Vartan Gregorian is the twelfth president of the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York. Prior to his current position, Gregorian served as the sixteenth president of Brown University from 1989 through 1997, and as president of the New York Public Library from 1981 to 1989. He was also a former provost and the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Why do you think you became so “powerful?”
First, I have never been interested in power. But I am interested in knowledge, and it happens that knowledge is power. Second, I am who I am because I have been helped by others. I remember when I first arrived in the United States as a college freshman with my shaky English and a complete ignorance of airlines. I had lost my ticket. When I realized this and told the ticket agent, he said, “I have never done this in my life,” as he stamped my envelope, checked my luggage, and waved me through. “Don’t get off the plane until you get to San Francisco.” Well, I forgot to ask his name. A year or two later, I was at Idlewild Airport — the original name of JFK — and I looked everywhere for his face. Nothing. I didn’t find him.
I help others not as a cynical tactic to win favors but as an objective. This is something I got from my grandmother. She always told me, “Do good and don’t expect any gratitude.” So, despite my difficult upbringing, I’ve never become cynical. I am an idealist. I still believe in the good of human nature. I don’t knowingly offend people or use people. I don’t spend money on my wardrobe. I love my family, friends, colleagues, and institutions. These are the guidelines I live by.
As for leaders, there are two types. Some march ahead of everybody. I guide by walking behind everybody. I never coveted the position of college president. I easily could have ended up being an elementary school teacher. But after I went to college, one thing led to another. I went to Stanford for four years. I finished in two, and then, prompted by a professor, I asked myself: “Why don’t I get a Ph.D.?” But I never made a design for life, and to my benefit, I have never applied for a job, never been fired from a job, and never signed a contract. I have been fortunate to have lived my life on my terms. My word has been my bond.
In addition, I have never coveted money. I’ve never wanted a second residence or a second car, because that’s not who I am. You know, the fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg was quoted in Forbes recently saying that the most important advice she’s ever gotten was from me. The advice I gave her was from my grandmother who always said that beauty, wealth, status, and life are all ephemeral and the only thing that isn’t is your character. Power without integrity is an abyss.
I remember reading in your autobiography that you barely sleep and have a photographic memory.
Yes, well that’s fading now. I cannot remember all the names anymore. I have also never used teaching assistants in my life. I graded every homework and essay assignment, and I never resorted to multiple-choice questions. Indeed, grading papers was exhausting and to stay awake, I used to take showers. One time, I was teaching a class on the intellectual history of Europe. I assigned a two-hour long exam. A student left after 15 minutes having completed only a single page. So, I wrote a page-long comment explaining why his essay answer was not only incomplete but wrong. A few days later, the student sent me a wonderful letter. It said, “Take it easy. I didn’t study.” The fact is, I believed that whenever my students failed, I was failing.
Let me rephrase my first question: What was it that made you so successful? In your book, I think it’s clear that it wasn’t just luck and help from other people.
I didn’t write my autobiography to promote myself. I wrote if for my children and my friends about where I was coming from. My book was not meant to be a handbook for success. It’s just a story about my life’s successes, disappointments, and failures.
In my welcoming speeches at Brown, this is what I told freshmen: “You are a unique moment in the history of creation. You have to decide what you want to do with your uniqueness. You can be a dot, a letter, a word, a sentence. You can be a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a book. But what if you decide to be nothing; a blank? If you decide to be the latter, you will be forfeiting the value of your talents, all the knowledge of the universe, and all of the creativity of preceding generations.” That was my speech. I did not say “Go and get a double degree and earn an income.” I want people to be curious. I want them to both be and become.
Why should I donate to Brown University?
Are you proud of what Brown has given you? If so, give. If you think Brown damaged your genius and undermined you, then you have no obligation. I think that for those who donate, it’s a joy to invest and see a creative artist in action or a brilliant mathematician nurtured by you. It’s wonderful to be able to help. By helping, you’re planting a seed and you’re giving it water, allowing it to thrive. Giving is an American phenomenon. Look at Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835. He was surprised that Americans did not wait for the government to fix everything. They got together and helped each other. Andrew Carnegie’s position was that the person who dies rich dies disgraced. Wealth, after all, is a social commodity and not a private commodity.
In 1992, a few years into your tenure as President of Brown University, a coalition of students called SAMA, Students for Aid in Minority Admissions, agitated for a new financial aid policy by occupying University Hall. I was wondering what you think in retrospect about that movement.
I loved all my students — be they radicals, liberals, or conservatives — but I did not agree with those who insisted on being arrested. I explained to students that if applications were truly “need-blind,” we would not be able to create effective diversity, but when 473 students occupied University Hall, they did it in my name. Their aim was to force trustees to sign an “affidavit” proclaiming that Brown was a need-blind institution. It was high noon on the Main Green.
For some, it was important to be arrested and given instant amnesty. I did not call local police to arrest the protestors. Campus police and faculty escorted each student to a bus, which took them to the courthouse. In their act of civil disobedience, they cited Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but I told them, “Show me one time that these two great leaders asked for amnesty. You want to be arrested and tell people you were arrested, but you don’t want a police record because of your careers.”
Anyway, I wrote a nice letter to the judge. I told him that these were the future leaders of America and to please be lenient because they did not realize Rhode Island was the only state that had laws against occupying school buildings. They were disappointed that there was no amnesty, but they learned it was a serious thing to be arrested — not cute or a luxury. Getting arrested is a major, political act. You don’t get to pick and choose the outcome.
Did the University punish students in any way? Were student records affected by the arrests?
The students, upon the suggestion of their lawyers, were all dismissed and put on probation for one year. Nobody left with a record of arrest. Also, no one was forcibly arrested, and those who were arrested followed one another, and many wanted to pose for photos to prove that they were arrested.
Since you read my autobiography, you might recall that a similar thing happened at San Francisco State during a free speech protest. Students came, looked at my exam, and said, “People are dying in Vietnam and you’re asking me about Rousseau’s concepts of private property? I will not answer the question, because I do not know the answer, and if you flunk me, I will claim it was political retaliation.” So, I gave two sets of exams: one set of regular exams and one set of “revolutionary exams.” In the revolutionary exam, I asked the students to list major texts of Chairman Mao and to compare his theory of state with those of Stalin and Lenin. My position was if you wanted to be a radical student, especially a Maoist, you have the right to be a revolutionary, but you must be an educated revolutionary.
Another important issue that I addressed in my book is financial aid. There were instances when international students could not pay their tuition because their governments or sponsors failed to cover their costs. Despite this, Brown intervened to keep them at the university and allow them to graduate.
What was it like to meet Trump?
He’s not a big donor. Period. When Mrs. Brooke Astor and I went to see him on behalf of the New York Public Library, we were there for 15 minutes, in which time he took five phone calls.
What publications and books do you like to read? What films do you like to watch?
My wife passed away two years ago, and my life has changed completely. I read more than ever in the evenings. I read The Guardian, The Economist, Time, Harpers, The Atlantic, American Scholar, Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, Fortune, The Nation, Dissent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Financial Times, The New York Times, Jewish Week, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and occasionally I read The Kansas City Star, where my son is a sportswriter. My reading keeps me busy. As for books, I’ve been reading Andrew Robert’s thousand-page biography of Churchill. I can’t stand it because he goes topically rather than chronologically.
When I need to relax, I watch cowboy movies. I think I like them so much because good always triumphs, and there is no blood.