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Vartan Gregorian championed a strong HE system in Africa – University World News

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  29 April 2021

Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the former president of Brown University and the New York Public Library in the United States, illustrious scholar and steward of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy, died aged 87 on 15 April. Gregorian had been hospitalised for testing related to stomach pain.

Gregorian, a distinguished historian and humanities scholar, was the 12th president of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

During his tenure, from 1997 to the present, he championed the causes of education, immigration and international peace and security – key concerns of the foundation’s founder, Andrew Carnegie.

Like Carnegie, Gregorian was a naturalised United States citizen, whose experiences in a new country helped shape him, including his belief in the great importance of immigrant civic integration to the health of American democracy.

Often described as a ‘citizen of the world’, Gregorian was born to Armenian parents in Tabriz, Iran, a city he described in his autobiography, The Road to Home: My life and times, as “at the crossroads of expanding or contending empires and rival kingdoms”.

He attended elementary school in Tabriz and spent many hours in the Armenian library, a place of peace and solitude where he developed his deep love of reading as well as his concept of the library as a sacred space and repository of the world’s memories.

He received his secondary education at the Collège Arménian in Beirut, Lebanon, overcoming many obstacles, including his father’s great reluctance, in order to leave Iran.

In Beirut, he added French and English to the five languages (Armenian, Persian, Russian, Turkish and Arabic) in which he was proficient.

Stanford University

In 1956, Gregorian moved to California to attend Stanford University. At the urging of his adviser, he majored in history and the humanities, graduating with honours two years later. He was awarded a PhD from Stanford in 1964.

Years later, when celebrating the university’s centennial, he gave a speech saying, “At Stanford, I learned a fundamental lesson: that we cannot and must not lose our sense of history and our memory for they constitute our identity.

“We cannot be prisoners of the present and wander out of history. For a society without a deep historical memory, the future ceases to exist and the present becomes a meaningless cacophony.”

Gregorian’s PhD thesis topic was traditionalism and modernism in Afghanistan.

Although he had expected to return to Beirut to teach high school, he received a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Development Training Fellowship, which changed Gregorian’s career plans by underwriting his research trip to Afghanistan.

This research also formed the basis of his first book, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of reform and modernization, 1880-1946, which traces the evolution of the modern Afghan state through the politics of reform and modernisation.

To many scholars, the book is as unique today as when it was first published. It remains the only broad work on Afghan history that considers ethnicity rather than religion as the defining influence over the course of the country’s history.

Teaching career

Gregorian had a distinguished teaching career: he taught European and Middle Eastern history at San Francisco State University; the University of California in Los Angeles and the University of Texas in Austin.

In 1968, Gregorian became one of 10 faculty members in the nation awarded a US$10,000, tax-free EH Harbison Distinguished Teaching Award from the Danforth Foundation which, combined with the imminent publication of his book, led to his recruitment by the University of Texas.

There, Gregorian also assumed his first administrative position as director of special programmes of the college of arts and sciences.

In 1972, he moved from Texas to the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania to become Tarzian Professor of History and professor of South Asian history.

He was appointed the founding dean of the faculty of arts and sciences in 1974, where he met the critical challenge of consolidating the university’s five autonomous organisational units, with their separate administrative degree requirements and goals, into an organic, intellectual core of the university.

During this period, Gregorian developed his talents for recruitment and fundraising — work he found unexpectedly fulfilling. Four years later he became the 23rd provost of the university, responsible for guiding its overall educational mission, a post he held until 1981.

It was during his tenure at Penn that Gregorian applied to become a United States citizen. At the official ceremony, he was asked to deliver remarks on behalf of the newly naturalised citizens who had just taken the oath.

His speech expressed Gregorian’s commitment to his adopted country: “Like many other immigrant forefathers of ours, we have come, not only to enjoy the benefits of America but to contribute to its development, to its growth and to its welfare. We have come to contribute to the achievement of what is left undone or unfinished in the agenda of American democracy. We have come to contribute to that perfect union.”

The New York Public Library

Gregorian’s next position, from 1981 to 1989, was as president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library, a role that made him well known throughout New York City and the nation at large.

An institution with a network of four research libraries and 83 circulating libraries serving every sector of society, its main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, popularly known as ‘The People’s Palace’, was a city treasure as well as a national and international institution of great distinction.

Gregorian was proud to be the first head of the Library not born in the United States. When he assumed the presidency, the institution was in crisis: its funding had dried up, the main building was in severe disrepair, and its hours of operation had been cut back.

Gregorian reached out to the city’s political and philanthropic communities and, according to Librarian of Congress James H Billington, “enticed, inveigled, and corralled the state of New York and New York Public Library to provide the model of how you could revive a great institution”.

In all, Gregorian raised US$327 million in a public-private partnership, allowing the library to become, once again, the intellectual, scholarly and cultural repository of the nation.

President of Brown University

Having achieved his goals for the Library, in 1989 Gregorian was eager to return to academia, and accepted the presidency of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Once again he would be leading a financially stressed institution, but it was a challenge he was ready to tackle, believing that, although Brown had limited resources, it had unlimited aspirations.

Brown offered true diversity; its student body was so varied that the understanding of other people, customs, beliefs and ways of looking at life could be absorbed naturally, Gregorian believed, and he nurtured this environment dedicated to inquiry and to the liberal arts.

At the same time, he ran a successful capital campaign that doubled the university’s endowment, raising more than US$500 million, and brought in 275 new faculty members, including 72 new professors.

Gregorian left behind a flourishing campus and academic community when he returned to New York City in 1997 to become president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

President of Carnegie Corporation

Andrew Carnegie established Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911 to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding”.

It was the first organisation to apply what the founder called the principles of ‘scientific philanthropy’ — meaning investing for the long term in the issues he cared about most, including education and international peace.

Gregorian, having served at the helm of other non-profit organisations, was no stranger to American philanthropy.

Still, he often remarked that his years as the leader of Carnegie Corporation greatly widened his perspective about the impact and importance of philanthropy as practised by institutions such as foundations as well as by private citizens, rich and poor, noting that “the societal benefits of all this philanthropy are beyond measure”.

Gregorian viewed foundations as stewards of public trusts, and stressed the need for philanthropies to be transparent, or have ‘glass pockets’.

Under his leadership, the foundation’s grant-making continued its mission of addressing contemporary problems with cutting-edge strategies that drew strength from deep knowledge and scholarship.

When he joined the corporation, Gregorian led an in-depth review of the scope and effectiveness of its grant-making that resulted in a new focus on working with partner foundations and greater emphasis on the evaluation and dissemination of programmatic work.

Ten years later, the review process was repeated, yielding the additional goals of sharpening the focus of grant-making and building on the corporation’s strength as an incubator of innovative ideas and transformative scholarship.

National and international reach

Gregorian’s influence could be traced across all the corporation’s programme work, national and international.

For example, early in his tenure, the foundation embarked on an ambitious programme to strengthen higher education in the former Soviet Union, concentrating on the humanities and the social sciences — fields that would be essential to the societal transformations under way — rejuvenating scholarship in the newly independent states and establishing university centres for interdisciplinary area studies, network building and promoting scholarly communication.

The goal was nothing less than the reinvigoration of the post-Communist Russian university system as an underpinning for the nation’s social and intellectual future.

The intent was not only to benefit the emerging democracy in Russia but to help shore up stability in the region, which would benefit international peace.

The state of American education was also his priority.

Early in Gregorian’s tenure, the corporation’s domestic grant-making included new initiatives aimed at improving teacher education, advancing adolescent literacy and meeting the most significant challenges facing large urban high schools.

As it became clear that the US was losing its competitive advantage because students were insufficiently prepared in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields, Carnegie Corporation joined with the Institute for Advanced Study to create a commission comprising some of the nation’s most distinguished mathematicians, scientists, educators, scholars, business leaders and public officials.

Their task was to determine the best ways to enhance the capacity of schools and universities to generate innovative strategies across all fields that would increase access to high-quality education for every student in every classroom.


In response to trends of democratisation and reform in a growing number of African countries, Gregorian partnered Carnegie Corporation of New York with the Ford, John D and Catherine T MacArthur, Rockefeller, Hewlett Packard, and Kresge foundations to form what became known as the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA).

The foundations believed Africa’s future rested with the development of its intellectual capital through strong higher education systems, not just with the development of basic education. Altogether, PHEA grants to nine countries totalled US$440 million over 10 years.

According to a report titled Accomplishments of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2000-2010: Report on a decade of collaborative foundation investment, the nine African countries included Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana.

These countries have a combined population of 459 million. In a continent with a tertiary education enrolment ratio of only 3%, the PHEA has, directly and indirectly, improved conditions for 4.1 million African students enrolled at 379 universities and colleges, according to the report.

PHEA focused on several priorities within higher education, including bandwidth, capacity-building in ICT, the use of educational technologies in teaching and learning, gender equity and inclusion of marginalised groups, physical infrastructure improvements and nurturing a next generation of young African academics.

Another area of grant-making, policy research and advocacy for higher education included funding support to University World News – Africa, which has become a leading news source on higher education on the continent since its establishment in 2008 and is still funded by the corporation.

This came about by means of PHEA’s funding of the establishment of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA), a network of researchers in eight African countries and which included University World News – Africa.

From 2010 to 2019, Carnegie Corporation of New York invested a further US$134.4 million in strengthening higher education and research capacity in African countries. A total of 164 grants were awarded in this area, 59% awarded directly to African organisations, according to a forthcoming report.

The two largest non-African organisation recipients, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Institute of International Education, were administrators of major Africa-based fellowship programmes.

Grant-making during this period continued to build on developing and retaining the next generation of African academics (US$84.16 million across 64 grants), building connections between members of the African academic diaspora and African universities (US$20.35 across 14 grants) and higher education policy and research (US$15.59 million across 56 grants).

Recognition for a life’s work

When Gregorian joined the corporation, its Strengthening US Democracy programme was already in existence, but, in keeping with the foundation’s tradition of responding to the country’s most pressing needs, it grew under Gregorian’s leadership, adding a mandate to develop programmes advancing immigrant naturalisation and civic integration.

He instituted the Carnegie Scholars programme, an initiative that was especially near to his heart, to support innovative and pathbreaking public scholarship that would extend the boundaries of the corporation’s grant-making; it eventually came to focus exclusively on Islam and the modern world.

Gregorian also found a way to bring together several themes that infused the corporation’s work — education, civics, journalism and collaboration with peer foundations — through the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education to improve journalism education in the United States.

He also found new ways to work collaboratively with the more than 20 sister organisations established by Andrew Carnegie. For example, he inaugurated the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2001, which honours philanthropists from all over the world, chosen by the Carnegie organisations, who have dedicated their private wealth to the public good.

President George W Bush awarded Gregorian the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, the nation’s highest civilian award. In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal, and President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 2009.

He received the Council on Foundations’ Distinguished Service Award, the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crown Leadership Award and the Africa-America Institute Award for Leadership in Higher Education Philanthropy.

He was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honour and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts.

In 2017, Gregorian was awarded France’s medal of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour in recognition of his efforts to strengthen US-France relations. The president of the Republic of Armenia bestowed upon him the Order of Honour as a ‘thank you’ for Gregorian’s service to the country.

In addition, Gregorian was decorated by the French, Italian, Austrian, and Portuguese governments. He received scores of honorary degrees and was honoured by countless cultural and professional associations.

Gregorian also served on numerous boards: the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the American Academy in Berlin, the J Paul Getty Trust, Aga Khan University, the Qatar Foundation, the McGraw-Hill Companies, Brandeis University, Human Rights Watch, the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Alexandria, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.

In 2015, Gregorian co-founded the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, which was created on behalf of survivors of the Armenian genocide and seeks to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. It administers the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, for which Gregorian served on the selection committee.

He was a recipient of numerous fellowships, including those from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Philosophical Society. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

Vartan Gregorian was predeceased by his wife, Clare Russell Gregorian. He is survived by his three sons: Vahé Gregorian and his wife Cindy Billhartz Gregorian of Kansas City, Missouri; Raffi Gregorian of New York, NY; and Dareh Gregorian and his wife Maggie Haberman Gregorian of Brooklyn, NY. He is also survived by five grandchildren: Juan, Maximus, Sophie, Miri and Dashiell; and a sister, Ojik Arakelian of Massachusetts and Iran.

This is an edited version of the obituary published by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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