INTERVIEW: Dr. Vartan Gregorian Discusses Education, Armenia



NEW YORK—On November 7, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, will be honored as “Professional of the Year” by the Armenian Professional Society, at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, California.

An Interview with Dr. Vartan Gregorian is a unique experience.

He impresses one as a brilliant, wise, self-confident, and utterly forthright individual. As he came out of his office on Monday afternoon, September 28, his well known exuberance was evident as he warmly greeted me with a big bear hug and a beaming smile. Expecting to see an opulent office with expensive furniture for a person of his exalted position, I was happily surprised to find a cozy room lined with thousands of books, many double-stacked in bookcases, on his desk and some even crowding the seats. It could have easily doubled as a comfortable library setting. As befitting the man, it was truly a working office, not a showplace.

Dr. Gregorian is a man on a mission, and his relaxed down-to-earth demeanor belies the intense passion he feels on the subject closest to his heart, that of education. His responses in the first of two parts of this exclusive interview reveal that earnest feeling.

Below is the interview:

Florence Avakian: Dr. Gregorian, why are you so devoted to the need to foster higher education?

Vartan Gregorian: The United States has been the world’s leader in higher education because of several factors. First, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln established land grant universities. That was historically one of the most important turning points for America, whereby every state would have a university. He put universities in populated areas, and where the potential of those states would be realized. Lincoln’s higher education system provided America with leadership in the industrial revolution.

Secondly, in 1944, the F.D. Roosevelt was instrumental in starting a future for science. During World War II, because of F.D.R., science, unlike that in Europe and the Soviet Union, was to be invested in universities, in order to bring competition, different perspectives, and also so that undergraduates and graduates could be exposed to research. This was very important. Roosevelt died, and Truman adopted that policy.

Thirdly, the G.I. bill democratized American higher education. Eleven million returning military servicemen, instead of becoming unemployed, went to universities. And this is true even today. Then came the issue of how to organize support for higher education. Personal grants provided the source whereby the student was given the money rather than it being given to the universities. Portability led to much competition and put universities on the defensive. They had to satisfy their clients.

Then Sputnik resulted in a resurgence of science in America so as to lead the way for men to go to the moon. This was a reactive mode, not planned. The Cold War in many ways also accelerated the organization of higher education in the U.S. The Fulbright, Muskie, Humphrey, NEH, NIH, Fellowships, etc. provided the kind of research in all the fields, from humanities to the sciences. America has been the leader in all of this.

F.A.: Yes, I was one of the recipients of the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) fellowship at Cornell University. You have said we were the leader in higher education. This all sounds very positive. What have been the problems, and what are the challenges of obtaining this higher education in the United States?

V.G.: We were, and still are the leader, but the rest of the world is catching up, and we’re sleeping for two reasons. First, only 50 percent of our high school students graduate. In the 19th century, higher education was only for the elite. And we had only a population of 100 million. Now we are 300 million.

Secondly, as land grant universities were established, higher education was supposed to be supported by the state.

I came to California in 1956 as a freshman. Tuition was $750 at Stanford University. Berkeley was $50 a semester. Today, it is $40,000 at Stanford, and Berkeley, 10, 12, 14 thousand. These are public universities, not private.

States which were completely underwriting the costs of higher education, are no longer doing it, because they don’t have the funds. The University of Michigan, one of the best universities in the country, provides seven to eight percent maximum. California is turning people away, and tuition for locals is 10 to 15 thousand. So 90 percent has to come from tuition, endowment fund raising and faculty research.

F.A.: How can this very serious problem of finances be resolved?

V.G.: States have to support, but there are even more obstacles in universities developing their own resources. For example, Michigan says you can only have 33 percent of the students from other states. And foreign students are the only ones who can pay. So more and more, we are educating foreign students in order to make money and survive. And the worst thing is, the more we increase the numbers, the more the tuition goes up. We also have a 19th century structure in the 21st century. So new solutions are needed.

Solution one is to fundraise for the public universities. Now there is no division between public and private universities. Public high students go to private universities, and private students go to public institutions. And also because the state has owned the university buildings, seven, eight percent shareholders still play the biggest role. So before you fill the building, you need state authorization.

F.A.: From what you have discussed, is this part of the 20-year plan you had envisioned?

V.G.: I was misquoted on this. What I had said was that there ought to be a 20-year plan. And what I have now described should be in this plan. How do you fix this? You have to have a special tax. Five percent of the tax Californians pay should go to universities. There has to be a solution, or else people who want to study, but can’t afford it, will go into indebtedness, especially now with no jobs. Thankfully, interest rates are still low. It also encourages people to pursue higher education. Ironically, if you study for your PH.D, the university pays, but if you study for any other graduate degree, you have to pay.

F.A.: Dr. Gregorian, you mentioned that the rest of the world is catching up to the United States. What are the advantages that they have that the United States doesn’t have? Can you elucidate?

V.G.: Singapore to China to India to Germany, etc. have ministers of education who make it possible for the state to pay so the tuition is affordable. Two years ago, the University of Denmark President came here and we were talking at NYU. He said it was illegal for him to raise private funds.

F.A.: Those are the Scandinavian states. What is the current situation in Armenia? They had free tuition under the Soviet rule. How do they manage now?

V.G.: No more free tuition. Who said they’re managing. The first thing that Armenia has to invest in, like the Scandinavian countries, is education. Even in the Armenian army, they should teach computer science, mathematics, other sciences. The point is the last time I was in Armenia, I could not find a bookstore. Ethnically, Armenians and Jews during the Soviet period, had the highest
percentage of degrees in science, chemistry, mathematics, etc., and there was a modicum of books one could order from Eastern Europe. Books could be printed from bookstores and libraries. The collapse of the Soviet Union, in many ways, has washed away many of our gains. And now, there is no modern bookstore where you can order foreign books.

F.A.: What is the reason for this regression in Armenia?

V.G.: After years of a repressive regime, suddenly they have found personal gain first, second comes the family, and third, the extended family. Last is the state or society. I found an abundance of karaoke singing, casinos, hamburger joints, more cafes, classy houses, churches. We have enough churches now. The church itself should invest in education. We like to think we’re the first nation to become Christian, that we’re the best, the cleanest.

The first time I went to Armenia, I could not imagine how dirty and dark like a dungeon Zvartnotz Airport was, with things collapsing.

Armenians have a long way to go to accept the concept of a statehood that is in our country. Something that goes wrong somewhere will affect all of us. I don’t blame Armenia, because for centuries it was working under foreign rule. Self preservation was a major issue. Rebuilding Armenia is a major challenge today.

F.A.: Dr. Gregorian, growing up in Tabriz, Iran, and Beirut, Lebanon must have been very significant. What influenced you to pursue higher education during you childhood?

V.G.: Nobody encouraged me. There was no talk of higher education. I went to an Armenian elementary school, and later a Russian one in Tabriz. Then in 1946, Iranian armed forces came and asserted the authority of the central government. We had to then learn Persian. My grandmother was illiterate, and my parents only had a high school education – then considered most important. There was no one in my family who went onto higher education.

F.A.: Then who or what inspired you to continue your education?

V.G.: All my life has to been due to the “kindness of strangers”. So I was encouraged to go to Beirut by the French Vice-Consul. I had no money and only three letters. When you’re weak, you trust strong people’s words. In my book, The Road to Home, I describe my trials and tribulations in Beirut. The second strength was exposure to the French language and literature. It opened a whole world for me in Lebanon. Even then the “College Armenienne” was the ultimate education I could hope to receive. I had no idea even then that I would enter higher education. I was studying Portugese in order to become the principal of the Sao Paulo, Brazil Armenian high school. Then two or three of us received fellowships to go to Europe. The “College Armenienne” gave me the opportunity to go to university, and I came to Stanford in the U.S. I had no idea then about public or private education of which I speak today. I remember Stanford was $750 a year.

F.A.: Why did you decide to pursue and specialize in history?

V.G.: Throughout my life, I have been interested in history. In the Jemaran, most of our teachers were outstanding intellectuals who were university professors. They did not know the difference between high school and university, so we were taught as university students, and I’m happy we were challenged that way. Garnik Guzelian had a tremendous influence on me, as did Vratzian. But I also saw that the history we were taught was limited history. I was interested in literature, religion, art, so I took a dual degree as well as my PH.D in history and humanities (art history, philosophy, romance languages, religion, classics) at Stanford where I received a balanced and inspiring education.

F.A.: What forces drive you and from where does your passion come from, and what is your day-to-day vision for the Carnegie Corporation?

V.G.: Without passion, you die. It comes from my grandmother. At Carnegie, we have consolidated all our programs into international and national. Internationally, we deal with the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (for 25 years) with international peace as one of the major objectives. And nationally, we work in education which is a source of strengthening democracy, citizenship and progress and which leads to peace. Andrew Carnegie was disappointed because during World War I, the educated people –Germans, English, French, etc. declared war against each other. So education is not enough. Necessary are values, knowledge of history, etc.

We’re involved in Iran, Korea, Israel, Palestine – both track two – non-governmental agencies talking for the purpose of achieving something. Details are worked out. You don’t start from zero. In my office, a neutral ground, six powers met. We work on the building of linkages to stop the breakdown of contact.

F.A.: Dr. Gregorian, what programs does the Carnegie Corporation have in Armenia?

V.G.: We support higher education in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. For ten years, we supported 12 regional universities in the former Soviet Union, and in Armenia we just renewed the program for another two, three years.

F.A.: Why do you feel that it is important to give back to the community?

V.G.: I was brought up in a community in Tabriz, not individuals alone. You’re not an end in yourself. And that has always been reinforced for me, in literature, history, etc. The book which influenced me the most which I read in Armenian was “Les Miserables,” when Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread, and the priest says he gave it to him. This is transformational nature. And all my upbringing and my teachers taught me that life is one of obligation, responsibility, rather than one of self-isolation into one’s pygmy world of private piety.

And so Andrew Carnegie’s vision, and my education come together in this institution. Carnegie believed that the person who dies rich, dies disgraced. Those people did not have the imagination to reinvest. He believed that capitalists are trustees of public wealth. The children who were born into such families were not entitled to have that wealth. He also thought that you can’t take your wealth in a shroud. Shrouds have no pockets. Carnegie also said aristocracy is like potatoes. The best part is underground. With wealth comes social responsibility. It’s all based on charity.

Philanthropy is different. You don’t deal with the symptoms, but with the causes, to alleviate the causes.

Carnegie also believed that if some one is hungry, don’t give him a fish, but give a fishing rod, in order to make him independent, rather than dependent.

I’m in an ideal situation now in this corporation where Carnegie’s philosophy is so close to mine.

F.A.: So this vision has really guided you throughout your life in everything you’re done as President of the New York Public Library, as President of Brown University, here at the Carnegie Corporation.

V.G.: Yes, exactly, by everyone I’ve known. They told me not to be impressed by what people have, but who they are. That’s exactly my attitude. My grandmother taught me one thing. Don’t be envious. I’ve never been envious of anybody. I’m not impressed by what people have. I’m impressed with their values. Many people today confuse their identity with their job.

F.A.: What are the responsibilities of Armenians living in the United States?

V.G.: We have two lungs – Armenia and the Diaspora, one is blocked, and the other is working overtime.

We cannot consider Armenia a charitable case, but rather an investment case, a place of opportunity. We have to invest in
the risk-taking, but also hold Armenia responsible. Corruption is the corrosion of our nation. We have to allow Armenia to learn, because I don’t want to be patronizing it, but at the same time, the Diaspora cannot be taken for granted.

F.A.: You deservedly are being honored by the Armenian Professional Society (APS). How can APS implement your 20-Year Plan?

V.G.: APS – the title says professional. More and more Armenian cadres are professional, not amateurs. Armenia cannot afford amateur diplomats, politicians, bureaucrats. APS can provide professional assistance in every domain that Armenia needs – customs, law, professors, etc. They should not go to Armenia and feel as if as Hovhannes Toumanian said, “You saw us with cooking flour, and you thought we were millers?” We have a rich country with great expertise. So many books were written on how to overthrow capitalism, but very few books have been written on how to transform a socialist system to capitalism. So we’re in that cross current. We have to help Armenia help itself.

F.A.: How can APS attract the younger professionals to the organization, and how can APS attract donations?

V.G.: There are many professionals in APS who should know how to handle this. But the most important thing is that they are not an alien wing here and must also help Armenia, or Armenian communities in this country on how to organize themselves.

When I came here in 1956, the feeling all over the Middle East was American-Armenians are dying, so they should send money to the Middle East Armenians. But what happened is that the second largest community we have outside of Armenia is in the United States, then Latin America. The way we are organized here will help Armenia, but it has to be one of co-equals, professionals, one of investment, not charity. Armenia should be the regional center of medicine, computer sciences, banking, jewelry for the Caucasus. We have all those talents.

F.A.: Dr. Gregorian, when looking over your impressive career, would you have done anything differently?

V.G.: NO (said without hesitation).

F.A.: What does it mean for you to be an Armenian-American?

V.G.: For me, I’m very proud of my culture, my church. For me, there is only one Armenian Church, only one Armenian language, only one country. So I go to all the churches, all the cultural events, and I don’t distinguish one Armenian from another. And if they ask me to speak, I’ve never accepted one penny from any Armenian source for the past 30 years.

F.A.: What are the benefits, as well as the burdens of being such a pillar in the Armenian-American community?

V.G.: There is no burden, there is no pillar. The most important thing is I have made a distinction between a job and a career. I have chosen the career of being an educator. And being successful, I have not changed my name, my attitude. I’ve let everyone know it’s alright to be an Armenian.

F.A.: Your office is a veritable library? What are your favorite books and reading materials? And what do you do in your free time, if you have any, concerts, films, exercise?

V.G.: History and biography. Saturdays, I come and read here quietly. Sundays, I buy eight newspapers, British and French, and from 9 a.m. to about three or four in the afternoon, I read and clip all kinds of articles on every possible topic.

I also enjoy going to the theatre, concerts. I have a personal trainer that comes three times a week to my home at 6 in the morning, and trains me for an hour.

F.A.: And what is your definition of success? What has been the greatest success of your life?

V.G.: Success is the external recognition, but the other is to be proud of what you have done. My greatest success is that I have been a good teacher. Of all the rewards I have received, and I have received many, I take great pride that an elementary school in Providence , RI, with 400 students, was named after me. It has become a great school. I’ve helped them personally.

F.A.: Dr. Gregorian, what is your advice for students today?

V.G.: Be curious, challenge your mind. Don’t be one-dimensional, don’t be limited, and know that tolerance is not enough. Understanding is necessary.

F.A.: Who is Vartan Gregorian?

V.G.: He is a boy who became a man in America, and who has been very busy. He has never applied for a job, never been fired from a job, one who has accomplished some things, and failed in some other things. He is one who has always kept his word.

For information about APSLA, or the November 7 banquet, readers should contact, Stephan Bagboudarian at (818) 266-7601, or (818) 685-9946.


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  1. Dr. Babayants said:

    Dr Vartan is hero and this country is very lucky that he came in here, not France. One wish i have for many years is that he will open a school or class for professional (s), educators, philanthropist(s), lawyers etc, those who has an access to large population. Thus his philosophy, ideas, vision etc will stay for generations. Something like a breakfast with Vartan………..will be charity as well ($50 a plate in his apartment). i hope u tell him that. thanks