Vartan Gregorian

Born: 1934
The President Takes the Bus

During his nine-year tenure as president of Brown University, from 1989 to 1997, on many occasions when Vartan Gregorian needed to get to Boston’s Logan airport, he took the bus. Gregorian was making a point. Brown’s faculty members and students traveled by bus, so he should, too.

“I took the job at Brown as a mission because it was struggling financially,” he says. “Brown was the poorest of the Ivy League institutions. The endowment was just 10 percent of Harvard’s. Francis Wayland, the fourth president of Brown, once bemoaned that in 20 years, he had not had a single donation…

“I considered Brown to be the Japan of the Ivy League. It had no natural resources, but it had human resources”the trustees, the faculty and the students. They were gutsy, imaginative and hardworking. To me, Brown was also the ballerina of the Ivy League, always on her toes, always dancing. I never apologized for Brown’s financial status. I considered it a challenge to overcome. In the process, I had a wonderful time with the students and the faculty, from the very beginning.”

The 55-year-old scholar-administrator was an inspired choice for the university’s president. Born a member of the Armenian community in Iran in 1934, at 15, with the help of friends as well as some relative strangers, he managed to get to Beirut, Lebanon, where he enrolled in the Collège Arménian. Essentially indigent, he eked out a living doing odd jobs and with help from the Armenian Red Cross. While still a student, he served as an assistant to Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the pre-Soviet Republic of Armenia and the director the college. Upon graduation from the college, with the help of Vratzian, he obtained a fellowship that brought him to the United States. With the help of his English teacher, Gregorian applied to two universities, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. He received Stanford’s acceptance, sent via airmail, first, while Berkeley’s letter was sent by slow, standard mail. Hence in 1956, he enrolled at Stanford.

The now 22-year-old completed his B.A. in history with honors in two years and finished the Humanities Honors program with distinction. In 1958 he was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in history as well as in the graduate Humanities Program and became a research and teaching assistant. While working on his dissertation, a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Training Fellowship enabled him to travel and study in England, France, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. He received his Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford in 1964.

By then he had already been teaching for two years at San Francisco State College, and, after a brief period as an associate professor at UCLA, he joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin in 1968. He was promoted to full professor in 1971, and in 1972 he accepted the position of Tarzian Professor of Armenian and Caucasian History and Professor of South Asian history at the University of Pennsylvania, an endowed professorship which allowed him to teach Armenian, South Asian, and European intellectual history.[2]

In 1974, Gregorian was named the founding Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.[4] The Faculty of Arts and Sciences brought together 28 departments, 33 graduate groups, eight special programs and offices, 528 faculty members, some 5,500 undergraduates and 2,500 graduate students, making it the largest single component of the university. In 1978, Gregorian assumed the position of Provost, chief academic officer of the university. In 1981 he left academia to accept the presidency of the New York Public Library. The city’s budget cuts in the ’70s had devastating effects on the library. The previous president had left, and Gregorian arrived to find deficits in the operating budget and a deteriorating physical plant. In eight years of determined and creative effort he managed to double the operations budget, add 400 employees and restore the buildings.

The business and administrative talents he had demonstrated in New York impressed Brown’s trustees. Bringing this distinguished academician turned successful financial administrator to the cash-strapped university seemed an ideal solution. And it was. But the trustees must have been somewhat surprised by their new president’s attitude toward fundraising.

He did not want to raise funds for financial need alone. Rather, he wanted to fundraise for Brown’s aspirations to excel. “If you talk about all of the things that are missing you’d be paralyzed,” he told them. “It would be all about, ‘How are we going to fix this?’ I wanted to focus on the future, about the rising generation, about goals, ideals and excellence.” He had three priorities for any money coming in: the faculty, the students and the library. “What made Brown great was the faculty,” he explains. “Unlike other Ivy League universities, all teaching was done by full-time faculty members, not graduate assistants.” It was a tradition he found when he arrived and which he decided to strengthen.

It was also a tradition that was close to his heart and that Gregorian joined in enthusiastically. He always taught at least one seminar himself, his last being Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. And throughout his career, he always corrected his own exams, explaining that it helped him both to get to know students and to know where he had failed to communicate. Continuing another tradition he found when he arrived and set about reinforcing, every year he had nine randomly chosen student advisees whom he met with weekly.

Over the next nine years he was to add 400 faculty members, establish 20 new departments and raise $534 million. He is particularly proud of the endowed assistant professorship program he initiated. “It was the best way we could compete with Harvard, Yale and Princeton,” he says. “These young faculty members came to Brown as named professors. They received money for research and travel. It wasn’t a lot of money, only $5,000 or $10,000. Once they were promoted to associate professor with tenure, they had to relinquish their endowed chairs. In the process, it helped attract younger faculty and younger talent.”

In an effort to promote the national standing of the Brown faculty, he launched a major effort to nominate faculty for national scholarly awards. After all, he explained, “My role was to serve faculty and students. I learned a lot from students, parents and faculty. I was always open to their input. I had their pulse. I was part of them. I wasn’t presiding, I was administering.”

When he arrived he had found that the dorms resembled World War II barracks. He had to justify to parents of prospective freshmen the cost of the dormitories by explaining to them that they were not, in fact, living in dormitories, but in “historical reenactments.” Parents and students appreciated his sense of humor. Subsequently, however, thanks to the generosity of parents and alumni, the dormitories were renovated and a new quadrangle was built. There was a positive side to the small, old dorms, though: they fostered a family atmosphere, and the close relationships they engendered paid off for years to come. During the Brown National Campaign, wherever Gregorian went, he found Brown grads recruiting fellow Brown grads in industries ranging from banking to entertainment. “The difference between Brown grads and others in the Ivy League is simple,” he said. “Brown grads like to succeed, but they also like to see their fellow Brown grads succeed.”

His funding plan was to increase donations the “old fashioned way” by cajoling prospective donors, talking with them, eating with them. When he proposed a $450 million campaign, some of the trustees were alarmed. “Actually, they were incredulous,” he remembers. “Their biggest fundraising goal previously had been $100 million. ‘We can’t do it,’ some observed. ‘Of course, we can,’ I told them. ‘Well, $450 million is an odd number. How about $500 million?'” And the money flowed in, rising beyond $500 million to $534 million. The total endowment during his tenure was to reach $1 billion. Significant amounts came from international donors. Brown had many students from Korea, Japan, Latin American and Europe. “They were investing in the future,” he says. Much of the new money went not only to renovating the dorms, but to the faculty, library and increasing financial aid by 50 percent.

But the tradition of financial frugality continued as well. Dinners for fundraising and other special events were prepared by Brown catering and all meals were served by “scholar workers.” On some of these occasions, such as the black-tie dinner for honorary degree recipients, he introduced each of the waiters by name as students who were contributing to their own education and providing a great service to their university. Gregorian always pointed out to guests the in-kind contributions being made by members of the Brown “family,” and he made sure that extravagance was nowhere to be found.

When Randolph Hearst travelled to Providence in his private plane and limo to visit Brown, Gregorian arranged to have a Brown University police car drive him and the distinguished guest to the airport. Unfortunately, the only car available had the usual prisoner-proof barrier between the rear and front seats and interior locked doors. Gregorian was apologetic, and afterwards he did not hear from Hearst for several days. Then he received a letter from Hearst, who noted that he had never been locked in a police car before and wondered if it was Gregorian’s way of asking for a car. He wasn’t. He continued taking the bus to Boston.

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