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Life before Brown
Vartan Gregorianís long and winding Roads

A lot of people around here are going to skip right to the last chapter of Vartan Gregorianís memoir, The Road to Home ó My Life and Times. Itís there that he recounts his coming to town in 1988 to be the president of Brown, an eyebrow-raising nine-year period when he made some impressive and fundamental changes. But jumping to the end would be a mistake. To understand how Gregorian has managed to enhance the character of the university, you have to get some insight into the character of the person.

You can try to get a sense of his amiable personality ó perhaps the moniker "Gregarious Gregorian" was too on the money to stick ó when the avuncular stout man with the trademark Van Dyke beard and mustache conducts two book-signings on the East Side this Friday.

Better yet, you can read this absorbing autobiography, an account of an archetypal American immigrant who made good ó not by making money, as the Horatio Alger myth would have it, but by doing good. He was born and raised in Tabriz, Iran, a poor ethnic Armenian and Christian in a Muslim-majority country. Growing up he spoke Turkish and Persian, in addition to Armenian. He didnít get along with his father, who taught English, so he had to wait till he was 15 to begin to learn that language.

By then Gregorian was destitute in Beirut, having placed himself at the mercy of an Armenian-French lycée and the kindness of strangers. To be allowed to take classes for credit and not just audit them, he promised to learn not only French on his own but also Arabic within a year, in addition to his English classes. (One volunteer French teacher corrected the lessons that Gregorian brought to his nightly bridge games.) It was at this school that Gregorianís life was launched on its remarkable trajectory. At 18 he was assistant to the last prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, Simon Vratzian, who became his mentor and eventually benefactor.

Much of the attraction of the older Gregorian to universities and other institutions had to do with his considerable skills as a capital campaign rain man. In 1981, when he signed on to rescue the moribund New York Public Library, its budget deficit was snowballing and the morale of the staff was deteriorating faster than the books. In seven years, he led efforts that raised nearly $400 million in grants, contributions and in-kind donations from book collectors.

That level of accomplishment with donors requires consummate people skills, but now and then Gregorian has failed to charm. By all rights he should have become president of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was chief academic dean ó and not only because he turned down the offer of his dream job, to be chancellor of UC/Berkeley. (His successor at Brown, E. Gordon Gee, who remained only two years until a more appealing offer came along, should underline Gregorianís account.) But Gregorianís candidacy was opposed by some hostile trustees, one of whom said that he and others feared that the amiable Armenian lacked the requisite "social graces," presumably with icy WASP disdain. As Gregorian notes, "I was not a Mr. Magoo. If somebody spits at me, I cannot pretend it is a raindrop."

Three pages into his concluding chapter, which covers his Brown years, Gregorian admits that "believe it or not" he misses academic politics. This after having just discussed the horrendous manipulations by UPenn trustees that triggered his resigning as head of academics. We donít learn anything about Brown inner-circle machinations, but we do get lots of "outlandish tributes" he passes on unabashed ó the occasion was the lavish black-tie send-off the New York library threw ó that remind us of the high expectations he faced on his arrival.

As he details, he changed Brown significantly. Instead of weakening the still-unique 20-year-old "new curriculum" ó where students fashion their own interdisciplinary course of study for two years before settling into a concentration ó Gregorian made it work better, with more mentoring and other guidance through what he didnít want to be "a candy store" of choices. The 16th president did a lot to help the university continue being Brown. He brought in 270 new faculty and endowed 92 professorships and 10 lecture series. He more than doubled the undergraduate fund for scholarships, indexing them to tuition increases. The number of library volumes increased from two million to three million. This all cost money, at the Ivy League university with the smallest endowment (less than $400 million). When Gregorian left, the endowment was a bit more than $1 billion.

But there is another concluding chapter, as yet unwritten. Itís fitting that the 69-year-old man who has spent so many years raising funds for worthy organizations should now find himself dispensing money as president of a philanthropic institution, the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Itís a chapter of his life that he is currently writing with actions rather than words, a habit he got into while doing his considerable research for this inspiring autobiography.

Vartan Gregorian will sign The Road to Home this Friday, May 23 from 12 to 2 p.m. at College Hill Book Store (252 Thayer Street, Providence, 401-751-6404), and at 2:30 p.m. at the Brown University Bookstore (244 Thayer Street, Providence, 401-863-3168).

Issue Date: May 23 - 29, 2003
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