The Education of a Critical Mind. Vartan Gregorian's goal for Brown University students also describes his own career to date. INTERVIEW
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — BY the time Vartan Gregorian has described his multi-cultural, multi-lingual boyhood in the Middle East, his emigration to the United States, and his rapid rise in academia as a scholar, teacher, author, and administrator, he already seems like three or four different people. But that was only the beginning. Next came the years when his charismatic presence and fund-raising ingenuity earned him national fame as ``the man who saved the New York Public Library.'' And now this 20th-century Renaissance man has embarked on yet another phase of his career, as president of Brown University.
Relaxing in his well-appointed office one afternoon in the midst of a typical 14-hour day, Mr. Gregorian spoke of his deep commitment to learning - and of his fears about the direction in which he sees American education heading. Too many students, he says, are so preoccupied with grades and SAT scores that they've lost sight of the fact that what really counts is the educational process itself.
``The question is always `What were your scores? What's your average?' - never, `What courses did you take?''' he pointed out. ``Education is valued for what it will give you rather than what it can make out of you.''
An adjunct of this sort of thinking, he says, is that ``too many people today want ready-made answers; they're abdicating their right to explore.'' Instead, he says, students should be encouraged to think of education as a lifelong experience, with the university supplying the ``compass'' in the form of a critical mind.
The story of Gregorian's life reads like some sort of mythic saga. So it's little surprise when accounts of his life cross the line between reality and fantasy. Leafing through clippings about his appointment to Brown, for example, Gregorian came across one describing him as the immigrant son of a camel-train innkeeper.
``It never stops,'' he said, shrugging helplessly. ``It wasn't my father, it was my grandfather. And there were no camels, just mules and donkeys.''
But the camels sound more romantic, of course, and Gregorian isn't above mischievously keeping the myth alive. ``Sometimes I start repeating it myself,'' he told the Brown Alumni Monthly. ``Maybe they did have camels!''
Growing up in the Armenian community in Tabriz, Iran, Gregorian developed an understanding of many different cultures and languages - the latter including Persian, Armenian, eastern Turkish, Arabic, and Russian, and eventually English and French. He acquired an early love of books, and still recalls vividly the impression made on him by Victor Hugo's ``Les Mis'erables'' when he was about 12 years old.
`I CRIED and fantasized and was touched by Jean Valjean's misery,'' he says; Valjean is the protagonist of the Hugo classic. ``I identified very much with the character ... because I saw the same things all around me - the misery, the suffering, the inconsistencies, the difference between advocacy and delivery.
``One specific example occurred when I was a choirboy. A poor woman, mad and homeless, wanted to take communion, but the priest refused because she was too dirty. Contrast this with the priest in `Les Mis'erables' who saved Jean Valjean by saying he gave him the stolen candlesticks. A good example of the redemptive power of kindness, and of how acting in the right way is more important than talking about it.''
Another early influence was his maternal grandmother, whom he credits with instilling in him the values that have carried through his entire life.
``I learned all my ethics from her,'' he said. ``She had a great sense of honor: If you give your word, that's it. It's not a question of whether you wrote it or not, or whether you can wiggle out of it. You've undertaken a commitment, and you're bound by it. And she believed in treating everyone with dignity.''
Gregorian studied at the College Armenien in Beirut, won the school's only scholarship for study overseas, and enrolled at Stanford University, where he earned his BA and PhD.
It was there that he met his wife, Clare, with whom he has raised three sons. And it was during this period, while teaching history at San Francisco State College from 1960 to 1968, that he received the Danforth Foundation's prestigious Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching.
``I was most touched,'' he recalls. `Not so much by the award itself as by the comments of the students. They said things like I `wouldn't let them off,' and I `never gave up on them.'''
The latter is particularly important to Gregorian, who loves to teach. He considers it ``the most noble profession,'' and feels that ``to quit on any student would be agreeing that you failed as a teacher.''
From 1968 to 1972, Gregorian taught at the University of Texas, where he published a landmark book on modern Afghanistan. Then he moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, where, for the next eight years, he held various teaching and administrative posts, eventually rising to the post of provost.
When he was passed over for the presidency at Penn despite being widely seen as the front-runner for the post, Gregorian left the academic world to accept the position of president of the New York Public Library - and the challenge of restoring a once-great institution that had fallen upon hard times.
It was in this phase of his career that Gregorian captured the fancy of New York literary and social circles as a charismatic, whirlwind combination of administrator, intellectual, entrepreneur, and fund-raiser. All in all, he raised some $172 million in private donations and more from other, public sources enabling the library to restore its architectural splendor, computerize its catalog room, and reestablish itself as one of the major centers of the city's intellectual and cultural life.
Now it's on to Brown, where instead of a restoration project he faces a different sort of challenge: keeping one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious educational institutions on track and moving ahead.
`THIS university has a brilliant student body, and it's up to me to make sure that it isn't ever in any way neglected or bored,'' he said. ``There's so much more to learn today - more cultures, new ideas. Obviously, no one can accumulate it all. We'll try to be illustrative rather than comprehensive. But you still have to be honest intellectually. It can't be a `50 Great Moments in Music' kind of thing.''
Gregorian has always taught at least one course, even when holding down administrative positions, and expects to continue the practice at Brown as long as he feels he has the time to do it properly.
``I'm always nervous when I'm getting ready to teach,'' he said. ``It's just an awesome responsibility to get up before a class and try to transmit knowledge and instill curiosity.
If you don't have time to prepare, inform yourself, and bring the material up to date, you aren't going to do it justice. And I must do it justice.
Gregorian's proven fund-raising ability also clearly appealed to a school that has the smallest endowment of any Ivy League college, and no doubt he'll be active in that area.
``There's room to build here,'' he said. ``And I'm a builder, not a presider. But it's not a question of money alone. I want to attract the best students and the best faculty, and to maintain that delicate balance between teaching and research.''
Most of all, he wants to make the entire educational process work, and to develop in all of Brown's students the ability for critical thought that can enhance and enrich their lives.
``The burden on the university,'' he said, leading into one of his favorite quotations by the 18th-century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ``is to increase the number of those who are willing to undergo `the fatigue of judging for themselves.'''