Drs. Mary and Dennis Papazian at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, for the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015

SAN JOSE, Calif. — It is hard to come up with a comparable living Armenian-American couple, as prolific and influential in the community, and as nationally respected in their fields, as Drs. Dennis and Mary Papazian.

The recent publication of Dennis Papazian’s memoir, From My Life and Thought: Reflections on an Armenian-American Journey (Fresno State, 2022), offered an occasion to interview the duo from their Bay Area home.

Dennis, 90, is a former administrator, professor of history, and director of the Armenian Research Center (which he founded) at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, was also instrumental in Armenian-American political life, as one of the founders of the Armenian Assembly of America.

Mary, who started her career as a professor of English at Oakland University in Rochester Mich., quickly moved into administration as well, serving at Oakland, Montclair State (New Jersey), Southern Connecticut State, and San Jose State.

Their accumulated experience and combined CVs seem only to be made exponentially greater by their marriage, through which they have supported each other not only personally but professionally and in their service to the Armenian community.

Cold War Professor

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Throughout the interview, Dennis and Mary Papazian both stressed that Dennis’ legacy lies in his efforts to build the infrastructure of the Armenian-American community, more so than in the scholarly realm.

The publication of From My Life and Thought underscores these contributions.

Dr. Dennis Papazian, circa 1970s

Dennis Papazian’s early life was typical of Armenian-Americans of his generation. “My family was very pro-Armenian, as you can imagine. My father was sent to the state of Georgia by the folks at Ellis Island. He was the only one of his siblings who went back to the old country to find an Armenian bride. He valued his Armenian identity, and so when it was time for him to marry he went back to [Constantinople] and found a 16-year-old beauty from a good family who had some inherited wealth in the family deeds to properties on the Bosporus, though she didn’t really know that at the time. Our family valued work, we enjoyed it and stressed trying to achieve success.”

Young Dennis eventually moved with his family to Pontiac, Mich., a working class suburb of Detroit. The impetus for the move came from his mother, eager to find suitable Armenian husbands for Dennis’ two sisters, who were coming of age in the 1940s.

When asked why he chose to study history, gaining his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, Dennis states: “I wanted to find out about the world. The past, the present, and to predict the future maybe.”

Mary, 63,  frequently spoke about to how she sees her husband’s approach to the field. “I think he was drawn to it for the reasons he said, but the key is the practical implications. How the past impacts how the world works. And Russia was the hottest political issue of the day.”

Graduating with his bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy from Wayne State in 1954, Dennis went on to earn a master’s from Wayne State in East European Studies in 1956 and another master’s in history from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor in 1958.

Beginning his doctoral program at Ann Arbor within a year of the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the Space Race between the US and the USSR was intensifying. Indeed, the Cold War was the “hottest” political issue of the day and became the defining context for Dennis Papazian’s academic career.

Simultaneously, with the establishment of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in 1955, the Armenian Studies field was starting to develop in the US; and various other social and political changes to Armenian-American community institutions in the post-War era which coincided with the coming-of-age of the first American-born generation and the impending 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1965, signaled the development of the modern Armenian-American community.

Dennis Papazian was one of the group of people who guided that development, working side-by-side with other figures like Alex Manoogian, William Saroyan, Stephen Mugar, and Prof. Richard Hovannisian.

A trip to the Soviet Union as a graduate exchange student during the 1961-62 academic year was a formative experience. Working on his doctoral thesis at Moscow State University, he encountered almost every aspect of life behind the Iron Curtain, entertainingly detailed in the new book.

Meanwhile, he provided information to officials from the US Embassy in Moscow. While remaining a politically pro-American (and a “good liberal” in his words – his trip was partially inspired by JFK’s legendary Ann Arbor speech inaugurating the Peace Corps, at which Papazian was present), Papazian easily connected on a human level to the citizens of the USSR.

An plane crash in Uzbekistan at the end of his trip formed the turning point of Papazian’s life. “I reflect on that often,” he states. The young Soviet assigned to guide him through Central Asia survived, as did Papazian, but with broken vertebrae. Most everyone else apparently perished in the crash. “It changed my life, because I nearly died, and then it took a while to recuperate.” Coming face-to-face with mortality gave Papazian a new outlook on life, and strengthened him to face his goals head on.

After returning from Moscow, Papazian was offered a position as a history lecturer at the University of Michigan – Dearborn; he received his PhD from the Ann Arbor campus in 1966.

He had a genial and humorous teaching style, but also had high expectations for his students. “I’m educating each one of you to be Secretary of State,” was one of his favorite sayings. According to Mary Papazian, her husband’s goal was “Helping his students have aspirations and the necessary thought processes to work at the highest levels.”

Dennis Papazian relates that he devised a course of study which included three weeks in Europe and the Soviet Union — making sure to include Armenia. “These were kids who had barely been out of Dearborn,” he says.

Community Leadership

At the same time, Papazian’s involvement in the Armenian-American community increased through his relationship with Detroit industrialist and philanthropist Alex Manoogian, President of the AGBU from 1953-1989.

Having been active as a young man in the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) on the local and national level, Dennis was mentored by Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese from 1945-1954. As a professional, Alex Manoogian became his second mentor in Diasporan life. “I worked with Alex Manoogian, who taught me about the Armenians; he was a great influence in my life,” he recalled. Papazian was chairman of the Manoogian Cultural Fund for nearly a decade.

“Dennis was of that generation, the post-survivor generation,” says Mary Papazian. “The community at that time was suffering from PTSD. The institutions that we now take for granted, in many ways, still needed to be built in what was a reestablishing of the [Armenian] people.”

“We went through a whole process in the 20th century of building the institutions and the power of the Diaspora is critical to that,” adds Dennis. “Alex Manoogian deserves a lot of credit for building Armenia.”

Papazian also gives credit to his fellow academic, Prof. Richard Hovannisian of UCLA and later USC, who was also “very substantial for developing Armenian consciousness” in America, and apparently the feeling was mutual.

The fact that Alex Manoogian, fellow industrialist-philanthropist Edward Mardigian, and Dennis Papazian all came out of the Detroit community reinforced how important the community was, especially at that time.

Papazian helped to establish the Armenian Assembly of America as a non-profit advocacy group to lobby Washington for Armenian-American causes and interests.

At the time, representatives from all parties and groups in the community came together to present a united front. This was in 1971, only a few years after the 50th anniversary of the 1915 Genocide.

“That’s what the Assembly was trying to do, to create a new identity for Armenians in America where all segments of the community collaborated on mutual interests.”

“It’s a thread from the Assembly but even before that,” Mary Papazian states, “finding ways to think of the nation as something bigger than the parts, and all have a role to play in its survival.”

Dennis Papazian adds, “Not to advance each agenda but to advance the common agenda. Present the good parts that keep us together, not the things that keep us apart. We need to think beyond our immediate survival and our immediate interest.”

Papazian explains how he got his start in lobbying, through businessman and community leader Stephen Mugar. “When I went to Washington, Mugar took me to see Tip O’Neill. He [Mugar] says “When he [Papazian] speaks, I speak.” O’Neill asked Papazian what he wanted. “[I said,] ‘I want recognition of the Armenian Genocide,’ and he helped us achieve that in the House.” That was in 1975.

Tip O’Neill also inspired the creation of the Assembly’s long-standing internship program, which Papazian instituted.

Of his work with the Assembly, Papazian says “My legacy was trying to bring the whole community together and to introduce the community to the ways of Washington, which they didn’t understand. You have to work together and then the United States will respond. If we go in separately, they won’t respect us as much.”

After returning to Michigan, Papazian, who had already served as associate dean of Academic Affairs at U-M Dearborn, was chosen as director of Graduate Studies. Then in 1985, thanks to a grant from the Knights of Vartan, he was able to establish the Armenian Research Center at the same university and acted as its executive director. The center is a unique depository, archive, and library of Armenian and Armenian-related materials that serves as a center of academic study at one of the most important commuter schools in the heart of Metro Detroit.

Speaking on Behalf of Unity

One of Dennis Papazian’s most memorable acts, as he tells it, was being asked to speak at an event organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in 1988, on the 70th Anniversary of the independence of the First Republic of Armenia.

The speech, which took place at Lincoln Center in New York and was facilitated by Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia through the Eastern Prelacy, is full of expressions of unity which were still rare at the time. Karekin II later was elected Catholicos Karekin I of All Armenians in 1994, but passed away in 1999.

In his speech, Papazian stressed that he did not come from a Tashnag (ARF) background or from their “side” of the community. But the history of Armenians and the future of Armenia was something which should unite them all, and all should work together toward the benefit of Armenia.

An interesting political aspect of the speech was that while Papazian recognized that the importance of the First Republic had often been ignored by non-Tashnags, he demanded that the ARF banner be placed on the stage along with the Tricolor flag of Armenia. Why? Because the tricolor was the flag of the Republic of Armenia, albeit defunct at the time, and belonged to all Armenians; in Papazian’s mind, the ARF could not use the flag to represent their party only, and therefore he demanded the ARF also put their own banner on the stage of this meeting which was under their auspices. Catholicos Karekin agreed with the suggestion.

“The message to the ARF shows that Catholicos Karekin was a guy who understood these things, and it’s a great tragedy that he died, because he could have done great things for the Armenians,” he notes.

Reflections on a Renaissance

Mary Papazian attributes her husband’s success in his community-wide efforts to the fact that, “for most of us, there’s kind of two parts, your American and your Armenian life. That’s less true than it was decades ago. But Dennis, as well as Manoogian and Mardigian, didn’t separate that. That’s part of why they were so successful.”

Dennis Papazian sums up the accomplishment of his generation as “Building the infrastructure of the community in the all the areas. In the political awareness area, scholarship, the Diocese, St. Nersess Seminary, NAASR, these are all institutions that go from being unseen to being seen.”

As for the future? “My advice is to stick together; we are drifting apart again. The Assembly drifted apart from unification [when the ARF established their own advocacy group, the ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America)] It’s not good that it’s separate,” Papazian states. He also voices the concern that, “I wonder if we are educating our young people to be patriotic… we have to pay attention to the education of the youth in addition to recreation.”

Armenians have a lot of potential, Papazian adds. “Armenians are very talented and very high-achieving in education and elsewhere. We sometimes will have certain standards in our professional lives but we forget some of that when we deal with the Armenian world. If we actually harnessed all the energy and talent, and brought that to advancing Armenian interests, we would be unstoppable.”

Dr. Mary Papazian with Dr. Blenda Wilson, former Chancellor of U-M Dearborn and subsequently President of Cal State Northridge

Dr. Mary Papazian: High Achievements, Forward Looking

Mary Arshagouni Papazian grew up in a bit of a different atmosphere from Dennis. Born in California a generation later to a Greek-born Armenian father and a Los Angeles-born Armenian mother, who met as students at UCLA. “I grew up straddling both the Armenian and the American world,” she says. “I went to the public schools in my early years, but my parents were close to Prof. Richard Hovannisian. And I carried the candle in the ceremony to break ground at the Armenian Martyrs Monument in Montebello, Calif.”

She continues, “I came out of an Armenian-American background, but I became closer to the community when I attended Ferrahian (for high school), which was unusual in the 1970s.”

Papazian’s mother was a long-time English and history teacher at Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian High School, in Encino, which is the oldest Armenian day school in the US. “I knew I wanted to study English at UCLA, but the question was what am I going into when I graduated? I narrowed it down to law and grad school.”

Inspired by John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost and the poet John Donne, she ended up choosing grad school. Mary Papazian is nothing if not enthusiastic about literature, the humanities and their significance in today’s world.

In relation to Milton, “It wasn’t the theology [that captured my interest] … He was a very innovative thinker. The language is creative, passionate, and powerful. It imagines what’s possible and envisions what could happen in the future…”

“The poetry, vision, language and insights of writers such as Donne and Milton have motivated me throughout my career, especially as I transitioned from teaching to administration. For me, it’s about creating a space for learning, building the future, and being open to visionary ways of thinking to achieve. What tools do we have to inspire others to bring about positive change? How can we understand human nature, how psychology works, and recognize how to motivate people for good? The key is to be able to keep your values.”

Donne and Milton, in Papazian’s view, “explored humankind’s place in the world on an individual scale but also a broader scale. Thinking through values, experience, psychology. And how language has an impact on that. How it all comes together.”

After finishing her dissertation, Papazian relocated to Michigan where she taught at Oakland University in Rochester, a northern suburb of Detroit. “One of the attractions there was that there was a robust Armenian community. That was always an important part of my life. Being able to follow professional goals, [having the Armenian community] gives you a support system and makes you feel at home wherever you are. It makes you feel a part of something, and that’s very empowering.”

It was in Michigan that Mary and Dennis met and married in 1991, and where their two daughters, Ani and Marie, were born. After a decade as a faculty member, she moved, like her husband, into the administrative side of academia, which wasn’t necessarily as easy for a woman then or now.

“I was fortunate that early in my career I was in a department that had senior women leaders. They helped me develop my scholarship, achieve tenure and promotion, and so on. But as I gained experienced and more responsible roles in higher ed administration, I became aware of how women at times were treated differently. Women are often brought in when there are challenges and not always recognized for their accomplishments, large and small. For example, if a woman is confident and strong, that’s sometimes seen as intimidating.”

Papazian family at Mary Papazian’s inauguration as President of San Jose State University (left to right: Marie, Mary, Ani, and Dennis Papazian)

Papazian has stressed her mission to pay it forward.

“I’ve worked to develop women leaders. [One thing I tell them is,] you can learn things when you’re in a role – you don’t need to know it all before you get there,” she stresses.

After serving as associate dean of Oakland University’s College of Arts and Sciences from 1999 to 2004, the Papazians relocated to New Jersey ,where Mary served as Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University from 2004 to 2007. Following that, from 2007 to 2011, she was provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Lehman College, CUNY (City University of New York).

In 2011, Papazian was named president of Southern Connecticut State University, and in 2016, she was chosen as president of San Jose State University, a position she held until December 2021. These achievements made her the first Armenian-American female president of a university. During her decade-long tenure as president of these two public institutions, she brought both stability and a transformative vision for the future that continues to guide both institutions today. She was especially effective in creating needed structural changes and hiring diverse, accomplished faculty and staff members so critical to the success of these institutions in fulfilling their mission.

Mary Papazian resigned from the Presidency of San Jose State University at the end of 2021 following a controversy involving a 2010 investigation of sexual harassment allegations against an athletic trainer at the school. Papazian announced she was resigning because she felt it would best for the school as a whole. It is to be noted that the school created a video to honor Papazian’s service and accomplishments. In it she offered an apology to the affected former student-athletes on behalf of the university, while reinforcing her commitment to moving forward in creating sustainable change as well as helping the university move forward in all areas.


Liberal Arts in a Tech-Based World?

In recent years, Mary Papazian has taken to studying and exploring the future of the humanities and the liberal arts degrees in our changing world. For example, is a liberal arts degree or an academic career even worth it in our digital age?

“I think young people should pursue their passion,” she says, “but go into it with your eyes open. It is difficult to get a job as a full-time tenured faculty member, but it is very rewarding to have such an impact on students and change the course of things.”

Papazian thinks the key is “to create looser bridges between academia, higher ed, and the world of work and community engagement. I use the example of the liberal arts and humanities, and these fields aren’t seen as practical. The truth of the matter is the kind of foundational thinking and experiences that you gain enable people to see and connect the dots between things.”

What about the increase in focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) ? “Yes, we need science and technology, but you can’t have innovation without creativity and you can’t have creativity without the breadth that comes from a background in the liberal arts. This is where innovation matters in learning. Where is the human element in all of this? How is it used in a human society? Who brings those qualities to the table – liberal arts majors and visual arts majors, which brings an ability to see yourself in others’ shoes and that gives you the ability to see from multiple perspectives, and so much innovation comes from the ability to make unusual connections.”

Students do need to be adaptable to the technology-based economy in which we live. She advocates requiring more science-based classes for humanities majors, but especially tech-related classes, which have practical applications for the working world: “I think liberal arts students also want to be developing hard skills along the way, like digital skills. They should have some experience in technical areas. If you’re able to think different and also communicate, you’re in a position to be successful if you also have the technical skills. If you only have the technical skills you may be stuck in a certain job.”

She even mentions that Google did a study of the performance of their teams (“Project Aristotle”), finding that non-engineers were higher performing because they were better listeners. “One of the skills we want people to learn is collaboration. None of us are going to be strong in all areas.”

Papazian believes that a similar approach is beneficial for Armenia’s future. “If you think about what’s going on in Armenia today, one of the areas of real growth in the economy is the innovation economy. When you’re a global nation you’re living in different environments; you have the depth of history and the strength in arts and sciences. When those two things come together, it creates the possibility for innovation.”

In relation to Armenia, she continues, “A lot of the energy is around innovation. The particular qualities of experience that Armenians have had over the decades, and the willingness to learn [will serve the country well]. I’m on the advisory board for FAST [Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology], and I’m excited about the innovative ecosystem that is emerging and that will allow Armenia to compete in the digital society.”

Partners in Problem Solving

The Papazians both agree that their marriage has been an asset to their respective careers. “It’s worked out wonderfully,” says Dennis. “She adds to my knowledge, we bring different experiences to problems and we can solve them, and have solved them together. I really enjoy Mary’s knowledge and I think she enjoys mine. We plan, we accomplish and it’s great.”

Mary in turn adds: “I think the key is having a shared view of the world, having a shared set of values. I had the benefit that Dennis had already navigated so many of the challenges that I was going to see — that was extraordinarily helpful. We were socializing and talking with his colleagues and friends who were tremendously experienced, such as Blenda Wilson, who was the chancellor at U of Michigan, Dearborn, when Dennis established the Armenian Research Center. Blenda was an extraordinary leader, full of grace, and politically smart. I learned so much from her. [Cal State Northridge, where Wilson was President] was destroyed by an earthquake, and she rebuilt it. Her priority was to make sure the students graduated on time. The last building she rebuilt was the administration building. That has always stayed with me.”

The Papazians also stressed their shared Armenian roots and noted that they were married in 1991, the year Armenia got its independence. They also expressed their deep pride in their daughters. Their oldest, Ani, recently graduated from Tufts Medical School and is now in a pediatric residency program at University of California, San Diego. Their younger daughter, Marie, is a recent graduate of Barnard College/Columbia University, in English and creative writing. She is just beginning her career as a writer.

What was the period of Armenia gaining independence like for two people whose lives were so intertwined with the Armenian-American community and Diaspora at large at the highest levels?

“It was hard to imagine,” says Mary. “For the longest time it seems an impossible dream.  The possibility of a free and independent Armenia was always abstract. You never knew if it really was going to happen. But suddenly the dream becomes realized. All of a sudden the whole momentum shifted. Armenia in those early years was such a dark and difficult place. How do you build a country, and what’s our role in the Diaspora? And how does the newly emerging Republic of Armenia relate to the lost provinces of Western Armenia from where our ancestors came? We are at a point in Armenian history when reclaiming Western Armenia is not realistic, But we do have a chance to build a thriving country and that has to be our commitment. And while it may not be a country that includes our lost Western Armenian provinces, it is important that it be a country that understands and embraces the culture of both Eastern and Western Armenia.”

She continues, “That’s why I am involved in the newly created Armenian Society of Fellows and serve on the Board of Trustees of Haigazian University, an important Diasporan institution in Beirut, Lebanon. Working with Armenia itself, as well as with the global Armenian Diaspora so that we all move in the same direction. It’s partnership – we need each other.”

Mary Papazian looks forward to continue working with Armenia through the Armenian Society of Fellows, to help the country develop strong educational partnerships with institutions in the West.

“For those of us who are the children or grandchildren of survivors, our concept of going to Armenia before independence was something akin to going back to the early 20th century. Suddenly going to Armenia is not going back 100 years. It’s no longer going back in time; it’s going to something that’s just as much a part of today’s world, a place where we can imagine the future.”

As for the cultural differences and distance that still exist between Eastern and Western Armenians? “Having an independent Armenia, we have to build a future together,” she says, despite our differences. “As generations interact with each other more, we’ll see a coming together of Armenians in both the homeland and the Diaspora.”

From My Life and Thought: Reflections on an Armenian-American Journey is available at NAASR and Abril Bookstore.

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