Passages: Brown University President Emeritus Vartan Gregorian

The University’s 16th president from 1989 to 1997, Gregorian was an accomplished scholar, historian and transformative leader for Brown, the New York Public Library and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Vartan Gregorian, a distinguished scholar and higher education leader who served as Brown University’s 16th president from 1989 to 1997, died on Thursday, April 15, at age 87.

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.

Brown President Christina H. Paxson shared the news in an April 17 letter to the University community. She wrote that Gregorian’s impact and legacy are evident through his commitment to strengthening Brown’s 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,” Paxson wrote. “Those who knew him personally remember his characteristic exuberance, his passion for knowledge and his thoughtful generosity… Brown will remain forever appreciative of President Gregorian’s remarkable contributions.”

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 those views in his final Convocation address at Brown, in 1997:

“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,” he said. “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.”

Samuel M. Mencoff, Brown’s current chancellor and a Class of 1978 graduate, said Gregorian’s commitment to Brown’s success and his dedication to the role of educational institutions as essential to addressing community needs well beyond their campuses live on in the Brown of today.

“Vartan was a distinguished scholar, educator, builder and a warm and gentle soul whose legacy at Brown is deep and enduring,” Mencoff said. “With an historian’s appreciation for how the study of the past can illuminate the future, he dedicated his life to advancing the public good on a global basis. The Brown community has lost one of its greatest and most benevolent champions.”

As a member of the Brown Corporation during Gregorian’s tenure, Class of 1962 graduate and Chancellor Emeritus Stephen Robert worked closely with the former president. Robert recalled “Greg” — as Gregorian was affectionally known to many — as a beloved campus leader whose accomplishments in strengthening Brown’s academic programs and financial position lived up to the hefty expectations that preceded his arrival.

“Greg was larger than life in every way — he had extraordinary charisma and an incredible ability to connect with everyone from global heads of state to students and faculty at Brown,” Robert said. “He was a wise man and a great leader, and his life made the world a better place.”

A champion for students, scholarship and social good

As Brown’s president, 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 Brown’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.

Sheila Blumstein, a longtime Brown faculty member who oversaw undergraduate education as dean of the College for much of Gregorian’s tenure, said he was a constant advocate for students and their academic goals who believed deeply in the fundamental principles of Brown’s signature Open Curriculum.

“He believed that students were active participants in the learning enterprise, not passive objects of teaching,” she said. “He believed that students could and should craft their own course of study with the essential support of the faculty as advisors and teachers.”

Blumstein said Gregorian enhanced Brown’s reputation globally and, on campus, worked to internationalize the curriculum itself, creating opportunities for students to look more broadly at issues around the world, whether in history, philosophy, literature or other disciplines. He also encouraged working across academic disciplines to solve problems, a hallmark of the University’s rigorous scholarship today.

Vartan Gregorian Quad
In 1998, Brown’s Thayer Street Quadrangle residential complex was renamed the Vartan Gregorian Quadrangle in the 16th University president’s honor; a year earlier and just blocks away, the Fox Point Elementary School in Providence was renamed Vartan Gregorian Elementary School.

He made remarkable contributions to University advancement, overseeing the five-year Campaign for the Rising Generation that raised $534 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. Gregorian established many programs to support campus scholars, overseeing the creation of the Royce Fellows Program and Salomon Research Awards, which enable Brown students and faculty alike to expand their inquiries into new, bold areas.

Gregorian 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.

In 1998, Brown’s Thayer Street Quadrangle residential complex was renamed the Vartan Gregorian Quadrangle; it was Gregorian himself who sat at the controls of a backhoe in May 1990 when ground was broken for the 300-bed facility, which opened in the fall of 1991.

“The words that our buildings whisper down to the Brown students of the future will always now include the name Vartan Gregorian,” Brown’s late Chancellor Artemis A.W. Joukowsky said when the name was unveiled. “And it is my greatest hope tonight that those students of Brown who will walk in the Gregorian Quadrangle for decades to come will know of this great president's determination, his drive and his love for Brown.”

Blumstein called Gregorian a mentor and a dear friend who was unceasingly warm and welcoming. She recalled deep discussions about both the opportunities and challenges facing the University in any given moment, often over dinner at Gregorian’s home with the president and his wife, Clare, who Blumstein says was his lifelong partner in all of his pursuits. Blumstein last spoke with him after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing both memories and assurances that each was staying healthy and safe during the public health crisis.

“He reached out to people, not just when things were good, but also when life was hard,” she said. “He was easy to work with, good-humored, brimming with ideas and committed to Brown.”

A global perspective and impact

Gregorian was born in Tabriz, Iran, to Armenian parents. He attended elementary school in Tabriz, followed by secondary education in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1956, he earned a scholarship to attend Stanford University, graduating with honors in history and the humanities in just two years. At Stanford, he met his late wife Clare Russell Gregorian, and the two were married in 1960. He earned a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1964, writing a dissertation on traditionalism and modernism in Islam.

Vartan Gregorian Portrait
An oil-on-canvas portrait of Gregorian, pained by Lucia and Warren Prosperi and unveiled in 1998, hangs in Sayles Hall as part of the University’s portrait collection.

For many years, Gregorian taught European and Middle Eastern history and in 1972, he was named a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. He became founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and four years later became Penn’s 23rd provost, serving until 1981.

While at Penn, he became a U.S. citizen, saying of 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.”

In 1981, he became president of the New York Public Library, where he is 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.

Gregorian’s work has been recognized with numerous honors nationally and globally, including — before his presidency at Brown — an honorary degree from the University in 1984. In 1998, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton. In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. And President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

He was also awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. And in 2017, Gregorian was awarded France’s Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in recognition of his efforts to strengthen U.S.-France relations. The president of the Republic of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, bestowed upon him the Order of Honor in appreciation of Gregorian’s service to the country.

An oil-on-canvas portrait of Gregorian, unveiled in 1998, hangs in Sayles Hall as part of the University’s portrait collection. A pencil-and-charcoal portrait of him is housed in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Gregorian was predeceased by his wife, Clare Russell Gregorian, who died in 2018. He is survived by his three sons: Vahé Gregorian and his wife, Cindy Billhartz Gregorian, of Kansas City, Missouri; Raffi Gregorian of New York, New York; 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.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that the Campaign for the Rising Generation raised $543 million. This fact has been corrected.