.
What are some of the unique aspects of Ben-Gurion University?
Founded in 1969, Ben-Gurion is the only Israeli university established by a government mandate to help develop the Negev region. The financial goal is to raise $500 million by May 2020, in celebration of the university’s 50th anniversary. The campaign is about 60 percent complete. BGU is in the midst of a major capital campaign and campus expansion. We are the fastest growing university in Israel. We have 20,000 students — one-third of whom are pursuing advance degrees — and since it is in the desert, it is not a commuter school – rare for Israelis — but a place for students to live, thrive and create community. There is a big emphasis on volunteer service and social action. About 6,000 undergrads volunteer in some capacity while going to school. There are also approximately 600 Bedouin students, mostly women. BGU provides them the opportunity to advance their part of Israeli society.
Do you believe the university’s importance transcends the goals of traditional institutions of higher learning?
Yes, in the sense that the mission is not only to create a world-class university but to help fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s vision of a vibrant Negev and to strengthen the U.S.- Israel relationship, offering a cause we all can rally around by engaging younger Jews in the school’s accomplishments. As Ben-Gurion said, “Israel will ultimately be judged not by its army but by its moral values and contribution to the world.” That’s what makes the university so special.