American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Vartan Gregorian

​​President Waterbury:

Vartan Gregorian, accomplished in so many fields, but without peer in the one that counts the most: humanity. He is also a raconteur sans pareil. That makes my task easy, as he has written the best stories about himself and others.

He was born in Tabriz, Iran, shall we say some years ago. He reports that the first stranger who entered my life was Edgar Maloyan, the French vice-counsel in Tabriz. He was a Gaullist. He came to Tabriz in 1948 to open a consulate. He told me, You have to go to Beirut, Lebanon. You're too smart to stay in Tabriz. Thus Gregorian's odyssey began. He left for Beirut with $50 in his pocket.

Upon arriving in Beirut, virtually destitute, Vartan was introduced to Levon Shant, director of the College Armenien, who asked him three questions: Do you have any money? Do you know French? Do you know Arabic? His answer was no to all three. Then Shant asked the logical follow-up question: What are you doing here?

Vartan Gregorian migrated from Beirut to California where he completed his undergraduate studies at Stanford, and went on at the same great university to take his PhD in history in 1964. He began his career as a professor of history at the University of Texas (and I've just learned that he speaks Texas French) and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania where he was appointed the Tarzian Professor of History. In the meantime his major study, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, appeared. Dr. Gregorian then made his move into academic administration, becoming the University of Pennsylvania?s provost from 1978 until 1980.

He moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1981 to become president of the New York Public Library, a position he occupied until 1989. During that period he totally revitalized that venerable library and all its branches. He managed to keep up his academic calling at New York University and the New School.

From the New York Public Library, Gregorian moved on to the presidency of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, a position he held until 1997. He then returned to New York to become the president of the Carnegie Corporation, a position he currently occupies.

Dr. Gregorian is a near legendary fundraiser. He brought in over $400 million for the New York Public Library, and he tripled Brown's endowment. Vartan, stay close to me. I hope some of your magic rubs off.

Dr. Gregorian has been honored by so many and in so many different ways that I could spend the rest of the morning merely reading the accolades. I note here only one exceptional honor: the award in 1998 of the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton. I should also note that we are proud that Vartan Gregorian is a member of AUB's International Advisory Council.

As an immigrant, Gregorian embraced America's democratic principles. As an educator, he finds strength in the centuries-old concept of a liberal education. Liberal education does more than acquaint students with the past or prepare them for the future. It gives them a perspective for reflection upon the nature and texture of their own lives. It provides them with standards by which to measure human achievement and to recognize and respect the moral courage required to endure human anxiety and suffering.

In his autobiography, The Road to Home, he referred to a life-threatening health problem in these words: That experience was a rude awakening for me. I had never paid attention to my own mortality. When there are times of crisis like that, you make an inventory of your life. So I did, and I said to myself, my goodness, if something dreadful happens to me, my sons, my students, my friends, my family won't know about my private life. I wanted them to understand my life, which can be seen as a metaphor for all kinds of people like me, who have suffered, who have learned, but most important, who have benefited from the kindness of strangers. Throughout my life I have experienced one kindness after another following one hurt after another.

I think hard about those words. Vartan Gregorian comes from a people to whom history has not been kind. He comes from a generation in that people's history that knew unprecedented suffering. One could easily understand and forgive Dr. Gregorian had he grown up a cynic and a misanthrope. But, to the contrary, he embraced humanity and life. He learned early on to accept help and to marvel at it, and once having turned the tables on his personal misfortunes, he gave back many fold. He gave back with exuberance, zest, humor, and wisdom. It is AUB's turn to give him a token of our recognition of all that he has achieved, but above all of his humanity.

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