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Vartan Gregorian: From Immigrant to Leading Philanthropist

Vartan Gregorian, a humble Iranian Armenian immigrant to the United States who rose to become a leading figure in American academia and philanthropy, died April 15 in a hospital in New York City at the age of 87. From 1997 until his death, he was president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a major foundation that supports education, democracy and international peace.

Gregorian steered the foundation to provide significant support for development of the social sciences in the Middle East. He was also active in countering Islamophobia and the idea of a “clash of civilizations” that would supposedly pit the West against the Muslim world—notions that took on greater popularity after Al Qaeda’s 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Over the past decade, as the Arab Spring and Syria’s brutal civil war have deeply shaken the Middle East, the Carnegie Foundation, under Gregorian’s leadership, has become a leading funder of scholarship on, and in, the Middle East. Its work has included support for the Arab Council for Social Sciences; the Arab Barometer, a major public opinion research project in the region; and Athar (Portal for Social Impact of Scientific Research In/On the Arab World), based at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. (See a related article, “Are University Rankings Relevant to the Arab World?”)

“Our core strategy [in the Middle East] is to support centers of expertise that are training the next generation of leaders in the region.”

Hillary S. Wiesner
Director of the Carnegie Corporation’s Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program

Hillary S. Wiesner, director of Carnegie’s Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program, says the foundation’s aim is to build up local capacity for high-level academic work. “Our core strategy [in the Middle East] is to support centers of expertise that are training the next generation of leaders in the region.”

Academic Esteem in the U.S.

Vartan Gregorian was born in 1934 to Christian Armenian parents in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz. He completed his elementary education in Iran and then went to Beirut for secondary school at the Collège Arménien. In 1956 he won a scholarship to Stanford University, in California. He arrived with shaky English but quickly became fluent and received an undergraduate degree with honors two years later. In 1964 he was awarded a Ph.D. in history and the humanities from Stanford.

He then embarked on a stellar academic career, teaching history and rising to become president of Brown University, in Rhode Island. Along the way, he took a detour in the 1980s to serve for eight years as president of the New York Public Library. He arrived at a time when the vast network comprising the main research library on New York’s Fifth Avenue and 83 branches in the city was dilapidated and broke. Yet with his infectious passion for libraries and his lobbying with the city’s social elite, he raised large sums of private and public funding, reburnished the library’s public image, and rescued the institution.

In 2003, already at the head of the Carnegie Corporation, Gregorian published Islam: A Mosaic, Not A Monolithin which he sought to demonstrate the great diversity and divisions within the Muslim world. The book was a rebuttal of the idea, promoted by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington and others, that after the end of the Cold War, the world’s main future conflicts would be between Islamic totalitarianism and the rest of civilization.

In Islam: A Mosaic, Not A Monolith, a book he published in 2003, Gregorian sought to demonstrate the great diversity and divisions within the Muslim world.

A public intellectual who spoke seven languages and readily dispensed bear hugs as a form of emotional support, Gregorian avoided involvement in politics. But he had a deep appreciation for the weight of history on the present.

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In 2009 Gregorian published an open, would-be letter from President Obama to the Iranian leadership. The letter mixes Obama’s characteristic cultural sensitivity with an apology for the CIA’s involvement in 1953 overthrow of Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, thanks Iran for condemning the 9/11 attacks, and makes a conciliatory request for the abandonment of nuclear fuel enrichment.

Note: The Carnegie Corporation has provided financial support to Al-Fanar Media.


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