What Vartan Gregorian Peter jennings Yo Yo Ma Sir Michael Atiyah Have in Common?

By May Habib

Along with Vartan Gregorian–famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma–journalist Peter Jennings–and mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah–received honorary degrees from the American University of Beirut last Saturday.

When Gregorian arrived in Beirut from Tehran 54 years ago–he had $50 in his pocket–couldn’t speak Arabic or English–and did not know a single person in the country.

The head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and an acclaimed philanthropist and educator–returned to Beirut for his honorary doctorate.

Gregorian’s first English teacher in Beirut Antoine Kehyaian–was present at the ceremony to see his former pupil.

"As a student I used to tell Antoine–’Don’t worry–one day I will get a degree from AUB,’" said Gregorian–who has received honorary degrees from 15 universities. "I had to spend 50 years in the wilderness in order to earn this."

When he left Beirut–Gregorian–who also delivered the commencement address Saturday–went to Stanford University in California–where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1958 and his doctorate in history in 1964. After teaching at various universities in the US–he became founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and eventually became the provost.

After leaving the University of Pennsylvania–Gregorian headed the New York Public Library–raising an unprecedented $400 million for its revival.

Never content to remain too long in any position–he left the New York Public Library in 1989 to become president of Brown University. He then left Brown for the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation in 1997.

Gregorian advised students at the ceremony to "get really rich" so they can donate money to AUB in the future.

"There are not many AUBs in the world–especially this part of the world," he said. "You owe it to AUB and the Lebanese to keep this beacon of learning and light shining."

Sir Michael Atiyah–whose work in string theory has been awarded numerous medals–also commended AUB for creating cultural links that "straddle space and time." Atiyah–the son of a Lebanese father and a Scottish mother–grew up in Sudan and attended Victoria College in Cairo. He was knighted in 1983 and was awarded the rank of commander in the Order of the Cedars by the Lebanese government in 1993.

Atiyah helped AUB develop its Center for Advanced Mathematical Studies and is the chairman of the center’s International Advisory Committee.

Jennings–who came to Lebanon in 1972 as the ABC News bureau chief in Beirut–said that AUB–founded by US missionaries–is "one of the greatest things the US has done in the Middle East."

Waterbury joked that he would try to keep secret that the hugely successful Jennings did not finish high school and does not have a university degree.

"We forgive you Peter for your early dismissal of our product," Waterbury said.

Yo-Yo Ma–a concert cellist since the age of 9 and a 14-time Grammy winner–closed the ceremony with a piece from Bach. "I know I was not invited here for my speaking skills," he joked–holding up his cello.

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