American University of Beirut

Vartan Gregorian

The personality and name of Vartan Gregorian are both larger than life.

Praises and tributes follow this American Armenian immigrant from Tabriz in Iran, who has risen to become one of the most acclaimed academics, scholars, and philanthropists in the United States today. He has been described as energetic, erudite, and funny, with extraordinary gifts of dynamism, charisma, and intellect. To philanthropist Walter Annenberg, he is easily the most unique individual I have ever known.

Gregorian's life has been compared to those of many other immigrants who have risen from poverty to eminence, figures like Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie, whose corporation Gregorian now presides over. Today, however, the ethnic origins of Gregorian have unique authority amid the conflicting claims of globalization, ethnicity, and the widening rift between Islam and Christianity.

Born and raised in Iran, Gregorian at age 15, with fifty dollars in his pocket, moved to Beirut, where the first of many strangers who have helped him throughout his life facilitated the completion of his secondary school education at the College Armenien.

He went on to undergraduate and graduate studies at Stanford University in California, where he received his BA in 1958 and his PhD in history and humanities in 1964.

Gregorian then taught at San Francisco State College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin. He moved on as professor of history to the University of Pennsylvania where he became founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and served from 1978 to 1981 as the twenty-first provost of the university.

Wary of complacency and the onset of hubris, Gregorian never stays more than eight to ten years in any one position. In 1981 he left the University of Pennsylvania and took on the presidency of the shabby, under funded, declining New York Public Library. As an academic he treated the librarians as his fellow educators, and insisted that lack of support for libraries was not negotiable. It was unthinkable. He rarely lost an opportunity to quote Andrew Carnegie: The free library is the cradle of democracy.

Bound for Brown in 1989, Gregorian had turned the library completely around, leaving behind a revived and refurbished institution. He had restored the 83 branch libraries, increased library holdings and added air conditioning, children's facilities, and computers. He had also raised an unprecedented $400 million to ensure the ongoing distinction of what he called one of the crown jewels of New York City.

At Brown he made friends with faculty, students, staff, and workmen. He taught courses in history, always grading his own exams in order to be close to his students' minds and psyches. To Brown he brought increased student enrollment, growth in interdisciplinary studies, and a thriving community outreach program. During his eight years at the helm Brown added several new departments, improved the quality and quantity of faculty members, and expanded the physical plant. His fundraising acumen spearheaded the Annenberg Challenge, a $500 million grant program initiated in 1993.

After eight years Gregorian became the twelfth president of the Carnegie Corporation. As in his other positions as teacher, dean, provost, top librarian, and university presidentGregorian views his task at the Carnegie Corporation as a mission, putting faith in the power of education, knowledge, and communication to improve the lot of mankind and promote international peace. Through the corporation Gregorian has embraced African universities and academic associations, worked to restore Russian institutions of higher learning, and continued his long interest in improving public school education in the United States. Carnegie, he says, has always been about ideas ideas about international peace, about reform, about education?always challenging and questioning the norm. . . . 

Vartan Gregorian's unparalleled energy and creativity have brought him numerous awards, honors, and seats on a large number of boards and committees. In addition to having received honorary degrees from fifteen universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Pennsylvania, Rutgers, and Dartmouth College, he has been decorated by the governments of France, Italy, and Portugal; received distinguished teaching awards, such as the Danforth Foundation's E. H. Harbison Award and garnered many medals and awards for services to the arts, the humanities, and public education. He currently sits on the boards of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, Human Rights Watch, New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Bill Gates Learning Foundation, the International Advisory Board of the American University of Beirut, and many others. Recently he served as chair of the jury for the competition to select the design for the World Trade Center memorial.

He wrote a definitive history of Afghanistan, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, 1880-1946 (1969) and Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith (2003), advocating understanding Islam for ordinary people. In his moving and colorful memoir, The Road to Home: My Life and Times, (2003) he recounts his journey from an impoverished childhood in Iran to the pinnacles of academia and philanthropy in the United States.

A passionate defender of the benefits of a liberal arts education, he wrote, 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.

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