Life on the front line of learning was the topic when NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke recently with Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and former president of Brown University. Gregorian raised $400 million to save the New York Public Library and later, as president of Brown, tripled the university’s endowment. Now at Carnegie Corporation of New York, he is giving money away. He is the author of The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan and more recently, of Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith, as well as an autobiography, The Road to Home. Gregorian received the National Humanities Medal in 1998.
Bruce Cole: What’s your day like as president of a major foundation?
Vartan Gregorian: Every day brings a new challenge. For example, the other day I spent four hours at Ground Zero as a member of the jury to select the architect or the artist to build the memorial to the victims of 9/11. This particular meeting, one of many, was with the board of directors of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. And then I had to switch from lower Manhattan to France, placing a call to His Highness the Aga Kahn, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim community. After that, a call came in from UNESCO inquiring whether or not I would be willing to write a chapter for them on the role of the libraries and the storage of knowledge. The deadline is a couple of weeks from now. And then naturally, like any other administrator, I had to deal with a flood of e-mails and letters, each one of them expecting immediate answers and solutions. My colleagues love e-mail; I don’t.
Then there are always unexpected visitors: two or three people who I have not seen for years, just stopping by, assuring my secretaries that all they want to do is say hello. And of course, there’s always the daily business of running the foundation. For example, I just finished a three-hour strategy meeting with the Education Division.
But then something extraordinary: I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert, my first rock-and-roll concert. That was a Father’s Day gift from my sons. They spent more time watching my reaction than they did watching Bruce Springsteen.
Cole: Did you like it?
Gregorian: I loved it. I think it was one of the great things I’ve done. And then today I had two visitors from the Voice of America who interviewed me for the Iranian/Middle Eastern/South Asian program. I had great fun with it.
This evening my wife and I are having dinner with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, and her husband, who is a great scholar.
So, in many ways, there’s not a single moment free, and nothing is boring. I relish my Saturdays when I often come to the office to read some books and newspapers, call friends who I don’t want to short change, and even meet a friend or two.
Cole: What are you reading now?
Gregorian: I’m reading Karl Meyer’s book, The Dust of Empire, on Central Asia. The other is The Sumerian Roots of the American Preamble. It attracted my attention because I’m very much interested in Sumerian heritage. While I was dean and provost at the University of Pennsylvania, I was very active in the Sumerian Dictionary Project.
Cole: Which is an NEH-sponsored project.
Gregorian: Absolutely. It’s a great project, and was one of my favorites. As a matter of fact, the mention of that project evokes some humorous memories. When I was dean, a prominent trustee of the University of Pennsylvania asked me, “What’s the best student-teacher ratio at Penn in the arts and sciences?” I’m sure that he was asking in order for me to make clear that I understood how hard the faculty worked, the large number of students they taught, etc. I don’t know why, but I said--as seriously as I could--that it was Sumerian language instruction, where the student-teacher ratio was one-to-one. Then a question arose about the Sumerian dictionary. “When would it be finished?” a trustee asked. I answered that the project has been with us for a century at least. [Laughter.] It’s going to take a long time to finish--but that’s something that has to be understood about scholarship: one is often tackling complex and difficult issues that require extraordinary effort, sometimes over an extended period of time, to analyze and reach successful conclusions.
Cole: It’s one of the things I’m most proud about at the NEH. Whenever I can, I talk about the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, about how important it is, like the Sumerian.
You’ve just written your autobiography. Tell us how that came about? How did you decide to do that?
Gregorian: In October 1999, I went to the hospital for an operation. It was a jarring experience for me. My left kidney was removed. I had never been ill before. I was not even born in a hospital. So the hospital was a new culture for me. My sons came to see me when I was unconscious. One of them said I looked like Lenin embalmed, you know, not moving. [Laughter.]
Cole: He told you that afterwards.
Gregorian: Yes. But 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.
Another thing that I was trying to do was to write a history of the concept of an educated person, how it has evolved from the Renaissance to the present, an idea that you, as a Renaissance scholar, are so well acquainted with. I was interested in such questions as: What are the fundamentals that an educated person must know? What are the awesome challenges that we face with the explosion of knowledge and information? My editor said, “That is too huge a project and would take many years, so why don’t you write about your own education? Start with that.”
So I started writing. The most difficult part was, naturally, writing about my parents, my father, and my stepmother, and about others. I was brought up in a culture in which you don’t discuss family affairs with strangers. My grandmother had a marvelous saying: “The reason houses have four walls is to keep all information inside.” In a sense, I wrote the book as a tribute to my grandmother and all the other people who played such a crucial role in my life. Without them, I would not be here.
I also wanted to write about the foot soldiers of civilization--teachers whose impact seldom gets acknowledged. They come without name and they remain unknown.
While searching for a title for my book, my initial preference was With the Kindness of Strangers, with all due credit to Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire and Blanche DuBois. I wanted people to know that life is not all cynical, that there are kind, wonderful people who do good things, help other people out of a sense of humanity, charity, religious obligation, ethnic pride, whatever. They help each other, and acknowledging that was the purpose of the book.
Cole: Tell us about some of these strangers and how they pointed you on the road to today.
Gregorian: 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.”
Cole: That’s your hometown.
Gregorian: Yes, my hometown. I told Mr. Maloyan, “Well, I have no money to go to Beirut.” He said: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” I believed in him. I think later he was amazed that somebody could put such trust in him. He gave me three letters of introduction. Then, with fifty dollars, I went to Lebanon.
What also enabled me to do that was that a second stranger, an optometrist in Tabriz, gave me his property deed. That allowed me to obtain a passport because my father had told me if I could get a passport on my own, he would let me go, assuming that no fourteen-year-old kid could get a passport.
This optometrist had taken me under his wing. He was the pro bono agent for many Armenian newspapers published in Iran and abroad. I used to help him by distributing American, French, Egyptian, Greek, and other Armenian newspapers published in Fresno, Boston, Athens, Marseilles, Paris, and Cairo. As I distributed the newspapers, I also read them.
Cole: So you were a newspaper delivery boy.
Gregorian: Yes. It helped me also because I got to read. I got to know the world from the perspective of diaspora.
A third stranger was the head of the Armenian Relief Society of Lebanon. She found out that I was practically starving and helped me secure a dining facility for five dollars a month. It offered meals at noontime and dinner, but no weekends. Out of nowhere there appeared three families in Beirut--Armenian expatriate families from Iran, who invited me to eat all my meals with them one day a week, so I had three meals with them. Then, finally, as luck had it, I met the director of the Collège Arménien whose eyesight had diminished, so I became his second pair of eyeglasses. That helped me secure room and board at the Collège Arménien.
Another stranger was my English teacher at the school, who filled out my applications to Stanford and Berkeley. Both schools accepted me. Stanford sent its response by airmail; Berkeley sent its by surface mail, so I ended up at Stanford. In Palo Alto, an Armenian family adopted me for all Sunday meals and holidays. All of this reinforced my conviction that diasporas are not ghettos--rather they are connecting bridges to larger communities, be it Jewish, be it Irish, be it Chinese, Armenian, Indian, and so forth. I never realized that until then.
Cole: Were your parents living?
Gregorian: My father was, and so was my stepmother, but my mother had died when I was six-and-a-half years old. My grandmother was alive until 1964. One of my ardent hopes was that she would live long enough to see me finish my Ph.D. She did.
Cole: What was it like when you got to Stanford?
Gregorian: Stanford was one of the most enchanting experiences and scariest as well. I’d never seen a university. No, that’s not true. I had seen the American University of Beirut, which is in a beautiful location. But that paled in terms of the size of Stanford.
Cole: What did you think it was going to be like before you got there?
Gregorian: I thought it would be another American University of Beirut: small student body, some nice buildings, tranquil, looking over the Mediterranean. I was just blown away coming to Stanford. It was almost like a small, self-contained city. The number of students, the number of faculty impressed me, but also the fact that most students had cars. I never imagined that a student could be rich enough to own a car. In my hometown there were three families who owned cars: they were the head of the telegraph company, the head of the bank, and a millionaire who was the head of a factory. But to have students have cars, and for me later to be able to buy a car, a used car, oh, my God! I took pictures of myself in front of the car, posing.
Cole: What year was that?
Gregorian: This was ’57, I think. I bought a used car. I did not have money, however, to pay for gasoline, so I used to lend it to people who had no cars, with the hope that they would buy the gasoline to fill it.
More important than the cars or the affluence was the attitude in the classroom: I was astonished to find that students were able to question professors. I never, ever imagined that in the middle of a lecture, I would raise my hand and say, “Excuse me. What do you mean by Chaucer’s saying such-and-such?” My God, who are you to question? In the tradition I came from, you took down what you were told and then repeated it. When I was asked, what do you think? Do you understand? That was an alien experience for me.
Cole: What happened after Stanford?
Gregorian: I finished my B.A. in two years. I rationalized that since I had been sent to Stanford for four years, I might as well use the rest of the time to get an M.A. or Ph.D. So in four years, thank God, I finished all my requirements--a joint B.A. in history and the humanities honors program, and then a Ph.D. in history and humanities graduate honors program.
Cole: What was your dissertation?
Gregorian: My dissertation was on traditionalism and modernism in Islam.
Cole: Very timely.
Gregorian: I picked Afghanistan as a case study. Before that, I had written on Arnold Toynbee and Islam. The range of my interests was prompted by the fact that I wanted to have a broad knowledge because I was supposed to go back and teach in high school in Lebanon.
Cole: You had planned to return to Beirut.
Gregorian: Yes, I had planned to return, but one thing led to the other. And I got married. I had received a Ford Foreign Area Development Training Fellowship, which changed my career. The fellowship took me to Afghanistan to do research for my dissertation. Prior to that, another accident happened. David Hoggan, who was one of the first Holocaust-denier scholars and who wrote The Forced War--which put forth the thesis that England had forced World War II on Nazi Germany and that the repression of the Polish ethnic German minority was the cause of the war--had a nervous breakdown, I gather, and I was called to fill in for him at San Francisco State. It was an arduous task: I used to get up at six o’clock in the morning to go teach modern European history at eight and then return to Stanford for my regular courses. A year or two later, when Hoggan resigned, San Francisco State devised a job that only I could do. They said they wanted someone who would teach modern European history, European intellectual history, and history of the Middle East. Since I had experience in all three fields, I ended up teaching at San Francisco State.
Then in 1968, I received an E.H. Harbison Distinguished Teaching Award, one of ten in the country. People who were on the committee screening the candidates for the Harbison award were surprised that in the midst of contentious San Francisco State College, students from so many different factions agreed that I was a good teacher. The Harbison award opened a new chapter in my life: it led me to Texas. An offer came out of the blue from the University of Texas at Austin, doubling my salary from $9,000 to $18,000, an astronomical figure at that time.
I was a parochial Californian: I did not know anything about Texas. When I arrived in Austin, I called my wife and said, “There are hills, trees and lots of water here.” I was so ignorant that I did not even know the difference between Austin and Houston; I thought maybe some said Houston, some said Austin, just pronouncing it different ways.
I had a wonderful experience in Texas. Indeed, I loved Texas. It had great dynamism, great optimism, and a healthy attitude that assumed everything can be done, and that money was no problem.
While at UT Austin, I got to know John Silber very well and appreciated his efforts on behalf of the college of arts and sciences. He was dean then. Unfortunately for the university, there were developers who wanted to expand the size of the university, which meant lots of new buildings and new business. These developers wanted the university to increase its size from some thirty thousand to forty thousand students. The faculty of arts and sciences opposed the move by a vote of 230 to nine. Dean Silber also opposed it and therefore had to go. In order to get him out, there was a move to abolish the college of arts and sciences and create four colleges, eliminating the position of the dean.
That spurred me to get involved in faculty politics in a big way. We opposed the division of arts and sciences because in Texas, in my opinion, the sciences provided protection for the humanities and social sciences. Otherwise, one could use the slightest conflict or controversial statement by maverick faculty members in the humanities or social sciences as an excuse to “punish” or starve the entire faculties of the humanities and social sciences. You couldn’t do that to the sciences without bringing on the intervention of the oil industry.
I was very fiery. When I see pictures of myself then, I can’t believe it. When I read my rhetoric of the time, I can’t believe it either.
And then Silber was fired, and I resigned in protest because he was fired without due process. Since I had no ambition to be an administrator, I thought therefore that I was virtuous because I was not seeking power. But having been elected to many university-wide selection committees--for president, provost, dean--I finally realized that denying others their ambition is power, so I was not so pure.
Instead of following the exodus of Silber and some others from Texas to Boston University, I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I was offered an endowed professorship that allowed me to teach Armenian history, South Asian history, and European intellectual history.
Cole: Did you have an administrative position then?
Gregorian: No. But within my first year, I became faculty liaison for President Meyerson and the new provost, Eliot Stellar. That was 1973.
Then I was appointed to the search committee for the arts and sciences dean. Lo and behold, the committee added my name to the list of candidates and to the great surprise of everyone, I was chosen to be the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. My mission was to bring together the graduate school of arts and sciences, the college for women, the college of arts and sciences, and six departments from Wharton School into one faculty--7,200 students and 528 faculty. It was a very difficult task to try to meld together so many institutions with their different histories and identities. I spent the first year trying to overcome everyone’s suspicions. My strength came from the fact that the faculty of arts and sciences was with me after a year or two of testing whether I was the “president’s man” or an independent.
Even as dean, however, I went on teaching courses. Indeed, throughout my career, I have always corrected my own exams, my own bluebooks. Even when I had teaching assistants, I told them to work on their dissertations. My role was to understand the students and where I was failing them. By correcting my own exams, I was able to understand the students and where I needed to learn to communicate with them better.
Cole: It sounds like you came to these positions from a strong basis of scholarship and teaching. It wasn’t simply one administrative position that led to another administrative position.
Gregorian: Exactly. I had no problem going back to the classroom. I had no problem going back to the library. Teaching was a sign of solidarity with the faculty so they would not think I was not one of them. If they came and said, “Boy, it’s easy for you guys who are administrators. Those of us who are in the trenches. . . .” I’d say, “You’re telling me! I have another hundred exams to correct. All essay questions, no multiple choice.” As a result, I got to know almost all my students past and present, not only at the University of Pennsylvania, but also at Texas, and San Francisco State as well. All in all, I have taught from ten to twelve thousand students.
Cole: It sounds to me like there was a symbiosis between your teaching and your research.
Gregorian: Well, I became schizoid in many ways. I had come to the United States to study in order to go back to teach Armenian history, so I had to keep up with my Armenian history.
In order to know Armenian history, I had to know Middle Eastern history. In order to know Middle Eastern history, I had to know European history, including colonialism and imperialism, and so forth. In order to know European history, I had to know the intellectual underpinnings of European cultures. One thing led to another, so instead of becoming more and more narrowly specialized, I expanded my interests and fields of expertise.
Cole: Then you went to the New York Public Library. Did you ever dream of anything like that?
Gregorian: No. The first time I set foot in the New York Public Library was in 1956, in August. I walked along Fifth Avenue. I went to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then I walked down to the New York Public Library, and went in. I was too ashamed to ask, “Where is the admissions desk?” I just headed toward a familiar sign: the Slavonic division. I walked in, and nobody asked me for an I.D., so I thought I had entered there illegally; quietly and quickly I left, hoping nobody would catch me. . . . I never knew that the library was free, that it was the people’s palace, that you had the right to just go in. I never imagined one day I would be president of the New York Public Library.
Cole: What do you think in your career had prepared you to take that job?
Gregorian: From childhood on in Tabriz, Iran, I loved books. To be in a place with twenty-five to thirty million items, for a poor boy who had no books, to be put in a position to open the doors and lend books to millions of people--it was an intoxicating dream that I never would have anticipated.
While at Penn, I made the university librarian a professor of English and bibliography in order to make the librarian formally one of the faculty. To learn more about libraries, I toured the country and visited as many libraries as I could--the Library of Congress, the Harvard libraries, and Chicago. I learned about their problems and their prospects. Finally, I recruited excellent talent and I knew how to delegate authority.
Cole: I think in many ways, approaching the job without preconceptions, not as a professional librarian but as a scholar with wide experience, gave you another kind of perspective. You weren’t hidebound by tradition.
Gregorian: You’re absolutely right. One of the things I told the librarians --and I really believe this--is that in the twenty-first century, two professions have to assume more responsibility and more ongoing training than they have in the past. One is the profession of librarian. A librarian must not just know where what book is located or how to retrieve information. They have to be mediators between the book and the scholar; they should be able to say, “I can tell you that the first edition had three lines extra.” They need to be scholar-librarians who love books, who also know details, how to communicate, and how to serve.
The second profession central to the twenty-first century is that of the journalist. Journalists, in my opinion, are mediators between the Information Age and our democracy. Hence, they have to be cultured, educated, and sophisticated, and not be seen as mere transmitters of undigested information. When I expressed this view several years ago, I was soundly criticized by some journalists but mostly by deans of schools of journalism. I had also said schools of education and schools of journalism are among the weakest links in America’s chain of learning.
Cole: You did great things at the library, though.
Gregorian: Every scholar, every newspaper, ethnic or otherwise, banded together to support me; so did the library’s board and its librarians. It was just one of those intoxicating situations where you have all the people rooting for you.
Cole: From the library, you became president of Brown. How many years were you at the library?
Gregorian: Eight plus.
Cole: You’re moving from job to job here very fast.
Gregorian: Yes. All my jobs have been roughly eight to nine years.
Cole: If someone looked at your résumé, they’d be a little worried.
Gregorian: I’m sure they would think I cannot keep a job. [Laughter.] I’ve never been fired, thank God, and I’ve never applied for a job, thank God. My line has been: As long as people are more afraid of my resigning than I’m afraid of being fired, there’s a healthy balance of terror. I intend to keep it that way. Besides, I know when to leave.
Cole: So you went to be president of Brown. What was that like, being a university president? The buck really did stop at your desk.
Gregorian: Well, I had a choice to become president of the University of Michigan or president of Brown, and I chose Brown because it was small, more intimate, it was on the East Coast, and part of the Ivy League.
I wanted to go back to a university. I even naively believed that I could serve as president and teach as well.
Cole: Did you do any teaching when you were at the New York Public Library?
Gregorian: Yes. I taught European intellectual history at the New School and I loved it. Cole: You kept teaching at Brown?
Gregorian: Yes. I taught a freshman seminar and a senior seminar, and I taught a course on Alexis de Tocqueville with Professor Stephen Graubard of Brown’s history department and the editor of Daedalus.
Cole: Was it hard to be intellectually engaged as a university president?
Gregorian: Let me put it delicately. The difference between being a university president and being head of a library, I can sum up this way: books don’t talk back. Everybody’s grateful for any additional book you bring, any additional hour you keep the library open. And I went to every party to be the public face of the library everywhere.
Cole: The public face.
Gregorian: Yes. I sat on all kinds of committees, for example, to prove that the library was a central part of the life of the city, and therefore I was interested in the city’s welfare, not just the library’s. So I was very busy.
Going back to the university, what you found out is that if you cross a faculty member you make a lifetime enemy. With a foundation, on the contrary, even if you turn down somebody, they always think there’s hope next year. But not in the university.
When I went to the university, the defining moment for me was one of my first faculty meetings at Brown--the president presides over faculty meetings, with a parliamentarian at his side. A faculty member got up, asking questions. Eight, ten minutes, went by and he was still talking. I told him: “Sir, you made your point clear. Let’s go to the next question.” At least three faculty members stood up and said, “Mr. President. You may be our president, but it’s our right to talk as much as we want, as long as we want.”
Now, I could have disagreed with them. I did not. I said, “I apologize. I’ve been away for eight years. I’ve forgotten the culture of the university. Go ahead, sir, continue,” I said. And that was wonderful for me because I realized where I was, and, naturally, this guy did not have the courage to continue. He felt terrible. So did I. But it meant that I acknowledged publicly that I had been away from that culture.
All my policies were transmitted in the form of individual letters to the students, faculty, and staff. I had learned the hard way from my experiences at San Francisco State, the University of Texas, and Penn, that direct communication with one’s constituents was paramount.
When I got a petition on an important issue such as gays in the military, I studied it and sent a ten-to-twenty-page letter on this issue to the entire campus. I said, for example, “What do I do with Orthodox Jews or Muslims?” Both were against gays at that time. Or even an official delegation from Communist Cuba, since their government opposed homosexuality? The military coming to recruit, do I ban them? Is the university ready to forego federal funding over this issue? My arguments were all logical rather than emotional because the issues impacted education for the whole campus, the faculty, and the students. For me personally, this was an ironic situation because I had made nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation an official policy at both the University of Pennsylvania and at Brown.
Cole: This is all cumulative.
Gregorian: Yes, cumulative experience, but also an understanding that you are responsible to the entire community. And therefore, you have to take positions consistent with your own beliefs and values. While some may disagree with you, they will respect you.
Cole: You were a very engaged president, which is not what one thinks of usually as the modern-day president, who is basically trying to raise money.
Gregorian: Ironically, I made it a condition that I would not be raising money for Brown, and they agreed in writing. I wanted to be on the record that if I was not on the road, I would be spending time with faculty and students, so they would not think I was not doing my job. I spent lots of time with students, lots of time with faculty, lots of time on campus.
Cole: But you did raise $400 million.
Gregorian: Actually, $537 million for Brown, through the Campaign for the Rising Generation.
Cole: But who’s counting?
Gregorian: It’s only money. I also did something both in the library and at Brown and at Penn. I got to know the staff. By staff, I don’t mean secretaries alone. The building and ground workers, too. I used to go occasionally to the basement of the New York Public Library and have bourbon with the custodians. I learned more from them about the structural problems of the building than from anyone else. At Brown, I tried to set an example of having a lifestyle governed by modesty. For example, I took a Bonanza bus from Providence to the Boston airport for $11.25 to save money, but more important, to set a tone for the rest of the campus. I instituted a policy that nobody could travel first class. Everybody had to travel economy. No limousines, only buses and taxicabs, and no fancy meals. These were important symbolic measures so that if I cut the budget, nobody would say, “Well, the fat cats are still living high on the hog.” There were even funny moments related to these policies.
Once it was raining and I had no umbrella. I was walking along and the university garbage truck stopped. “Hey, Prez,” one of the workers called out. “You need a lift?” He thought that I would not take it. I embarrassed him by climbing on and coming home with a garbage truck, and that story made the rounds.
Cole: All these people are part of the university.
Gregorian: Part of the university. When a worker at Brown named Phil Andrews died after forty-five years of service, a member of the union said, “What are you going to do about it? You always name buildings after rich people or administrators.” Faculty who died had trees or benches named for them. So, “I’ll name a building after him,” I said. They didn’t believe I would do it, but I did. So the first building dedicated to a worker was at Brown University. It was the headquarters for the offices of building and grounds.
I always have believed that universities are communities, not corporations. Sure, there is a business part, and you have to act responsibly. But the human fabric also has to be there.
Cole: So, it’s been, what, six years since you’ve been away from Brown? Before we turn to your work at Carnegie Corporation, I wanted to talk about the state of education in general. I think of you as someone who is not only a humanist, but also someone who is a strong supporter of educating people in the fullest sense: to educate the mind and the heart and to make people question and have perspective. What’s your assessment of where we are? How are the liberal arts faring?
Gregorian: Well, I’m worried about what’s happening. Consciously or unconsciously, there has emerged a perception in the United States that somehow liberal arts should be for elite institutions and that your community colleges and your big state universities and others should concentrate on careers rather than on learning, per se. The higher the tuition goes up, the more parents tend to say, “What’s the earning power of a degree going to be?” That worries me. Our democracy may have an aristocracy of talent, as Jefferson said--which is fine--but we don’t want everyone else to be left out. Something like that seems to be happening, though.
Unfortunately, people nowadays believe that talent only comes from the liberal arts programs of elite institutions. Propagating that belief could be tragic for the country. I don’t want to see the day when people may say, “Well, we’re not part of that culture,” or the day when taking courses in the humanities may become an elective rather than central to learning.
Similarly, for science to become an elective rather than central would also be a great loss. As a person who cheated himself by not taking science courses, I’m very conscious of how the sciences are sometimes relegated to the periphery of the liberal arts. Furthermore, we're doing something wrong when we say, it doesn’t matter how much knowledge there is, you’re going to be educated in four years by hook or crook, by condensation or summary.
Now, more than ever, the university has to teach you how to learn to learn, and to teach you not only what you know, but also what you don’t know. As a matter of fact, at one time I thought of giving a diploma that said, “Congratulations for knowing this much, and now we instruct you to learn for the rest of your life,” just to make the point that we are sending the graduate into the world with a map, with a compass, with a Geiger counter, with a hunting license, to go and learn.
Cole: You teach them how to learn to learn, and also open their eyes to what they don’t know--and I think that’s very true--but at the same time giving them a foundation.
Gregorian: Yes, a foundation. The other thing that worries me is the lack of perspective, and the confusion that reigns about the differences between job and career, what is an amateur and what is a professional, the confusion between leisure and free time. These are classical concepts that are no longer being dwelled upon. I think it’s the obligation of universities not to be defensive about learning and the liberal arts; they should say, “Look, this is the tip of the iceberg. We’ve given you a taste, a way for you to be engaged. Now you have to go out and deal with the joy of discovery yourself.”
Cole: Right. We have now been given the critical apparatus to go out and do this. Do you think there’s enough discussion about this? Do you think people are really talking about the role of colleges and universities in education--beyond vocational education?
Gregorian: I don’t think there is as much conversation nationally as there needs to be. One of my great disappointments has been the role of university presidents. When I was part of the Ivy League, I urged my fellow presidents every year to issue a statement on such issues of importance as affirmative action, liberal arts, et cetera, to set a tone for the nation’s discussion. The issues are great, but unfortunately, there is reluctance about discussing them because after discussion comes the responsibility of what you are going to do about it.
Cole: You have to talk the talk and walk the walk.
Gregorian: Two-thirds of our students go to community colleges. I don’t see a national effort to infuse the kind of intellectual excitement or the kind of learning excitement in the community colleges. We have considered them as an end in themselves rather than as a means of instilling a love of learning in students.
Cole: I think that as well. The statistics are very interesting. There are wonderful opportunities for liberal arts and humanities education in the community colleges that aren’t being tapped.
Gregorian: One of the things I sometimes thought of doing was to analyze the entire Who’s Who and, say, the list of the Fortune 500 in order to determine who are the leaders, and what kind of education did they get? At one time I was surprised to find out how many classics majors and history and English majors were in charge of major corporations. I thought that kind of information would provide reassurance to parents whose children were, or wanted to be, in the liberal arts. When I was dean and provost at Penn, we worked with our fellow deans to provide choice to our students. We said, “All right. You want to study literature and your parents want you to study finance. Why don’t you do a joint B.A. and B.S. in arts and sciences in the Wharton Business School,” and they did.
Cole: I think that’s true. What a good education does is prepare you to do anything. It gives you the skills, the experience, the perspective, the analytical powers to do anything better. Kids are shortchanged when they’re shunted off into vocational tracks by their parents. There’s a lot of pressure to do that.
Gregorian: That applies to both parents and faculties. Whenever you want to bring in some new faculty, they want to know which department is going to benefit more. They see hiring new faculty as a form of redistribution of wealth rather than a redistribution of knowledge. That’s always going to be a problem. The dean of the Wharton School and I had great fights over finances, but we agreed that we must have joint degrees to create a kind of symbiotic relationship.
Cole: A number of my friends in the sciences and in the business school were the biggest supporters of the humanities. They wanted students who could think and who could write and who could read.
Gregorian: I used to say, if you want to go to medical school, major in medieval music because when they’re reading your file, medieval music or medieval Hebrew stands out. They definitely will read your file.
Cole: At Carnegie Corporation of New York, you’ve had role reversal. Instead of asking for money now, you’re giving it away. Tell me about that?
Gregorian: Well, the cover of my book has my picture with my hands on my lap. Marshall Rose, the former chairman of the New York Public Library board of trustees told me that the trustees had never seen the backs of my hands all these years. They had seen my palms up, begging for money.
The difference is the following: I don’t have to please people anymore, even though I still am pleasant. I also don’t--how should I put it politely--I don’t have to entertain except with friends. At the same time, there are other activities. I’m involved internationally now, whether it’s in Afghanistan, whether it’s Africa, India, Pakistan, Central Europe, or Russia. I’m involved in all of them.
People think that giving away money is an easy job. Actually, it’s harder than raising money, as you well know, because you have so many excellent projects that compete for funding. The issue is, I tell our staff: Are we going to be an incubator or an oxygen tank?
Foundations have to be in the idea business, not the need business. Everyone has needs.
And finally, we have to prepare the next generation of leaders, scholars, and thinkers. So what are we doing to accomplish that? As a matter of fact, yesterday I put some fundamental questions to my colleagues. I asked, “What are we doing? Why are we doing what we’re doing? How well are we doing it? Are we the right people to do it? If another foundation is doing a better job, why can’t we give the money to them to do it? Are we capable of illuminating failures we’ve had that we can publicize in order to protect others from committing the same mistakes?” All of those issues are fundamental to how you evaluate success, especially in scholarship. How do you inculcate the love of learning, the love of excellence, while helping institutions and organizations? Competing priorities are always there: How do you balance the national and international factors, the local and regional, the needs of the City of New York after 9/11? I thought it would be easy to come here and just write checks, but I found it just as difficult as being a fundraiser.
In my view, there is a similarity between universities and foundations, because I believe that whoever heads a university has to assume the presidency as a mission, not a job. The same holds true for the president of a foundation. A job is for a living. A mission is something for the future of society, something for perpetuity.
In my case, an additional difficult task with regard to dealing with money is how to take maximum advantage of it--something I’m not intrinsically familiar with because I come from a culture of scarcity. This was driven home to me when I was visiting universities in Africa. I was struck by the fact that some classrooms, for example, did not have proper blackboards. Immediately, I thought: How many official luncheons in New York City, if they were canceled, would provide how many blackboards in Africa? Being a product of a culture of scarcity compels you to accept moral responsibility and forces you to prioritize the use of your scarce resources. These are the kinds of problems that I had not anticipated.
I have Andrew Carnegie’s picture hanging in my office, looking always at me, and I always think he’s saying, “All right, boy, what are you doing? How come you’re doing what you’re doing? Is it going to make a difference in matters of knowledge and world peace?”
Cole: You’re finding this worthwhile.
Gregorian: I’m having a wonderful time.
Cole: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk.
Gregorian: My pleasure.