Dear Members of the Brown Community,
It is with deep sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of President Emeritus Vartan Gregorian, Ph.D. LHD'84 hon. An accomplished scholar of the humanities, historian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, his leadership and influence spanned decades across higher education and philanthropy, including his leadership of the New York Public Library and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
His impact and legacy as Brown’s 16th president, from 1989 to 1997, is seen through his commitment to strengthening the academic experience, embracing the diversity that is essential to achieving the highest levels of excellence, and furthering the University’s role in preparing students to be responsible and informed global citizens. True to Brown’s mission, he championed liberal arts education as an essential cornerstone of global knowledge and understanding. Those who knew him personally remember his characteristic exuberance, his passion for knowledge and his thoughtful generosity.
As Brown’s president, Vartan Gregorian oversaw the establishment of 11 new academic departments and several multidisciplinary centers in areas including public service and support for historically underrepresented groups. He was responsible for the hiring of 270 new faculty members, and the endowment of 90 professorships. Meanwhile, he strengthened the University’s libraries with support for digitization, preservation and increased access. He expanded academic opportunities for students with new fellowship and research programs in which students work side-by-side with faculty.
He made remarkable contributions to University advancement, overseeing the five-year Campaign for the Rising Generation that raised $543 million, the University’s most ambitious fundraising campaign at that time. He more than doubled Brown’s endowment to $1 billion, and he doubled funding for undergraduate scholarships to its highest point at that time.
President Gregorian also strongly believed that institutions of higher education have an obligation to respond to urgent social needs across the nation and the world. Notable examples include his establishment of The Annenberg Institute for School Reform to improve primary and secondary education, as well as The Leadership Alliance to support talented students from historically underrepresented groups in higher education and research. Locally, he strengthened Brown’s ongoing commitment to K-12 education. University athletic teams supported Providence students through tutoring, mentoring and other hosting school-wide activities at what was then the Fox Point Elementary School. In 1997 the school was renamed Vartan Gregorian Elementary School in his honor.
Vartan Gregorian’s worldview was largely shaped by his experiences as an immigrant in the United States. He was an ardent believer in the transformative power of education as a means to personal growth as well as the betterment of society. He summarized these views in part in his final 1997 Convocation address: “We must continue to provide opportunities for all so that our country’s best institutions of higher learning do not become the sole preserve of the talented few who are wealthy enough to afford tuition or poor enough to qualify for aid. We must provide opportunities for the entire spectrum of our society. For America is a microcosm of the world, and Brown must be a microcosm of America.”
Vartan Gregorian was born in Tabriz, Iran, to Armenian parents. He attended elementary school in Tabriz, followed by secondary education at the Collège Arménian in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1956, he moved to California to attend Stanford University where he graduated with honors in history and the humanities in just two years. He earned a PhD from Stanford in 1964, writing a dissertation on traditionalism and modernism in Islam.
For many years Vartan Gregorian taught European and Middle Eastern history and earned many distinctions. His career eventually brought him to the University of Pennsylvania where he was later named provost. In 1981, he became president of The New York Public Library, where he was widely credited with rescuing the institution from financial crisis. He was selected as Brown’s 16th president in August 1988. In 1997, he was selected to lead the Carnegie Corporation, where he championed the causes of education, immigration, and international peace and security.
In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Vartan Gregorian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. In 1998, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton. He was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts.
Throughout his time at the Carnegie Corporation, Vartan Gregorian remained unfailingly loyal to and supportive of the University. Brown will remain forever appreciative of President Gregorian’s remarkable contributions. At this difficult time, please join me in conveying sincere condolences to the Gregorian family, including his children, Vahé, Raffi and Dareh.
Christina H. Paxson