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The Lionheart

Whether he's reimagining a university, reviving New York culture or promoting global understanding, for Vartan Gregorian there's no such word as can't.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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By Jesse Oxfeld

The second saturday of the public art project The Gates was a cold, crisp, and brilliantly sunny winter day in New York. It was the sort of morning that tempts you to bundle up, go out and do something—and Christo and Jeanne-Claude's whimsically billowing orange banners brought countless viewers to Central Park. New Yorkers of all stripes wandered Olmsted's 18th-century paths, enjoying the communal spectacle and admiring the saffron space-age fabric hovering overhead. A few blocks away, one of New York's great public figures—once a poor immigrant and now a pillar of the city's intellectual and cultural life, who counts The Gates artists among his many friends—was at work in his quiet office 26 floors above Madison Avenue.

This is not unusual for Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Gregorian, '58, PhD '64, has long worked 16-hour days, six days a week. Before he took over the 94-year-old foundation started by Andrew Carnegie to support education and world peace, he spent 8 ½ years as president of Brown University, where he more than doubled its endowment and recruited 270 new faculty members. He had moved to Providence, R.I., from the New York Public Library, which he saved from bankruptcy in the 1980s, and previously served six years as provost of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Saturdays, all day, I read, I organize my thoughts, and I clip a lot of things for speeches," Gregorian tells his visitor.

In person, the 71-year-old Armenian immigrant seems to confirm everything people say about him. A former editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald describes him as "this lovable teddy-bear figure." Education professor Bill Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and chairman of Brown's education department under Gregorian, speaks of his "down-to-earth" human touch. "He absolutely loves people, and he loves young people," Damon says. In a 1986 New Yorker profile, Philip Hamburger recalled first meeting Gregorian: he "didn't walk over to greet me—he bounded over, rapidly, with short, rolling movements."

He doesn't quite bound anymore, but he walks with the same short, rolling movements, and he's effusively friendly. Books are everywhere in the cluttered corner office—on shelves and tables, in piles. His desk and credenza are blanketed with papers and mementoes; on his computer screen is a filled e-mail inbox. Though he has been a high-powered administrator for some time, it's the office of an academic. And with messy, thinning, silver-gray hair, a full, fleshy face behind a white goatee and dramatic, bushy eyebrows, he still looks the part.

Certainly, he thinks of himself as an educator. "With the exception of the last eight years, while I've been here," he says, "I've always taught." Trained as a historian, Gregorian speaks more than a half-dozen languages. He has divergent interests—history, international relations, human rights, education—and has remained engaged with them, even authoring a small book, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith (Brookings Institution Press, 2003) that nicely marries his longstanding academic expertise to current issues and Carnegie's interest in advancing world peace.

At the same time, Gregorian largely lives the jet-set life of a mover and shaker, which is why the quiet Saturdays are so important. In a typical 10-day span, he went to Los Angeles to deliver a speech at USC and meet with the heads of three other foundations, returned to New York to host a Carnegie Forum on Education, traveled to Vermont to dedicate a Middlebury College library, debated Bill O'Reilly on a BBC program taped at Harvard, and made it to the National Arts Awards dinner, back in New York. There were trips for speeches and conferences in Washington, D.C., Greenville, S.C., and Scotland, and visits to his office by the president of Iceland and U.S. politicians and policy makers. He took part in tapings for forthcoming documentaries and attended formal dinners. And squeezed it all in between routine staff meetings and reviews of the grants Carnegie funds with more than $80 million annually.

Gregorian's thrice-weekly sessions with a personal trainer take place at 6 a.m. "because each [other] time she mentioned, I said, 'I'm busy, I cannot do that.'" He also makes time to go to the theater with his wife, Clare Russell, '59, regularly. "One of the reasons I've survived," Gregorian confides, "is because I don't know what I'm doing until the night before, when I'm handed a card."

It's an amazing life by any standard, but more so considering where Gregorian started. He was born in 1934 in Tabriz, Iran, a minority Armenian Christian in a multiethnic city. Between work and war, his father was a distant presence. Gregorian's mother died when he was 7; he was raised by his maternal grandmother, a wise and beloved presence in his life. An illiterate peasant who cleaned homes for richer Tabrizians, she was a religious woman with a store of aphorisms that have long guided Gregorian. In his 2003 memoir, The Road to Home (Simon & Schuster), he quotes some favorites: "You don't build a reputation or make a name for yourself on what you are going to do." "An unkind word is like a thrown stone: It cannot be called back." "Don't insult a crocodile before you cross a river."

Gregorian wanted to title his memoir The Kindness of Strangers. ("But my editor said no," he says, with some frustration. "Blanche Dubois.") Indeed, kind strangers have helped Gregorian incalculably since adolescence. Through an acquaintance, he met the French vice consul, who took an interest in his education and offered to send him to Beirut, "le petit Paris." At the time, the 14-year-old wasn't getting along well with his father and stepmother; this was an ideal opportunity to further his studies and escape an unhappy household.

Again in Beirut, strangers were kind. Two fellow Armenians taught him French so he could attend the Collège Arménien. A professor's wife found him lodging and arranged for the Armenian Red Cross to cover his monthly food charge of $6.15. Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the short-lived Republic of Armenia, was named college director shortly thereafter and became the young man's "surrogate father, as well as a teacher, mentor, and friend," Gregorian writes in the memoir. Following Vratzian's advice to continue studies in the United States near a major Armenian community, he applied to Berkeley and Stanford. Stanford's letter of acceptance arrived by air, Cal's months later. By then, he'd already enrolled on the Farm.

The 22-year-old freshman was well out of his element in Palo Alto, but he had a certain puckish self-confidence. "When, for the first time, someone introduced himself to me as Mr. McIntosh IV, I introduced myself as Gregorian XI," he writes. "I don't think he found it amusing."

Gregorian enjoyed Western Civ and built a close relationship with his freshman adviser, Wayne S. Vucinich, a historian who specialized in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. A diligent student, Gregorian majored in history and graduated in two years, writing an honors thesis on "Toynbee and Islam." But he was no dull grind. He "partied hard" too, he writes, going on dancing dates in San Francisco and "frequenting all of Stanford's favorite watering holes."

He had several paying jobs and took on campus leadership roles, including the presidency of the International Center, where he got his first taste of public speaking as a fill-in master of ceremonies. He was given suggestions on jokes to tell but, unfamiliar with American idioms, he flubbed his lines. The University's top brass became its "brass tacks"; the Chinese Year of the Dog became "a dog of a year"—and he was a hit.

In 1990, long since an accomplished public speaker, Gregorian gave the convocation address at Stanford's Centennial. "Stanford was my gateway to the USA," he said then, "my gateway to knowledge and to citizenship. Stanford adopted me." He also met his wife while TAing two of Vucinich's courses. And Stanford nominated Gregorian for a Ford Foundation fellowship that brought him to Afghanistan in 1961. There he researched his first book, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan (Stanford U. Press, 1969), considered a classic history.

In 1962 he returned to the Bay Area and taught at San Francisco State College. He moved to the University of Texas-Austin in 1968, then in 1972 to the University of Pennsylvania. When Penn merged its College for Men and College for Women, he became the first dean of the university's School of Arts and Science. In 1978, he was named provost, the university's No. 2.

Time and again, Gregorian's career moved forward by people seeking him out. "I've never applied for a job in my life," he says. "And I've never been fired from a job."

But he did face a major setback at Penn. In 1980, the president retired and Gregorian expected to succeed him—indeed, he'd withdrawn from consideration for the chancellorship of Cal for that reason. He didn't get the job. The story generally accepted 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. Shaken, Gregorian resigned as provost.

Gregorian's characteristic good fortune soon returned. The New York Public Library had suffered major funding cuts during the city's 1970s financial crisis and needed a new president. A search firm approached Gregorian. "We saw a number of applicants, adequate but not sparkling, not the kind of people who would turn a nearly defunct organization into a lively and vibrant one," the late Andrew Heiskell, a retired Time Inc. executive who became chairman of the library's board, wrote in his memoir. "Then, out of nowhere, a new candidate appeared. Instinctively I knew he was it."

The institution was in terrible shape. "The library was broke. The chandeliers and lighting fixtures all throughout the main building were filthy and had only two or three bulbs each," Heiskell explained. "The city had cut back so hard on the library that some branches were open only eight hours a week. . . . The marble inside the main Fifth Avenue building, the one with the great sculpted lions guarding the broad front steps, was so filthy brown that you would never guess it was marble." Even worse, 3 million volumes in un-air-conditioned stacks were deteriorating, and the library was spending down its endowment amid projections that it would soon lose the entire endowment and accumulate a $50 million deficit. Gregorian set about to change that.

The new president was a whirlwind, wining and dining the rich and famous, rebuilding the institution's finances and its prominence. "You couldn't avoid Vartan Gregorian if you lived in the metropolitan area," recalls Tom Kean, a Carnegie board member and former New Jersey governor who chaired the 9-11 Commission. "He's probably the best fund-raiser in the country." Marshall Rose, a noted New York philanthropist and a library board member, says he joked to Gregorian that the photo on the cover of his memoir wasn't accurate because "it's the first time we can see the back of your hands." By 1989, the library had raised $327 million.

Equally important, Gregorian restored its sense of mission as a cultural centerpiece of New York City. The buildings were cleaned and rehabilitated. The stacks were climate-controlled. The annual operating and acquisitions budgets were doubled. Staff morale turned around; 400 new employees were hired. Gregorian created new events and programs to showcase the library as an institution, the Fifth Avenue building as an architectural masterpiece, and writers and thinkers as celebrities.

"He reaches out and thinks of different ways to approach difficult problems that other people don't come up with," Kean says, "whether it's the seemingly insoluble problem of how to fix urban schools, or whether it's any problem."

But Gregorian had also become a social force. He worried about hubris. "Volumes of articles written about the library's renaissance had portrayed me as a fund-raiser par excellence, a cultural impresario, a high-society icon," he recalls in his memoir. "I was eager to return to the academic world."

He got the chance when both the University of Michigan and Brown offered him their presidencies. He left New York as, indeed, a high-society icon. "New York Loses a Lion," the Times editorialized. The library gave him three volumes of farewell letters from notable New Yorkers. Brooke Astor and Barbara Walters were among those to throw him farewell parties.

A university presidency is, in many ways, the ideal job for Gregorian, requiring all his varied skills. Gregorian likes to quote a Brown predecessor, Henry Wriston: a university president "is expected to be an educator, to have been at some time a scholar, to have judgment about finance, to know something about construction, maintenance, and labor policy, to speak virtually continuously words that charm and never offend, to take bold positions with which no one will ever disagree, to consult everyone, and follow all proffered advice, and do everything through committees, but with great speed and without error." Gregorian fulfilled that job description.

He arrived at a prestigious campus with a top-notch faculty that lacked financial resources. It didn't need to be saved, as the library did, but it wanted serious attention. Gregorian launched a $450 million, five-year capital campaign, Brown's biggest ever. It ultimately brought in $534 million. Some 60 percent of dormitory and academic space was renovated, at the cost of $85 million. The endowment nearly tripled.

Gregorian was a wildly popular figure on campus. "I can't think of anyone else I've come across who maintained such a fantastic relationship with all his constituents," says Josh Albertson, editor-in-chief of Brown's student paper in the Gregorian years. "He had a lot of charm, and he had a leadership quality that made him more than a manager," Damon says. "He's got his eye on both the big picture and also on the small, human needs of people." Albertson says: "The general view was that he was the best thing ever to happen to Brown."

Some of that sentiment came from the feeling that through Gregorian, Brown was tapping into the high-octane New York world. "You could see it in the people he brought to speak," Albertson says. Gregorian moves in a different world than most academics and he never entirely left it—while at Brown, he cultivated relationships with Walter Annenberg, Bill Gates and Ted Turner, a Brown dropout, becoming an unpaid philanthropy adviser to the three billionaires. In 1995, Columbia University offered Gregorian its presidency. He felt he couldn't leave Brown until the campaign was over, but his appetite for a return to New York was whetted, as were those of his wife and three sons.

Several years later, the Carnegie Corporation was seeking a new president. Though there was "an extraordinary pool of candidates," says Kean, who was on the search committee, "Vartan Gregorian is an extraordinary human being, and there just isn't anybody like him. If you have a chance to pick Vartan Gregorian, you pick Vartan Gregorian. You don't care who else is in the pool."

Andrew Carnegie—like Gregorian, a poor immigrant who found great success in the United States—started his philanthropic career in the 1870s, becoming well known for donating library buildings. He founded the Carnegie Corporation with the mandate to "promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding among the people of the United States." The corporation's goals and causes have remained largely the issues that Carnegie held dear: education, libraries and international understanding.

These are the interests of Gregorian's career, and he's guided the foundation with an eye on its original goals. He started with several specific ideas. "One was to bring back higher education as a central focus," he says. "And then to bring a civics mission; civics is absent in schools. Strengthening U.S. democracy. Strengthening African universities. To continue the work of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. And then also, Islam. When I came here, when I was interviewed, I said one of the big challenges America will be facing in the 21st century is the fact that there will be eventually more Muslims than Jews or Episcopalians in the United States. And psychologically, sociologically, culturally, America is not ready for that."

Gregorian's first step at Carnegie was a major review of everything the foundation does. He held 26 conferences to discuss current issues and how Carnegie could influence them. He interviewed some 850 experts. He convinced McKinsey & Company to undertake a pro bono analysis of the corporation's management structure. (Some longstanding administrators, unhappy with the changes, were forced out.) Two years into his tenure, in early 1999, he announced a major overhaul. The focus was to be on finding new ideas. "We're not an oxygen tank" devoted to keeping nonprofits alive, he told the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

In May, Carnegie—in coordination with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and several universities—unveiled a major initiative to improve journalism education in the United States. The project touches on several hallmarks of Gregorian's administration: education, civics (better journalism leads to a better-informed citizenry) and collaboration with other foundations.

It also touches on a personal passion of Gregorian's. He worked as a reporter in Beirut; two sons are newspapermen; and he devours a wide range of papers and magazines. "Every Sunday, I go to Universal News," he says. "I get Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday's London Times." His daily fare includes the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, New York Post, Christian Science Monitor ("one of the best"), Daily Telegraph, Independent, Le Monde. In his announcement of the project, Gregorian calls on journalists to master content as well as technique, to help a public bombarded with information to "separate the wheat from the chaff."

Coming to Carnegie has returned Gregorian to an active New York life. He sits on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and Human Rights Watch. Asked to be on the jury selecting the 9-11 memorial at Ground Zero, he ended up as chair. "It was a very difficult job, because we had 5,200 artists and architects submitting their plans," says John Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. "And Vartan just sort of took charge of the process."

Despite the workload, Gregorian didn't miss The Gates. He enjoyed an opening day tour, then viewed it from a Central Park South apartment. He saw it during an appointment on Central Park West and from the trustees' dining room at the Metropolitan Museum, overlooking the Park from Fifth Avenue. "All the views," he realizes, with a chuckle.

From Iran, through Lebanon, to California and then Philadelphia, Providence and New York: all the views, indeed.


JESSE OXFELD, '98, edits Gawker.com in New York.  

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