This Week in Armenian History

Birth of Vartan Gregorian (April 8, 1934)

Historian by vocation and administrator by destiny, Vartan Gregorian went from a difficult childhood to becoming one of the most respected intellectuals in America. 

He was born on April 8, 1934, in Tabriz (Iran). His father was mostly absent. His mother died when he was six and his father later remarried. Vartan and his younger sister were raised by his maternal grandmother. 

He first went to an Armenian elementary school in Tabriz and then a Russian one when northern Iran was under Soviet occupation. He continued his studies at the Jemaran (Armenian College) in Beirut, graduating in 1955. Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the first independent Republic of Armenia and principal of the Jemaran, was among his teachers and mentors.  

In 1956, Gregorian enrolled at Stanford University and completed his B.A. in history and humanities in two years, graduating with honors in 1958. He married Clare Russell (1938-2018) in 1960. They had three sons: Vahé, Raffi, and Dareh Ardashes.  

Gregorian earned a dual PhD in history and humanities from Stanford in 1964. His dissertation was titled “Traditionalism and Modernism in Islam.” He began his teaching career at University of California, Berkeley, where he was briefly instructor in Armenian history and culture in 1960. He taught at San Francisco State College (1962-1968) and then at University of Texas at Austin (1968-1972). He joined the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 as professor and served as founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (1974-1978) and Provost (1979-1980). 

In the 1980s, Vartan Gregorian became a nationally famous name when he was designated president of the New York Public Library (1981-1989) and credited with spearheading the renaissance of the library from a precarious situation. By the end of his tenure, he had secured about $400 million for the library from individuals, foundations, and corporations. He restored the Main Branch in Manhattan and the nearby Bryant Park. From 1984 to 1989 he taught at New York University and at The New School for Social Research. 

He repeated his success as president of Brown University (1989-1997). When he took over, Brown had the lowest endowment ($370 million) in the Ivy League. In eight years, Gregorian raised the total to $850 million. He is also credited with having strengthened Brown’s reputation.  

In 1997, Gregorian was chosen as the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He switched from his previous fundraising role to one of fund granter.  

He published three books: The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946 (1969), Islam: A Mosaic, not a Monolith (2003), and The Road to Home: My Life and Times (2003). 

He was involved in projects in the Armenian American community and Armenia. He was on the Board of Governors of UWC Dilijan, the first international boarding school in Armenia founded in 2014. In 2016, he co-founded the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity with Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan.  

Vartan Gregorian died on April 15, 2021, in New York.  

An elementary school in Fox Point, Providence (Rhode Island) is named after Gregorian, as well as the Center for Research in the Humanities of the New York Public Library, the headquarters of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, a learning center in the American University of Armenia. By 2007, he had received 75 awards, decorations, civic honors, and medals, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the National Humanities Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor among others. He had received about 70 honorary degrees by 2015. He was also honored by the government of the Republic of Armenia, the Armenian Church, and Armenian diaspora organizations. He was a supporter of the Eastern Prelacy and in 1998 Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia bestowed upon him the title of Prince of Cilicia. Catholicos Karekin I of All Armenians rewarded him in 1999 with the St. Gregory the Illuminator Medal. He became a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 2008 and also received the Mkhitar Gosh Medal and the Order of Honor of Armenia.