Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 1998 National Humanities Medalist

Vartan Gregorian

“Call me Vartan,” he laughingly insists when addressed as Dr. Gregorian, “‘doctor’ is for dentists!” The man who salvaged the New York Public Library brings a lifetime of intellectual excellence, proven administrative savvy, and, perhaps most of all, a rigorous and joyful respect for humanity to his new venture as president of the Carnegie Corporation.

Friends and colleagues marvel at his enthusiastic love of people and tireless zest for genuine conversation, his informed optimism and complete lack of cynicism. Philanthropist and publisher Walter Annenberg describes him as “easily the most unique individual I have ever known.”

Gregorian’s childhood in Tabriz, Iran, set him on an early path toward learning and teaching and working with others. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, who had a tremendous influence on him. “She had no formal education, but immensely valued it,” he recalls. He frequently quotes from her store of folk wisdom at high-level meetings. With her guidance, Gregorian’s first significant foray into academia came at the tender age of ten when he took a job as a page at the local Armenian library. Going on to complete his secondary education in Beirut, he won a scholarship for study abroad and came to the U.S. in 1956 to attend Stanford University as a history major. There he became an admired activist among international students, winning an award as the student who had contributed the most to international understanding.

After graduating cum laude with a B.A. in history and humanities, he launched headlong into a teaching career that began at Stanford (where he later received his Ph.D.) and progressed on to San Francisco State College, the University of Texas, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually served as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and then provost and chief academic officer.

In 1984, his life and work took a dramatic shift when he rose to the challenge of leading the then failing New York Public Library. Under his presidency, the library rose from its deathbed to a restored intellectual, cultural, and financial vigor. Gregorian rallied the city’s elite. “We will raise funds everywhere and what we will negotiate is the amount…,” he asserted at his debut press conference.

The city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s had taken a great toll on the library. Library hours and services had been cut drastically and physical repairs postponed. Gregorian’s energy and enthusiasm helped draw influential civic leaders and philanthropists to the library’s rescue. After only three years, the number of donors rose to a record forty thousand, with total contributions of $34 million. Grants and contributions from NEH and other sources enabled Gregorian to undertake the most visible of reforms — a $45 million restoration of the grand main library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

By the time he left the New York Public Library in 1989, he had raised $270 million toward a $370 million fund-raising campaign and had persuaded Mayor Edward Koch to restore half of the library’s funds that had previously been eliminated from the city’s budget.

To honor his departure, writer Calvin Trillin wrote a poem that was read at a farewell dinner. It included this verse:

Although it wasn’t always pretty,
He noodged the state, he noodged the city.

Foundations felt their assets fall
The moment that they took his call.
Evangelistic, bold and brash,
He generated more than cash.

 

In 1989, Gregorian returned to university life as president of Brown University. He played a vital role in the school’s progress toward greater academic excellence, racial diversity, national prominence, and, as a fund-raiser once again, fiscal stability.
For Gregorian, the role of university president gave him what he enjoyed perhaps most of all — access to students. Through his lecture series, he brought dozens of internationally acclaimed scholars, writers, and artists to the campus, usually introducing them as “my good friend.” Students were drawn to and stimulated by his personality and intellect. “The dinner with Gregorian was the most popular event of freshman orientation,” says one student.

He spent considerable energy speaking on behalf of public universities and testifying to various government officials on issues of education and free speech. During his tenure, the university gained seventy-two endowed professorships, attracted 265 new faculty members, and created eleven new departments.

As for fund raising, Gregorian’s work was unparalleled. He successfully completed Brown’s five-year, $450 million campaign six months early, and then announced a six-month extension to fund further priorities. The campaign closed at $534 million — 118 percent of the goal.

Now at the Carnegie Corporation, Gregorian finds himself on the other end of the fund-raising challenge — giving money away rather than seeking it. “Giving is most definitely better than receiving,” he asserts. “Since coming to Carnegie, I’m beginning to understand St. Francis of Assisi’s dictum that it is in giving that we receive.” With grants totaling $59 million annually, and more than $1.3 billion in assets, the foundation concentrates on social issues, child development, education, and world peace.

And so it comes as no surprise that when the New York Times Book Review asked what character in literature he would most like to be, Gregorian instantly replied, “Candide. His deep concern for humanity. His critical rationalism. His healthy skepticism. His realistic optimism.”

— Susan Graceson