Sikh American cardiologist creates awareness about Sikhs by endowing a Sikh chair at UCI
By Sonia Dhami with Satbir Singh & Zhu Lu
The Sikh Foundation conducted exclusive interviews with Dr. Harvinder Sahota & Dr. Georges Van Den Abbeele, Dean School of Humanities, UCI to learn more on their motivations and aspirations.
Sikh American cardiologist honors his mother by donating 1.5 million dollars to the University of California-Irvine. Dr. Harvinder Sahota and his wife Dr. Asha Sahota have endowed the “Dhan Kaur Sahota Presidential Chair in Sikh Studies”.
This endowment will provide resources to recruit, retain and reward the finest scholars.
Dr. Sahota credits his parents and especially his mother- Bibi Dhan Kaur by inspiring him and all his siblings to aspire to achieve the highest echelons in education.
The discrimination faced by Sikhs in America, is a subject of deep pain and anguish for him. He believes that both the Canadians and the British know more about Sikhs than do Americans. Many Sikhs forsake their articles of faith in search of their livelihoods, which he feels, is lack of determination and will power, on their part. He realizes that ignorance about Sikhs and their faith among the Americans is the main cause and decided to do something about it.
At the first available opportunity, Dr. Sahota initiated Sikh Studies courses at Claremont Lincoln University, which later split into 2 institutions and now Sikh Studies are taught at both. Under this program Sikh religion courses were taught, a sikh exhibit was put up and an exchange program with Guru Nanak Dev University-Amritsar was set up. Loyala Marymount University in LA, is another institution starting Sikh Studies courses very soon.
Dr. Sahota, believes educating university students is most crucial. He says “These American students will be the ones to hold public offices, lead corporations, become law enforcers and when faced with situations involving Sikhs, they will have the background information and can deal with the situations as educated people”.
And this is the main objective that Dr. Sahota has from this Chair at UCI. For him the ideal chair holder should be “a scholar of the highest caliber, well versed in the Guru Granth Sahib, an experienced teacher with a depth of knowledge and adherence to the well-accepted interpretations of the faith”.
He feels that this impact will be felt even in the local Sikh community around the campus. Many of our students lag behind in education. Seldom do you see sikh boys or girls winning academic competitions.
Even though Sikhs have a 150-year-old history and have a strong presence in this country still they are underrepresented in media, politics, military & public life.
Dr. Sahota aspires and endeavors to take this message to the broader Sikh American community and to continue to work towards this admirable goal. It is his hope that the community will awaken to the need of the hour and expand its work outside of the gurdwaras as well.
An Interview with Dean Georges Van Den Abbeele of UCI:
The Sikh Foundation (SF): While religion has some very positive aspects it also has some negative aspects like we see in the case of ISIS. How can the teaching of religion at universities enhance these positive aspects and educate against the negative points?
Dean Georges Van Den Abbeele (Dean): This is a very interesting question – though I am not a scholar in religious studies and you might talk to Prof. Jack Miles who directs the program in religious studies here in UCI. But what one does is one tries to teach religious doctrine & custom within the context that they happen and obviously an emphasizes on the positive features is important and then negative ones come although one might well argue and many people do argue that a situation like ISIS is actually a perversion, a derogation of religious practices, things done in the name of religion which may not conform to religious practices. There is a better understanding of theology which may enable one to discriminate between positive uses and negative uses.
SF: What is your vision for the Sikh Studies Chair UCI?
Dean: Sikhism is not only the world’s fifth largest religion, but its diaspora has had a very important historical -social, cultural & economic effect throughout the world including in California where there is a very large significant population which began during the time of the gold rush. Sikhs were involved in building the early railroads, early agriculture of California, the first US Asian American Congressman was a Sikh congressman from the central valley of California. So it’s a very important community. Reflecting on that worldwide diaspora and the tremendous impact of Sikhs throughout the world is part of what is to be understood in this chair.
SF: How will you ensure that the goals envisaged for this Chair are achieved?
Dean: The goals of the Chair are set out to fit with University policies. We review faculty periodically. In fact the UC particularly is known for the fact that we review faculty even post-tenure on a regular basis, which is unusual. We also review endowed chairs on an annual basis and have a significant review of endowed chairs every 5 years, so if they are not performing the job in terms of that expectation they can be terminated from the Chair. If they are tenured, they remain on the faculty unless there are some extraordinary reasons for tenure to be denied. These are university wide policies and are in place for all faculty. So I think we have very strong review mechanisms that ensure that faculty hired in specific jobs do what they are supposed to do. And I would say it is not only a negative/ punitive factor, but also that our structure is really a strong meritocracy that also supports and encourages faculty who achieve higher levels so if they are publishing books in the field, giving conferences, public presentations, winning awards for the work that they do that will be recognized. We hope that the Chair holder of our new Sikh Studies chair will be such a faculty member who will succeed and not only support and expand the field of Sikh studies but also increase its credibility and impact within the university and beyond.
SF: Is there a particular area of Sikh Studies that will be the focus for this chair?
Dean: That will partially be an effect of the search. At UCI the expectation will be that the Chair holder will contribute to the Religious Studies program which is a very strong program running a major and a minor with potentially a graduate emphasize. So they will be having to contribute significantly to that program but they will be appointed in one of our standard departments and they should be accomplished in that field as well whether they are a historian or a scholar of literature or scholar of art or philosophy.
SF: How will this Chair benefit the students of UCI & how many students can this Chair directly impact?
Dean: We are a very large university of 28,000 students right now, so that’s a potentially large impact. In terms of religious studies introductory courses there are 200 students so that’s a potentially large impact, there is a Sikh Students Association and there are several gurdwaras in the area so I think the impact is potentially great. We are currently looking for a faculty member who is able to connect with as much ability in its many constituents as possible – and that would be another expectation.
SF: What other religions are already represented at UCI?
Dean: I would invite you to check with the director of the Religious Studies department. Prof Jack Miles is a very distinguished professor of world religions who has just published the “Norton Anthology of World religions” and so is an extraordinary scholar but tends to teach on the western religion side e.g Islam, Christianity & Judaism, than the eastern religion side. We also have an endowed chair in Jewish Study held by Prof. Mathias Lemon, we have a couple of faculty members involved in research and teaching in Buddhism, we have Asian American Studies and Asian American religious practices which includes Korean churches.
These endowed Chairs allow us to have not only Sikhism but also Jainism and Hinduism represented, which gives an extraordinary strength in the eastern religions based in India. We don’t have everything but we are building.
Along with the Sikh Chair, Jain & Modern India Studies Chairs will join the Vedic & Indic civilization Chairs at UCI.