Vartan Gregorian
Vartan Gregorian; drawing by David Levine

The first time I met Vartan Gregorian he gave me a big bear hug. I had known from Philip Hamburger’s profile of Gregorian in a 1986 New Yorker that he tended to hug people, but I thought that meant he hugged people he knew or was at least acquainted with, not people he had never met before. Hugging people, however, is part of Gregorian’s charm, a charm that is backed up by a remarkable intelligence and a driving ambition.

Although his autobiography is much more formal and sedate than the gushing volubility of Gregorian’s recollections recorded in Hamburger’s profile, it is equally honest and straightforward. In the book Gregorian tells us how he made his way up from his impoverished beginnings in the provincial city of Tabriz in northern Iran to become not only a famous American educator but also an exponent of American values.

Growing up in Tabriz, Gregorian always thought of America as a dream. America, he writes, was always “a fantasy built and rebuilt in my mind and psyche.” Although like many other immigrants he mainly created that fantasy from the scores of American movies he saw, “in the United States,” he writes, “I saw hope. I perceived the United States as a place where dreams did not die, and one did not have to live off the flesh of dead dreams.” One of the first books he read when he arrived in America was Elmer Davis’s But We Were Born Free, a defense of personal liberty. For him the “joy in being an American has been the joy of freedom.” He was shocked to discover when he first arrived in America in 1956 that African-Americans were not born as free as other Americans; but apart from this, his early impressions of most Americans as hard-working, friendly people who don’t like to be bossed around or told what to do have stayed with him, reinforced again and again by what he calls “American openness, generosity, and the volunteer spirit.”

Despite his obscure and poor beginnings Gregorian has never thought of himself as a victim overcoming adversity. He knows he is too talented for that. His is the traditional American success story, modeled on that of Benjamin Franklin—the bright young boy who read book after book and rose out of nowhere to become one of America’s preeminent citizens. He calls his autobiography “The Road to Home,” and his home is America. Although he is as much a citizen of the world as anyone could be (he went to school in several different countries and speaks seven languages), Gregorian loves America as perhaps only an immigrant who has made it can.

Although Gregorian never tells us the actual date of his birth (indeed he is sometimes as casual in omitting dates in this memoir as he notoriously is in omitting articles in his speech), we can deduce that it was sometime in 1934. Iran in the 1930s was predominantly Muslim, but it included many minorities; the largest and one of the oldest was the Christian Armenian community into which Gregorian was born.

Being Armenian has been crucial to Gregorian. It has given him a stabilizing sense of who he is amid the shifting languages, events, and locales of his life. Throughout the autobiography he speaks often of his Armenian heritage and the ways in which Armenians from different countries relate to one another. He tells us that he has spent a good deal of time reading and rereading the observations of the Armenian writer William Saroyan on “this race, this small tribe of unimportant people,” who, wrote Saroyan, cannot be destroyed. “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.”

Without the help of numerous Armenians throughout his career, Gregorian could never have achieved what he has. Time and again he tells us how one Armenian or another—a friend, a relative, or a complete stranger—encouraged him, promoted him, financed him simply because he was a fellow Armenian. An Armenian pharmacist and the leader of the Armenian community in Tabriz encouraged him at the age of fourteen to write articles for the Armenian newspaper. A short time later the vice-consul of France in Tabriz, a French Armenian, wrote letters of introduction and arranged for him to go to a French-Armenian lycée in Beirut, the Collège Arménian, to further his education.

In Beirut two Armenian strangers tutored him in French, one of the languages, along with English and Arabic, that he had to learn in his first year at the Collège. So too did the Armenian wife of one of his teachers arrange for his room and board in Beirut. His greatest patron, Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the short-lived Armenian Republic (1918–1920), said to the supporters of the Collège that he directed, “Build and expand. Don’t worry, the Armenian nation will take care of you.” This could be applied to Gregorian himself. Throughout at least the early parts of his career Gregorian always discovered an Armenian ready to lend him a hand.


All this patronage from fellow Armenians was essential since his father, who does not come off very well in this memoir, refused to help him. It is not surprising therefore that Vratzian became Gregorian’s “surrogate father.” Gregorian’s mother died when he was seven, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, who emerges as one of the most extraordinary characters in his story of his life. His grandmother had a hard life and suffered calamity after calamity—losing her husband, six of her seven children, her home and village—yet, as Gregorian recounts in wonder, she never complained and bore all her miseries in private. Since his father, who seems to have resembled Dickens’s father in his jovial nonchalant manner amid many business failures, took little or no interest in the young Vartan’s upbringing, it was his grandmother who raised him and his sister.

Although his grandmother was illiterate, she always valued learning, something Gregorian’s father seemed not to care much about: he had no books in the house, bought no newspapers, and, though a translator of English himself, never responded to Gregorian’s desperate requests to be taught English. “To this day,” Gregorian writes, “it is a great puzzle to me that my father did not take an interest in our education.” Although his grandmother could not read to him and his sister, she told them stories and instilled in him a sense of character and honor. Gregorian suggests that this illiterate and superstitious peasant woman with remarkable dignity was the most important influence in his life.

Gregorian graduated with honors from the Collège Arménian in 1955, but, as he sadly relates, without a single relative present. He was embarrassed that he was several years older than many of his classmates. But after all, he explains,

I had lost at least three years in transit from an Armenian-Russian, to a Turkish, to a Persian, and then to a Lebanese school. I had been in three different systems that, among other things, required knowledge of Armenian, Russian, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, French, and English.

When Mr. Vratzian decided that Gregorian ought to go to the United States for further education, several American graduate students at the Collège expressed concern about this transplanted Iranian’s command of English. “They were right to worry,” Gregorian recalls.

In America it was Armenian strangers again who eased his way. He had always thought of diasporas as limited and parochial. But now he came to realize that he had been wrong. “Diasporas tend to be cosmopolitan, international. In any distant region, country, or city, one has an instant link to one’s diaspora through one’s extended, dispersed family, one’s religion, cultural institutions, language, press, and, of course, commerce. An immigrant, a student, a visitor finds an easy foothold, a pathway, a bridge to a foreign country.”

In 1956 he entered Stanford University and flourished. “I studied hard, I partied hard, I worked hard.” Being a foreign student who knew several languages became an asset, “for I could be in two or more places simultaneously: I could compare my experiences, could see things from different perspectives, and be both observer and participant.” He tells us about his favorite professors and some of the stimulating courses he took; he even takes five pages to describe a research paper he wrote on the character of Karl Marx, only to conclude that it was a “crude attempt at psychohistory.” Nevertheless, the professor gave the paper an A.

Gregorian does not hide the fact that he performed superbly at Stanford. That he rushed through the undergraduate program in two years and was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in history in 1958 was among the least of his triumphs. He became president of the campus’s International Center and received an award “for the student who has contributed most to international understanding.” Throughout his autobiography he has a major problem with his own brilliance: he can’t avoid the displays of egotism inherent in a life full of awards, achievements, and A papers. He would have been better off if he could have written the autobiography of someone else, who could then describe him in the way Gertrude Stein was able to use The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to describe her own genius without seeming to take direct responsibility for what she had written.

The best Gregorian can do to solve this problem is repeatedly to poke fun at himself and his shaky English. He tells us, for example, that when he was president of the International Center at Stanford, “I was asked to welcome the ‘top brass’ of the university. I had heard of ‘brass tacks’ but not ‘top brass,’ so I welcomed the ‘brass tacks’ of Stanford University.” These malapropisms, indeed, his many humorous misunderstandings of American customs, became part of Gregorian’s charm: he eventually refined them into an art.


While at Stanford, he bought a car, learned about dating and necking, and had what appears to have been a hectic social life. He organized scores of parties and became well known and well liked: he quotes a Stanford chaplain who called him “a very popular young man on campus.” To the consternation of his future wife, Clare Russell, an undergraduate whom he was taking out, he always parked illegally on campus and got away with it. “The fact is,” he tells us, “that almost all Stanford policemen liked me, my car was well known to them, and they almost always overlooked my parking infractions.”

He married Clare in 1960, to the great dismay of his Armenian friends who expected him to marry an Armenian. At the same time Gregorian received a Ford Foreign Area Training Fellowship to travel abroad to carry on research for his dissertation on the history of Afghanistan between 1880 and 1946. He and Clare moved to Beirut, where their first son was born. He then set off for Kabul to do more research. On the way he stopped off in Iran to see his father and for the last time his beloved grandmother. Tabriz, his formerly great city, now seemed to be merely a big village, especially since his achievements so far were enough to make him the toast of the Armenian community. He proudly tells us that he was now called the “nation’s lighthouse,” but tries to soften the remark by noting Lloyd George’s comparing Marshal Haig’s mind in World War I to a lighthouse: “Once in a while there was a light beam, followed by prolonged periods of darkness.”

In Afghanistan, then a monarchy, he ingratiated himself with influential people in his usual gregarious manner and used what he calls “self-authorization” to make his way into the Afghan libraries and archives. When he arrived back in Kabul after a brief trip, he was not only welcomed by several ambassadors but was introduced to relatives of the king and some Afghan intellectuals. Even the Hotel Kabul gave him a royal reception. “Everybody from the manager to the director to the cooks and waiters were delighted to see me.” Gregorian can get away with such self-centered statements because he makes the reader believe they were true.

In 1962 the Gregorians returned to the United States where he took a position teaching at San Francisco State College. Although he had read a good deal about America’s history and culture, like most academics, he was wholly unprepared for the outburst of student activism of the 1960s. The student movement that began at Berkeley quickly spread to San Francisco State; in fact, the college became a center of student demonstrations, leading to the resignation in rapid succession of two presidents and the eventual appointment as president of a hard-line Asian-American professor, Samuel Hayakawa, who overnight became a folk hero for many Californians clamoring for law and order, including Governor Ronald Reagan.

Having been a young professor at the college, Gregorian evokes the chaotic atmosphere of the time. He had been appointed a faculty adviser to the Maoist Progressive Labor Party, whose members took their cues from the Beijing Review. He studied their literature as well as that of other radical groups. In talks with activist students he defended their right to free speech but “challenged their lack of knowledge…their theses.” He told them, “Even if you are a revolutionary you have to be an educated one.” Hayakawa wasn’t quite ready for what he was getting into. Just before Gregorian left San Francisco State, Hayakawa phoned him to ask, “What does SDS stand for?”

After completing his dissertation and receiving a Ph.D. Gregorian returned to the Middle East in the mid-1960s to work on a second project, a study of Soviet Armenia between 1920 and 1960. This time he brought Clare and his children to meet his relatives in Iran; that Clare had learned to speak Armenian and to cook Armenian food and had brought their two sons to be baptized in Tabriz won them over. Gregorian describes his trip to Soviet Armenia and his discovery of more relatives. He had to act discreetly so as not to offend the Soviet authorities. The experience demonstrated to him once again how the Armenian heritage brought peoples of different countries together, and it renewed his desire to bring his “multiple legacies” to bear on his teaching. “They had given me a healthy perspective toward all orthodoxies, a belief that they were all to be tested.”

After returning to the United States, Clare encouraged him to think beyond teaching in a small college. Gregorian, thanks to his extraordinary ability to make connections, became a friend of David Riesman, who was spending a year’s leave on the West Coast. Riesman, writes Gregorian, “instilled in me the self-confidence that I needed to enter the domain of the university.” Riesman became one of his many champions, several times recommending him for jobs.

In 1968 Gregorian received the prestigious E.H. Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching given by the Danforth Foundation. This led to an offer to join the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. Perhaps because of the many cowboy movies he had seen as a boy, he felt immediately at home in Texas. “I became a chauvinist about Texas and a booster of the strengths, the qualities, and the potential of the University of Texas.” He learned about the politics of faculties, of administrations, and of regents. Mostly, he says, he learned about the uses of power. The rest of his career was largely devoted to acquiring and exercising power, which is what gives his autobiography much of its interest.

The Texas situation, which he describes frankly and in detail, was a mess. Pitted against one another were John Silber, the hard-driving, reform-minded dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Norman Hackerman, the cautious president of the university; and Frank Erwin, the opinionated and strong-willed chairman of the Board of Regents who wanted to reduce the power of the faculty. Gregorian became one of Silber’s protégés and found himself in the middle of a power struggle. Someone once said that academic politics was so vicious because the stakes were so small. But in this case the stakes did not seem small at all. Nothing less than the autonomy of the University of Texas was at stake.

Erwin managed to pressure President Hackerman to resign and to fire Silber. As a protest against this meddling by the chairman of the Board of Regents, Gregorian resigned from his administrative position as director of honors programs, but not from the faculty, which, calling him “the conscience of the faculty,” kept electing him to various committees and offices. Erwin, so Gregorian was told, was furious with him and put him on his “enemies list.” But the chairman, Gregorian writes proudly, “did not know how to deal with me.” Erwin was frustrated. “Gregorian, that smart son of a bitch,” he reportedly said, “—he’s never made a mistake.”

Realizing that he enjoyed all this manipulating and politicking, and frightened that he did so, Gregorian decided in 1971 to leave Texas for the University of Pennsylvania. A colleague summed up Gregorian’s political career at Texas:

Talking fast, laughing headily, he had a faith in the country and the freedom of the mind, quali-fied by a devilishly penetrating and mainly accurate knowledge of the workings of selfish power. Unfailingly earnest, he struggled against the weltering currents of self-interests and deceits, and when the cause was lost, he left sadly.

Gregorian entitles the chapter dealing with his years at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia “The City of Brotherly Love.” It was anything but. The University of Pennsylvania, unlike the University of Texas, was sure of its standing as an independent major university. Penn hired Gregorian to teach Armenian history; his professorship had been generously funded by an Armenian trustee, who naturally befriended Gregorian and even gave him the use of a new car. The president of Penn, Martin Meyerson, perhaps influenced by David Riesman, immediately began consulting Gregorian on a host of educational issues and appointing him to various positions. Before two years were up, Gregorian had become dean of the newly created Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Gregorian quotes the statements of praise his appointment received; the one he was most proud of and that had “the biggest impact” was “the outlandish, most generous statement of John Silber,” who had recently become president of Boston University: “Vartan Gregorian is one of the most imaginative and learned men I know. … He has the innocence of a baby, the integrity and dedication of a saint, and the political skills of a Talleyrand.”

He needed those skills in forming the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He appointed twenty-eight new department chairs, revamped the system for advising undergraduates, and set up a development program for the Arts and Sciences. “The successful integration, functioning, and performance of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” he says, “surprised everyone. It required tact, humor, compassion.” He was not above personally going to many faculty members and asking for their help. He even put an extra $10,000 in the retirement fund of his opponent for the deanship in order to buy his support. By standing up for the Arts and Sciences against the other schools in the University, such as the Wharton School of Business, he earned the faculty’s trust and support.

He also discovered that he was one of the rare people who actually enjoy fund-raising and are good at it. He was full of plans and projects for improving the university and the city of Philadelphia. During the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Inde-pendence he even had “the crazy idea” of educating Philadelphia’s bus and cab drivers and policemen in the history of the United States. But when the unions asked to be paid overtime for their participation his hopes were dashed.

In 1978 a student uprising demanding more say in university government led to the resignation of the provost of the university, and Gregorian was soon appointed as his replacement. Eleven deans supported his candidacy, he tells us, and “news of my appointment was received with much enthusiasm.” With President Meyerson’s announcement that he would retire in 1981, Gregorian and many others expected that he would probably be his replacement. The events that followed became the most painful in his career, and clearly reveal some of the brutalities of academic life. Indeed, Gregorian’s account of what happened to his candidacy for the presidency of the Uni- versity of Pennsylvania is one of the most blunt and forthright descriptions of academic politics I have ever read. He names persons and places blame where he thinks it belongs, mainly, it seems, with Paul Miller, a well-to-do businessman who was chairman of the Board of Trustees.

During 1979 and 1980 Gregorian was offered the chancellorship of the University of California at Berkeley. Everyone at Penn told him to decline the offer, including, he says, Paul Miller. He was not promised anything at Penn, but many people said that he would become the next president of Penn when Meyerson retired. Gregorian had a lot of support among the trustees of the university, even though some thought his management style was disorganized.

Gregorian found the process of the search for a president excruciating. Moreover, his plans, as provost, for a new athletic director alienated some trustees. He writes that another trustee told him that “several of us don’t think you have the social graces to be president of the University of Pennsylvania.” Others, he heard, thought him “too ethnic,” with a “thick accent” and “unruly hair.” But what in the end broke his heart, he says, was being misled by Paul Miller.

He had trusted Miller, he writes. Although Miller had assured him that he was a leading candidate for the presidency and had advised him to decline the Berkeley offer, Gregorian had made only one request. If he were not selected, he said, all he wanted was some warning so he could exit gracefully and honorably. But on September 15, 1980, Miller suddenly informed him that he was not to be president and asked him to support the person who would be announced as president that day, even though Miller would not confide in him the name of the successful candidate.

“I felt sad, stupid, and dejected,” writes Gregorian. He had lost the presidencies of both Berkeley and Penn. But what really galled him was “the calculated humiliation,” the refusal to give him an opportunity to withdraw quietly and not be openly rejected. The next day he resigned as provost effective at the next meeting of the Board of Trustees in October. He told Meyerson he “could cope with rejection but not insult and humiliation.” Students and many members of the faculty protested the decision not to hire Gregorian, but he told them to end the protest in no uncertain terms—even Miller praised his statement as “full of dignity and grace.”

What followed out of this depth of despair has become legendary. In 1981 he became president of the New York Public Library, certainly the most important step he has taken in his extraordinary career. By the time he resigned the presidency eight and a half years later he had become not only much admired in New York but nationally prominent. In 1981 the library was in a desperate situation. Its buildings were crumbling, its collections were deteriorating, its staff was demoralized, and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. With the help of the trustees of the library, including Andrew Heiskell and Richard Salomon, and contributions from many foundations and prominent New Yorkers, Gregorian raised $327 million in public and private funds. He expresses particular gratitude to Brooke Astor, who, along with her foundation, strongly supported him and the library. He recruited poets, writers, scholars, artists, and scientists as surrogate spokesmen for the library, and mobilized New York public opinion, including The New York Times, on its behalf. By the time he left the presidency the library’s endowment had nearly doubled, and he was being portrayed in the press “as fund-raiser par excellence, a cultural impresario, a high-society icon.” By rescuing the library from the circumstances into which it had slipped over the previous decades and restoring its central position in the cultural and educational life of the city, Gregorian accomplished what he correctly predicted would be called a “miracle.”

After his success at the New York Public Library, his assuming the presidency of Brown University in 1989 was bound to be something of an anticlimax. He turned down the presidency of the University of Michigan and accepted Brown, partly because, as friends told him, “Brown is small and weak, you may be able to leave your imprint on it and take the institution to another level of excellence.” Gregorian certainly left his imprint on Brown in the nine years of his tenure. He raised a billon dollars, and Brown’s endowment, like that of many institutions, grew enormously in the 1990s. He provided many new endowed chairs for professors, enlivened the intellectual atmosphere on the campus, and became very popular with the students and the faculty, mainly by continually telling them both that each was the heart and soul of the university.

In 1997 he became the twelfth president of the Carnegie Corporation, which enabled him to return to New York and, instead of raising money, to give it away. Inevitably, he has come to identify with Andrew Carnegie, the nineteenth-century, Scottish-born, self-made steel magnate and philanthropist who set up public libraries throughout the United States:

We were both boys from poor families; boys who loved books but could not afford to buy, or even rent, them; young men who traveled to another country to find their destinies. We both knew, in our hearts and in our bones, that education would save us and direct us.

Most important, perhaps, “we both loved books and libraries.” It seems apt that the man from Tabriz should end his autobiography, but perhaps not his career, as the president of the foundation that Andrew Carnegie created.

This Issue

September 25, 2003