Vartan Gregorian: A Long Journey from Poverty to Top of Academic Ladder

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NEW YORK — (This article is part two of an interview Florence Avakian conducted with Vartan Gregorian in New York. Part one of the interview appeared in last week’s edition of the Mirror-Spectator.)

By Florence Avakian

Florence Avakian: Dr. Gregorian, growing up in Tabriz, Iran, and Beirut, Lebanon must have been very significant. What influenced you to pursue higher education during you childhood?

Vartan Gregorian: Nobody encouraged me. There was no talk of higher education. I went to an Armenian-Russian elementary school in Tabriz. In 1946, Iranian armed forces came and asserted the authority of the central government and we had to then learn Persian. My grandmother was illiterate, my mother had died and my father had a high school education — then considered the ultimate degree. There was no one in my family who went on to higher education.

FA: Then who or what inspired you to continue your education?

VG: Somehow, the course of my life has been influenced by the “kindness of strangers.” So I was encouraged to go to Beirut by the French vice consul. I had no money and only three letters of recommendation. But that’s natural because when you’re weak, you trust strong people’s words. In my book, The Road to Home, I describe my trials and tribulations in Beirut. Another strength was exposure to the French language and literature. It opened a whole world for me in Lebanon. Even then, the school I attended, the College Armenien, was the ultimate education I could hope for. I had no idea even then that I would enter an institution of higher education. After all, I was studying Portuguese in order to become the principal of the Armenian high school in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then, two or three students from the College Armenien received fellowships to go abroad and I went to the US to attend Stanford University. I had no idea then about public or private education, of which I have spoken today. Remember, as I noted earlier, tuition at Stanford was $750 a year.

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FA: Why did you decide to pursue and specialize in history?

VG: Throughout my life, I have been interested in history. In the Jemaran — or College Armenien — most of our teachers were outstanding intellectuals who were university professors. They did not know the difference between high school and university, so we were taught as if we were university students, and I’m happy we were challenged that way. My history teacher, Garnik Guzelian, had a tremendous influence on me, as did Simon Vratzian, the principal. But I also saw that the history we were taught was limited history. I was interested in literature, religion, art, so I took a dual degree as well as my PhD in history and humanities (art history, philosophy, romance languages, religion, classics) at Stanford where I received a balanced and inspiring education.

FA: What forces drive you and from where does your passion come from, and what is your day-to-day vision for the Carnegie Corporation?

VG: Without passion, you die. The notion comes from my grandmother. That lesson has been important for me to remember because at Carnegie Corporation, we also deal with important issues that require passion. Internationally, we deal with the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (and have done so for the past 25 years), with international peace as one of our major objectives. And nationally, we focus on school reform because education is a source of strengthening democracy, citizenship and progress, all of which lead to peace. Andrew Carnegie was disappointed because during World War I, the educated people — Germans, English, French, etc. — declared war against each other. So education is not enough. You also need values, a knowledge of history, culture and religion in order to fight hubris.
On the international level, we’re involved with Iran and North Korea, in the area of Track II negotiations: non-governmental agencies meeting together for the purpose of making progress. Track II promotes communication not only in the service of understanding but when it comes to a potential agreement, you already have worked out some of the details in a less pressured environment.

FA: Dr. Gregorian, what programs does the Carnegie Corporation have in Armenia?

VG: We support higher education in Eurasia, including in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. For 10 years, we supported 12 regional universities in the former Soviet Union, and in Armenia we just renewed the program for another two, three years.

Giving Back

FA: Why do you feel that it is important to give back to the community?

VG: I was brought up in a community in Tabriz, not by isolated individuals alone. You’re not an end in yourself: that has always been reinforced for me in literature, history, etc. The book that influenced me the most, which I read in Armenian, was Les Miserables, and I was particularly struck by the part where Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread and the priest, to protect him, says he gave it to him. My experiences and my education taught me that life involves obligation, responsibility, rather than self-isolation into one’s pygmy world of private piety.
Hence, Andrew Carnegie’s vision and my education converged in this institution. Carnegie believed that the person who dies rich, dies disgraced. Those people did not have the imagination to reinvest. He believed that capitalists are trustees of public wealth. The children who were born into such families were not entitled, just because of their birthright, to inherit that wealth. He reminds us that shrouds have no pockets. Carnegie also said that the aristocracy resembles potatoes because the best part is underground. Carnegie also insisted that with wealth comes social responsibility. All religions demand that their adherents practice charity but Andrew Carnegie was talking about philanthropy. Philanthropy is different. You don’t deal with the symptoms, but with the causes, to alleviate the causes. Carnegie also believed in helping individuals to become independent. That means if someone is hungry, don’t give him a fish, but a fishing rod, in order to make him independent, rather than dependent. In that connection, I’m in an ideal situation now in this foundation where Carnegie’s philosophy is so close to mine.

FA: So this vision has really guided you throughout your life in everything you’re done as president of the New York Public Library, as president of Brown University, here at the Carnegie Corporation.

VG: Yes, exactly. The wisest people I’ve known told me not to be impressed by what people have, but who they are. That’s exactly my attitude. My grandmother taught me one thing: don’t be envious. I’ve never been envious of anybody. I’m not impressed by what people have. I’m impressed by their values and their actions. Many people today confuse their identity with their job.

FA: What are the responsibilities of Armenians living in the United States?

VG: I have always believed that Armenia has two lungs: one is in the Diaspora and one is in Armenia. When one is blocked the other must work overtime. We cannot consider Armenia a charitable case, but rather a country that needs investment, a place of opportunity. Therefore, we have to invest, take risks, but also hold Armenia responsible. Corruption corrodes our nation. We have to make allowances for Armenia to learn, but we must not patronize it. At the same time, I don’t think the Diaspora can be taken for granted.

FA: You deservedly are being honored by the Armenian Professional Society (APS). How can APS implement your 20-Year Plan?

VG: APS: The title says “professional.” More and more Armenian cadres are becoming professional. They are not amateurs. Armenia cannot afford amateur diplomats, politicians, bureaucrats. APS can provide professional assistance in every domain that Armenia needs — customs, law, professors, etc. Armenians who visit Armenia should be reminded of the poet Hovhannes Toumanian who said that just because you saw us covered in white flour doesn’t mean that we’re all millers. We have a rich country but it needs great expertise. For a century, books were written about how to overthrow capitalism, but very few books have been written on how to transform a socialist system to capitalism. So we’re in that cross current. We have to help Armenia help itself.

FA: How can APS attract the younger professionals to the organization, and how can APS attract donations?

VG: There are many professionals in APS who should know how to handle this. But the most important thing is that they should not be isolated here in the U.S. but must help Armenia and teach Armenian communities in this country how to organize themselves.
When I came here in 1956, the feeling all over the Middle East was that Armenians in the U.S. were a disappearing species, so they should transfer their wealth to the vibrant communities in the Middle East. They were wrong. What happened is that the second largest community we have outside of Armenia is in the United States, then Latin America. For the first time, these communities are well-organized and are therefore able to help Armenia. But this relationship has to be one of co-equals, professionals, one of investment, not charity. Armenia could become the regional center of medicine, computer sciences, banking, jewelry for the Caucasus. We have all the necessary talents.

FA: What does it mean for you to be an Armenian-American?

VG: For me, I’m very proud of my background and my culture, my church. For me, there is only one Armenian church, only one Armenian language, one Armenia. So I attend all the churches, all the cultural events, and I don’t distinguish one Armenian from another.

FA: What are the benefits, as well as the burdens of being such a pillar in the Armenian-American community?

VG: There is no burden because there is no pillar. The most important thing is I have made a distinction between a job and a career. I have chosen the career of being an educator. And being successful has not meant that I have had to change my name, my attitude, or myself. I’ve let everyone know that I feel comfortable being an Armenian.

FA: Your office is a veritable library. What are your favorite books and reading materials? And what do you do in your free time, if you have any, concerts, films, exercise?

VG: History and biography. Saturdays, I come to my office and read here quietly. Sundays, I buy eight newspapers, British and French, and from nine a.m. to about three or four in the afternoon, I read and clip all kinds of articles on every possible topic that I’m interested in. I also enjoy going to the theatre, concerts. I have a personal trainer that comes three times a week to my home at six in the morning, and trains me for an hour.

FA: And what is your definition of success? What has been the greatest success of your life?

VG: Success is the external recognition, but the other is to be proud of what you have done. My greatest success is that I have been a good teacher. Of all the rewards I have received, and I have received many, I take great pride that an elementary school in Providence, Rhode Island, with 400 students, was named after me. It has become a great school.

FA: Dr. Gregorian, what is your advice for students today?

VG: Be curious, challenge your mind. Don’t be one-dimensional, don’t be limited, and know that tolerance is not enough. Understanding is necessary.

FA: And lastly: Who is Vartan Gregorian?

VG: He is a boy who became a man in America, and who has been very busy. He has never applied for a job, never been fired from a job, one who has accomplished some things, and failed in some other things. He is one who has always kept his word.