Profiles in Education:
Vartan Gregorian Carries on the Heritage of the Carnegie Corporation
Assuming the presidency of the Carnegie Corporation eight years ago seems to have been inevitable for this much-celebrated scholar and chief administrator who had already made his mark in the education and corporate worlds. Like Andrew Carnegie, who immigrated to the U.S. and, from humble beginnings, made his way, finally dedicating his wealth to philanthropy, the Iranian-born Dr. Vartan Gregorian, who holds a doctorate in history and humanities from Stanford University and went on to become president of The New York Public Library and then Brown University, has used his wealth—of experience—to advance Carnegie’s philanthropic mission: promoting the “advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding,” with the goal of doing “real and permanent good in this world.” President Gregorian’s passion and dedication are a matter of record, his honors innumerable, his reputation as a man who speaks his mind still unassailable. He wants to effect major improvements globally by way of broad structural change that deals with causes and that promotes self help. Not for him narrow, competitive, self-interested, materialistic modus operandi. His looks to a legacy of encouraging cooperation, collegiality, common cause. As he puts it on the Carnegie website, the challenge in the 21st century is “how to support the development of a global community in an age when both isolationism and nationalism seem to be fostering a fractured view of the world” and learning how in an age of information overload to use knowledge “to build a sense of community.”
To that end, Dr. Gregorian, a philosophical heir of Alexis de Tocqueville, is building coalitions at Carnegie, getting foundations to work together and getting them to work harmoniously with private and public institutions, including members of Congress. Once in the business of raising money, Vartan Gregorian now gives it out, selectively, to further Carnegie goals: supporting U.S.-Russian relationships, higher education in Africa, high school reform in America, nuclear nonproliferation initiatives, state and local community efforts to address growing immigrant populations, campaign finance reform, civic education, a reduction in ethnic conflict, this last to include a greater appreciation of Muslims in America. This country, he notes, has become “a land of diasporas,” and a place where the American Dream is interpreted more as making a financial killing than realizing individual dignity and upholding values such as the rule of law. He would change that.
Because Carnegie is an “incubator” of ideas, rather than an “oxygen tent,” its work often proceeds by way of informal, media-free conferences, at which representatives from major institutions, including congressional representatives, come together with their wives for theme-oriented work sessions. “Building coalitions” is the name of the game. “No single institution can achieve a single goal or agree on a common tactic,” so it makes sense to pool resources, form alliances, a strategy that Vartan Gregorian instituted when he was at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and later provost, and brought about a ground-breaking association of universities celebrating America’s bicentennial. When he was under consideration at Carnegie, he recalls, he found himself addressing a “skeptical” board about such cooperative ventures, but now he is happy to report full support for his efforts. Indeed, he points with pride to six major foundations whose presidents are hard at work on multi-million-dollar higher education initiatives in Africa, educational partnerships he has helped bring about with the assistance from the Annenberg and Gates foundations, among others, to work on school reform, and cooperative ventures with ten universities, some well known, others not, private and public, to strengthen curricula particularly in teacher training and journalism. Teachers are at the center of Vartan Gregorian’s concerns, and it should be noted that, for all the high offices he has held in academe, he has never relinquished the opportunity to teach. He is bothered that well educated teachers do not command better respect or salaries, and that adult illiteracy has not been adequately acknowledged or addressed in this country. It would seem that President Gregorian takes his role not as a job but as a mission. And that he is determined to succeed.#