With a slight waddle, always pressing forward and never yielding an inch in retreat, the wiry-haired, goateed little man was greeting every comer in the Brown University quadrangle.
Here was Vartan Gregorian, Brown's exuberant fox terrier of a president, in action, welcoming new students and their parents to the campus and accepting thanks for his notable tenure and congratulations on his next role as president of the Carnegie Corporation.
Mr. Gregorian's achievements at Brown have been widely recorded. The school's endowment has almost tripled to $900 million dollars. In five years, the funds available for student aid doubled. He recruited 275 new faculty members, saw 72 named to university professorships. The focus of the university has returned to teaching, with Brown joining Dartmouth at the top of that category among Ivy League colleges. He saw 20 endowed assistant professorships as what he called an investment in "potential as well as achievement." Brown's popularity rating moved from the top 20 select campuses to the top 10.
But these achievements might only have been how Gregorian's record at Brown looked to the outside world. So I drove down to Providence, R.I., to ask him what constitutes effectiveness in a nonprofit setting, whether at Brown, at the New York Public Library, which he had earlier restored to prominence, or at Carnegie, where he will oversee some $60 million in grant aid in education, peace work, and other public service programs. Arriving early, I'd observed him from a distance. We talked at the faculty club.
"You don't have a bottom line," he explained about nonprofit leadership. "You do have a large number of constituencies to which you are accountable. Each has expectations for you.
"Students want a curriculum that is diverse enough. They want truth in packaging, a good advising system, an atmosphere in which hate or intolerance are not allowed to succeed. You have to invest in keeping a faculty, and give them a reason not to leave for competing offers. Alumni are interested in applicant yields, how many offspring you admit. At the city, state, and federal levels, major initiatives are expected as ongoing commitments. The corporation cares whether you achieve all your aspirations without going bankrupt."
His legendary energy?
"I don't get physically tired if I'm not mentally tired. I never tire as long as I'm interested. And I like people."
Why leave Brown now? He'd set limits at the outset. "I'd promised to stay a minimum of five years and, under no circumstances, more than 10 years." This June will mark his ninth and last commencement at Brown.
What drives him? He suggests a survivor's instinct. He and his sister "are the sole survivors of a family that fell victim to disease and war." A pragmatist, he believes it is not enough to hold high ideals, but you must deliver on them: "You must provide the mechanics of the aim."
The point of leverage is the faculty: "A university is the hardest institution to govern. It's horizontal. Churches, unions, governments are hierarchical. University presidents as much as possible have to be faculty members, part of the community of scholars. Universities insist on consensus, and consensus requires trust, aspiration, and respect if you're going to lead."
New York City, where Gregorian is headed to take over at Carnegie, is undergoing a renaissance. Gregorian sees a need for initiatives in education and in the practice of citizenship in America. His curiosity is engaged, the legendary energy at the ready.
* Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.