Carnegie Corp. leader and Hero Fund friend Vartan Gregorian dies at age 87

Vartan Gregorian legacy
Hero Fund President Eric Zahren, left, and his wife Laura Zahren flank Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, during an informal gathering of the leaders of Carnegie institutions in 2019 in Dunfermline, Scotland–Andrew Carnegie’s birthplace. Gregorian died unexpectedly April 15, 2021. He was 87.

Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, philanthropist, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, died Thursday, April 15, 2021. He was 87.

Carnegie Corporation announced his unexpected death the following day stating that he was hospitalized the week earlier for testing related to stomach pain.

“The Corporation has lost a devoted and tireless leader — an extraordinary champion of education, immigration, and international peace and security, and steward of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. We, his colleagues, have lost a mentor, an inspiration, and, for so many, a very dear friend,” stated the Carnegie Corporation announcement.

Gregorian, was born April 8, 1934, to Samuel and Shooshanik (Mirzaian) Gregorian in Iran. His mother died when he was 6, and he and his sister were raised by their grandmother. At 15, he ran away from his father’s home and finished his high school education in Lebanon, and from there immigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, earning a bachelor’s degree in just two years and graduated with a PhD in 1964. He then went on to teach: history at San Francisco State University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Austin, and University of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974. During this period, Gregorian developed his talents for recruitment and fundraising — work he found unexpectedly fulfilling. Four years later he became the 23rd provost of the university, responsible for guiding its overall educational mission, a post he held until 1981.

It was during his tenure at Penn that Gregorian applied to become a United States citizen. At the official ceremony, he was asked to deliver remarks on behalf of the newly naturalized citizens who had just taken the oath. His speech expressed his commitment to his adopted country: “Like many other immigrant forefathers of ours, we have come not only to enjoy the benefits of America but to contribute to its development, to its growth and to its welfare. We have come to contribute to the achievement of what is left undone or unfinished in the agenda of American democracy. We have come to contribute to that perfect union.”

Gregorian’s next position, from 1981 to 1989, garnered him national acclaim as what the New York Times coined “the savior of the New York Public Library.” When he took the position as the library’s president and chief executive officer, the institution was in crisis: it was broke, the main building was in severe disrepair, its staff was demoralized, its hours of operation had been cut back to as little as eight hours a week for some branches, and there was no esteem for the institution. Gregorian reached out to the city’s political and philanthropic communities and, according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, “enticed, inveigled, and corralled the state of New York and New York Public Library to provide the model of how you could revive a great institution.”

The New York Times called Gregorian’s appeals “a voice of conscience.” He told The New Yorker: “Think of a lone person in one of our reading rooms, who has just read a book, a single book that has perhaps not been read in 20 years by another living soul, and from that reading comes an invention of incalculable importance to the human race. It makes a man tremble.”

In all, Gregorian raised $327 million in a public-private partnership, allowing the Library to become once again the intellectual, scholarly, and cultural repository for the nation.

In 1989 Gregorian was eager to return to academia, and accepted the presidency of Brown University, where he ran a successful capital campaign that doubled the university’s endowment, raising over $500 million, and brought in 275 new faculty members, including 72 new professors. Gregorian left behind a flourishing campus and academic community when he returned to New York City in 1997 to become the 12th president of Carnegie Corporation.

Andrew Carnegie established Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911 to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” The Corporation’s work focuses on the issues that Andrew Carnegie considered of paramount importance: international peace, the advancement of education and knowledge, and the strength of democracy. According to the statement issued by Carnegie Corp., Gregorian often remarked that his years as its leader greatly widened his perspective about the impact and importance of philanthropy as practiced by institutions such as foundations as well as by private citizens, noting that “the societal benefits of all this philanthropy are beyond measure.”

Vartan Gregorian legacy
Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, hugs Big Bird before the big, yellow bird left the stage at the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy ceremony held Oct. 3, 2017, in New York.

At the Corporation he grew its endowment from $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion and grants received during his tenure went toward strengthening education international security, democratic institutions, and global development. Domestically, he emphasized reforms in teacher training and liberal arts education; abroad, he stressed scholarships for social sciences and humanities.

He also found new ways to bring together the more than 20 sister organizations established by Andrew Carnegie, including the Carnegie Hero Fund. He inaugurated the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2001, which honors philanthropists from all over the world, chosen by the Carnegie organizations, who have dedicated their private wealth to the public good.

Hero Fund Board Member and Carnegie’s great-granddaughter Linda Hills expressed her sadness in hearing the news of Gregorian’s passing.

“I just wanted to express my own very deep sadness for the loss of this extraordinary man whom I knew as a personal friend, but who was vastly more than that,” she wrote to the Commission. “I knew Vartan Gregorian also as a sincere and stalwart friend of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission and its sister hero funds abroad. Vartan’s interest and support in all of my great-grandfather’s institutions in many ways set him apart from any of his predecessors at Carnegie Corporation.”

President George W. Bush awarded Gregorian the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. In addition, Gregorian was decorated by the French, Italian, Austrian, and Portuguese governments. He received scores of honorary degrees and was honored by countless cultural and professional associations. Gregorian also served on numerous boards: the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the American Academy in Berlin, the J. Paul Getty Trust, Aga Khan University, the Qatar Foundation, the McGraw-Hill Companies, Brandeis University, Human Rights Watch, The Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Alexandria, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others. In 2015 Gregorian cofounded the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, which was created on behalf of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and seeks to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. It administers the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, for which Gregorian served on the selection committee.

Gregorian was the author of The Road to Home: My Life and Times; Islam: A Mosaic, Not A Monolith; and The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880–1946.

Gregorian was preceded in death by his wife, Clare Russell Gregorian. He is survived by his three sons: Vahé Gregorian and his wife Cindy Billhartz Gregorian of Kansas City, Missouri; Raffi Gregorian of New York City; and Dareh Gregorian and his wife Maggie Haberman Gregorian of Brooklyn, New York. He is also survived by five grandchildren: Juan, Maximus, Sophie, Miri, and Dashiell; and a sister, Ojik Arakelian of Massachusetts and Iran.