STUDENTS don't fail; teachers fail,'' insists Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University. ```He never gave up on anyone,''' Gregorian said the other afternoon in a conversation at the Brown campus. ``That's the student comment that pleases me most. I still believe everyone is educable.
``The only exam I've kept is one of a student that flunked. He wrote two paragraphs on the final. I wrote two pages of comments on why those two paragraphs were wrong. He returned it with a note: `For God's sake, I didn't study. Take it easy!'''
Gregorian, starting his sophomore year at Brown, does not take it easy.
Not on himself: ``I have given totally of myself. I have not given time. Every job I have taken I have taken as a mission. The example has energized people around me.
``I teach. I have no teaching assistant correct my exams. I have never in my life given a single multiple choice exam. I have given only essay exams. Sure it's cost me a lot. I correct papers on airplanes. But I practice that I'm a teacher first, an administrator or head of an institution second. Therefore, I cannot be manipulated or put on the defensive. No professor is going to come and tell me, `It's easy for you; you are an administrator; you are not in the trenches.' I am in the trenches.''
Gregorian took on a gargantuan teaching task in 1981 when he became head of the New York Public Library: ``The whole city, the whole society had come to agree that public institutions cannot be excellent, that excellence and democracy are mutually exclusive, that excellence belongs in the private domain. I wanted to show that excellence and democracy are possible. Ordinary people deserve the best. That's such an elementary and fundamental point that nobody makes any more: The least deserve the most.''
Gregorian shined the library's brightwork, made it into a cultural center, computerized its operations, opened facilities for the handicapped, raised $400 million in matching private and public funds.
A city cannot be great without a great library, he argued. A library gives ``earthly immortality.'' It is civilization's memory bank, available to populists and elitists alike. By the time he left for Brown in April 1989, New York had succumbed to Gregorian's vision.
At Brown Gregorian is less concerned for the university itself than for the society it sits in. Brown is one of the five most sought-after US campuses for freshmen. It is a teaching college; it has no research professorships - and will not have so long as Gregorian is president, he vows. Brown has recently experienced three student suicides and another tragic death that have upset the campus.
Gregorian is moving on many fronts to offer support. A theme for the '90s is to foster a ``compassionate generation.''
Still, society itself is in a kind of trouble that even the ablest of youths do not escape on the collegiate heights in Providence, R.I. America is suffering a ``historical letdown'' such as occurred after the collapse of Alexander's empire. As today's world globalizes, it is not becoming a global ``village'' in the sense of getting simpler, but is growing more intricate.
Missing is a sense of history, commitment, and values. Life is fragmented. Wholeness and priority are obscured when TV news shows give equal weight to Saddam Hussein and to reserving a burial plot in the Cayman Islands.
``A right cause energizes,'' he says. ``What depresses people is not believing in a cause. They have to see a higher goal.''
His leadership formula: ``You have to have a right idea. You have to believe in it. You have to fight for it. And you have to find allies.''
Society needs to be freed from an imprisoning concern with self: ``We need a moral center, not a moral enclosure.''
Youths need their sights lifted and teachers must do the lifting.
Gregorian intends to use Brown, the least endowed financially of the Ivy schools, as an educational lever. And he will not go easy on it until it succeeds.