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Volume 41, Number 3May/June 1990

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Historian at the Helm

Written by Larry Eldridge
Photographed by John Foraste
Additional photographs by Brown University

 Vartan Gregorian, hailed in the 1980's as "the man who saved the New York Public Library" and now president of one of America's most prestigious universities, traces at least part of his success to the cosmopolitan upbringing and education he received in the Middle East.

"I acquired an understanding of many different cultures and languages," says Gregorian, now in his second year at the helm of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "And I learned that history can be a burden or a liberation - a burden if you don't understand, absorb, and analyze it, a liberation if you do these things."

Gregorian, who grew up in the Armenian community in Tabriz, Iran, and received his early education in Beirut, also speaks of his boyhood love of books - particularly the vivid impression made on him by Victor Hugo's Les Miserables when he was 12.

"I identified very much... because I saw the same things all around me - the misery, the inconsistencies, the difference between advocacy and delivery," he said in a recent interview.

Another early influence was his maternal grandmother, whom he credits with instilling in him the truly important values of life.

"I learned all my ethics from her," he said. "She had a great sense of honor: If you give your word, that's it. It's not a question of whether you wrote it or not, or whether you can wiggle out of it. You've undertaken a commitment, and you're bound by it."

Gregorian was the first member of his family to leave Tabriz in quest of an education. He studied at the College Armenien in Beirut, moved to the United States to earn his bachelor's and doctoral degrees at Stanford University, and won an award for distinguished teaching while on the history faculty of San Francisco State College. As a faculty member at the University of Texas, he wrote The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, a 600-page work published in 1970 and still considered definitive.

After serving as the second foreign-born provost of the University of Pennsylvania - the first one, William Smith, was brought in by Benjamin Franklin - he became president of the New York Public Library, a once-great institution that had fallen upon hard times.

It was in his eight years at the Library that Gregorian gained national fame as administrator, intellectual, entrepreneur and fund-raiser combined - and succeeded in re-establishing the library as an important cultural center. "We stressed that excellence and democracy are not mutually exclusive," he says.

Then last year he moved on to Brown, becoming the first foreign-born president of an Ivy League university. "The burden on the university," he was then quoted as saying, "is to increase the number of those who are willing to undergo 'the fatigue of judging for themselves.'"

Gregorian continues to speak out on Middle Eastern issues and to work for causes in which he believes, such as the current campaign to save the American University of Beirut. "I consider AUB one of the great contributions of America to the Middle East," he says, "because for generations it has educated people there regardless of nationality, religion, sex, or region."

Larry Eldridge,  formerly sport editor of The Christian Science Monitor, is host of a weekly magazine program on WQTV, Boston.

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the May/June 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1990 images.