After receiving his dual Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford University in 1964, Gregorian served on the faculties at several American universities before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he became the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and the provost in 1978. From 1981 to 1989, Gregorian served as president of the New York Public Library, an eight-year tenure which would prove one of his most lasting legacies.
In 1989, he was chosen to become president of Brown University, where he served for the next eight years. In 1997, he was selected as president of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York, his current position as of 2009. He is also a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a member of the advisory board of the PARSA Community Foundation.
He has received the National Humanities Medal. In 2004, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Gregorian is on the advisory board of USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Brookings Doha Center and is a member of the editorial board of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
A Phi Beta Kappa and a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Training Fellow, he is a recipient of numerous fellowships, including those from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council and the American Philosophical Society. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts of Sciences.
Gregorian was born in Tabriz, Iran, to Samuel B. Gregorian and Shushanik G. Mirzaian. His family belonged to the minority Armenian Christian population. At age six, Gregorian’s mother, then twenty-six, died in childbirth. His father distanced himself from Gregorian, and Gregorian and his younger sister Ojik were raised by Voski Mirzaian, his maternal grandmother.
Elementary and secondary education
Gregorian attended elementary school in Iran. In his autobiography, in discussing the events that led to his secondary education, Gregorian refers to several “strangers” who allowed this transition in his life to take place (and eventually move him to the United States). First, in 1948, Edgar Maloyan, the Gaullist French vice-consul in Tabriz at the time, suggested to Gregorian that he ought to go to Beirut, Lebanon to continue his education and provided him with three letters of introduction: one to the head of the Lebanese Internal Security Agency, one to the Collège Arménien, and one to a hotel where he could stay. Gregorian also procured the assistance of another stranger in Tabriz to obtain his passport to get 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.||”|
The head of the Armenian Relief Society of Lebanon—also a stranger to him—arranged to provide Gregorian with meals for a monthly cost of $6.15 as well as lodging. He learned French and completed his secondary education at the Collège Arménien in Beirut. Simon Vratsian, former prime minister of the pre-Soviet Democratic Republic of Armenia and then director of the college, advised Gregorian to attend a university in the United States in the vicinity of a large Armenian population. In 1956, he applied to only two universities—the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University—and was admitted by each. Stanford’s acceptance arrived by airmail months before Berkeley’s did by surface mail, at which point Gregorian had already enrolled at Stanford.
Gregorian was twenty-two when he began his undergraduate education at Stanford in 1956. He developed an affinity for European history due to his relationship with his freshman mentor Wayne S. Vucinich, a historian of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. He completed his B.A. in history and humanities with honors in 1958; the topic of his thesis was “Toynbee and Islam.”
While a student at Stanford, he again received provisions from Armenians who were strangers to him. He explains how this consistent benevolence reaffirmed his faith in the Armenian community in the diaspora and diaspora communities in general:
|“||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.||”|
He would go on to receive his Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford in 1964, writing a dissertation entitled “Traditionalism and Modernism in Islam.” The topic of his dissertation was related to an ongoing research project which he began in 1961, after being nominated for a Ford Foundation fellowship which took him to Afghanistan. He also used the experience for his first book, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1840-1946 (1969, Stanford University Press).
Prior to receiving his Ph.D., Gregorian had already begun teaching European and Middle Eastern history at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) upon returning to California from Afghanistan in 1962. He left San Francisco State in 1968 and for a brief stint served as Associate Professor at UCLA. That same year he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he remained until 1972. He received the title of Professor at UT Austin, and also served as the Director of Special Programs there from 1970-1972.
While at UT Austin, Gregorian had befriended John Silber, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who was fired by the administration over a disagreement about whether to increase the university’s student population and expand the university. Gregorian himself resigned in protest of the issue, but did not follow Silber and a number of other faculty members in their exodus to Boston University. Rather, in 1972, Gregorian accepted the position of Tarzian Professor of Armenian and Caucasian History and Professor of South Asian history at the University of Pennsylvania, an endowed professorship which allowed him to teach Armenian, South Asian, and European intellectual history.
When in 1974 the University of Pennsylvania merged its College for Men and College for Women, Gregorian was named Dean of the School of Arts and Science, the first person to hold this position. In 1978, he became Provost, the second highest administrative position at the university. By this point in his career, Gregorian was preparing to become the administrative head of an American university.
In 1980, then-president of the University of Pennsylvania Martin Meyerson announced his retirement, and Gregorian anticipated succeeding Meyerson. In fact, Gregorian was a candidate for the chancellorship at UC Berkeley but had withdrawn his candidacy in expectation of the appointment at Penn. But Gregorian was never appointed President of the University of Pennsylvania. “The story generally accepted,” writes one Stanford alumnus in a 2005 interview with Gregorian, “is that some Philadelphia mandarins on Penn’s board couldn’t tolerate a foreign name and accent—someone they saw as insufficiently polished and pedigreed—as president of their Ivy League institution.” In 1981, Gregorian resigned as Provost, and Sheldon Hackney was named President of the University of Pennsylvania that year.
New York Public Library
Following his stay at Penn, Gregorian found work outside the university walls. The New York Public Library had suffered budget cuts in the 1970s and, facing a vacancy in its presidency, needed a candidate who could raise money and revitalize the library. After some period of unsuccessful search, Gregorian was approached; of Gregorian, then library board chairman Andrew Heiskell said: “out of nowhere, a new candidate appeared. Instinctively I knew he was it.”
Gregorian arrived in 1981, facing deficits and a deteriorating architecture. Eight years later, the operation budget had doubled, four hundred new employees were hired, the buildings were cleaned and restored, and $327 million had been raised. Local philanthropists and city leaders also agreed that Gregorian restored the NYPL into a cultural landmark. He left the library in 1989, “eager to return to the academic world.”
Vartan Gregorian was formally inaugurated as president of Brown in 1989. During his tenure, he instituted the President’s Lecture Series, which brought prominent scholars, leaders, and authors to campus. He presided over the building of a residence quadrangle that now bears his name, and taught classes. He often spoke admiringly to the Brown community of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Gregorian also led a capital campaign that raised well over $500 million. By the end of his presidency, Brown’s endowment had grown to nearly $1 billion.
President Gregorian’s tenure was marked by increased international prominence for Brown and a significant rise in demand for admission. Equally, the student body grew more diverse than ever. Gregorian informed the Brown community of his resignation on January 7, 1997, and he left Brown in September of that year to assume leadership of the Carnegie Corporation in New York. He made and kept a promise to attend the commencement ceremony and shake hands with all undergraduate students who had matriculated during his presidency.
Awards and honors
President Bill Clinton awarded Vartan Gregorian the National Humanities Medal. President George W. Bush later awarded Dr. Gregorian the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On June 17, 2009, The White House announced that President Barack Obama had appointed Gregorian to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. Gregorian has also been decorated by the French, Italian, Austrian and Portuguese governments.
Vartan Gregorian is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for Service to the Arts.
He has been honored by various cultural and professional associations, including the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, the Players Club, PEN-American Center, Literacy Volunteers of New York, the American Institute of Architects and the Charles A. Dana Foundation. He has been honored by the states of New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, and the cities of Fresno, Austin, New York, Providence and San Francisco.
Honoris Causa degrees
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Brown University
- City University of New York
- Dartmouth College
- Drew University
- Fordham University
- The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
- Johns Hopkins University
- The Juilliard School
- Keio University
- New York University
- Rutgers University
- San Francisco State University
- Tufts University
- University of Aberdeen
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Miami
- University of Notre Dame
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of St. Andrews
- University of Edinburgh