Vartan Gregorian

A Man for All Seasons, Part I

VTR Date: April 22, 2004

Dr. Vartan Gregorian discusses his career and the state of education.


GUEST: Dr. Vartan Gregorian
VTR: 4/22/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the intriguing and ebullient Armenian gentlemen sitting right across the table from me today is Dr. Vartan Gregorian, historian, librarian, educator, administrator, foundation chieftain … in other words, truly a man for all intellectual seasons, who now heads the prestigious Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Now, probably I should just greet my elusive guest today with the exclamation, “At long last!” because Lord knows I tried and tried, but did not succeed to lure him here when he had the great good fortune and let it be known, it was its great, good fortune, as well, to preside over the destinies of that grand, indeed, unsurpassable institution, the New York Public Library.

And, of course, because I tried and tried, but again did not succeed to lure him here when he was President of Brown University.

Yet this extraordinarily dynamic man for all seasons is here now and I’m not about to look a most welcome gift horse in the mouth. But rather to begin our conversation today by quoting the very opening sentence of his compelling 1986 Profile by Philip Hamburger in The New Yorker: “The New York Public Library houses many treasures, but few are as colorful, complex and enigmatic, civilized and stimulating as Vartan Gregorian, its President and Chief Executive Officer.”

And I dare say the counterpart with many other approving descriptions, as well, “vital, brilliant, energizing, challenging” could have written about my guest years before as a teacher at Stanford, at the University of Texas, at the University of Pennsylvania, then as President at Brown, and now as head of the prestigious Carnegie Corporation.

Indeed, since each of us somewhere, somehow sums up our own personal ‘this I believe’, I would first off today ask Vartan Gregorian if he didn’t do that recently in writing, that “the fundamental challenge of education is to empower our young people to be active players in the drama of life, not mere spectators. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. … quote a life is action and passion, it is required of a man and a woman that they should share the passion and action of their time; at peril of being judged as not to have lived.” Now, that’s pure Gregorian, isn’t it?

GREGORIAN: [Laughter] Yes. Well, that sums up … you’re very astute by quoting that. That sums up my philosophy in many ways. Because I believe teaching is the noblest of noble professions. And a great teacher is the one who sees abilities in individuals who don’t think they have those abilities.

And also … it’s a wonderful gift to be alive. I always tell my students that you have to decide whether you’d like to be a comma, a dot, a letter, a word, a line, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a book in the history of the life … or in life. Or a blank page. That being alive comes with an awesome responsibility of discovery and re-discovery. Becoming and being. And constantly re-inventing oneself.

HEFFNER: What did you decide?

GREGORIAN: Well, I am still not finished. I have played, re-enacted … I quoted recently one of my favorite authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez that people are not born once and for all when their mothers give birth to them. But throughout their live, they reinvent themselves, they give constant re-births. There’s so much stimulation, so much challenge, so much wonder in the universe that one cannot be confined in pigeon holes defined by others.

I was told by a close friend of mine that we’re able to use only 5% of our capacities of our brain; there’s so much we have … and why neglect it. Unless you decide consciously that nothing is worth …

HEFFNER: To be a dot, or a comma. What about the challenges you face in terms of these different things that you’ve done. You’ve always taught …


HEFFNER: … you’ll always be a teacher.


HEFFNER: No matter where you are.


HEFFNER: But which of the challenges has been the one that perhaps has brought out the 10%, the 20%, maybe even the 99% …

GREGORIAN: Well, I would think two … of all the challenges I’ve tried to contribute to that … number one challenge as a teacher was to instill in students love of learning. Not facts alone. Love of learning; the joy of discovery, the joy of becoming and being. And I’ve taught maybe 12, 13 thousand students. I’ve kept one blue book only … of all the thousands of blue books I’ve corrected in airplanes, in hotels, in cafes and so forth … the one blue book … and I always give an essay exam … the one blue book I corrected because the student wrote one paragraph and left the classroom, but even that one paragraph was wrong. So I wrote one comment on that one paragraph … why that paragraph was wrong. So students wrote a commentary on my comments and returned it … it said “take it easy, I didn’t study.”

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

GREGORIAN: So that meant a lot to me. That he felt guilty that even whatever he put was worthy of my comment because I was taking him seriously. He’s now a big shot, that person … I won’t mention the name. But the bonds that he and I have are one of respect, of teacher and the student. Because I would not give up on him. I never did. And that is one challenge. When you face not just one individual, a class of individuals.

And I see them, by the way, in various stations of love and various stations of life … street and cafes and theaters … people approach … “I took a course from you 25 years …” or two Wall Street bankers invited me one day to take me out for lunch to celebrate 25th anniversary of the course they took from me … European Intellectual History … both of them now are well-dressed and also very uneasy that the relationship had changed between teacher and student.

Second challenge was to build a new faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, bringing five different units and form an entire new faculty of arts and sciences. Very difficult. As you remember Woodrow Wilson said, as former President of Princeton … he said, “It’s easier to transplant an entire cemetery than to make a curriculum reform.”

Well, that was a big challenge and I’m happy to report that with the help of many, including President Martin Meyerson and great faculty and colleagues, we managed to create a new faculty of arts and sciences out of five disparate units … College of Women, College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, then Social Science Department of Wharton … to bring together 528 faculty and 7,200 students in one year.

Now that was a challenge of building. Then the old Public Library was the biggest challenge, when instead of being a painter you start providing paint to all the painters. And [laughter] those who aspire to be painters. The idea that a person who as a child could not afford to buy books or rent books, and so forth, but now I was in charge of a library to give millions of books out and purchasing millions of books, preserving millions of books … it was one of the most exhilarating experiences for me.

And whenever I got depressed and there were occasions, then you realize what a monumental task rescuing the New York Public Library was for its leadership … Andrew Haskell, Brooke Astor, Richard Solomon, librarians themselves. I went to a reading room to see 800 people reading, was one of the most inspiring moments for me.

And then you went back to your office, it was worth damn everything you did … sleepless hours, anxieties and all the begging; all the flattering, all the egos you had to put up [with] … all the City Council members you had to meet and try to persuade, while they were eating lunch and reading newspapers and you’re talking about the library.

Everything was worth it because there were these people from different walks of life, the poor, the rich, students, scholars who have not finished, after 25 years, their book; all of them sitting there. And that you know that you’re responsible for turning the lights on, providing the service, bringing the materials … all for free in order to make this democratic society function.

HEFFNER: You know, I could hardly tell you how much, as a New Yorker, it meant to me to see step by step what you were doing with the New York Public Library. Because I remember, as a young person … I remember the contortions we went through to be able to get into the library, which you were going to a high school with a good library itself …


HEFFNER: But when you did, it was the most meaningful thing. I remember as a graduate student at Columbia somebody talking about the hours at the library and running into Allan Nevins, the great historian …


HEFFNER: … there on, I think it was New Year’s Eve …


HEFFNER: And asking him, “what are you doing here tonight.”? And he said, “You have to understand, I was brought up on a farm in Illinois, and given the work that I did as a young man, this is nothing.” And we all depended upon it and I guess you can say we can depend upon it …


HEFFNER: … again, thanks to your efforts.

GREGORIAN: But not that my efforts … New Yorker’s efforts. As I wrote in my book, I mean New Yorkers rescued New York Public Library because people had taken the New York Public Library for granted. And they realized that it’s a New York institution, not a national institution, or world class institution … a New York institution. It’s part of the culture, the fabric of New York, has been for generations of immigrants who came through here … like me.

I mean … I wrote somewhere that I was thirsty for water and the New York Public Library, the entire Stanford library became a hydrant … I was trying to drink water from a hydrant … there was so much to learn, so much there for people who have been starved for knowledge, this is one of the greatest luxuries.

HEFFNER: Not a bad metaphor in terms of the fact that the New York Public Library was where the great reservoir was …

GREGORIAN: Yes. Exactly.

HEFFNER: Before it was built.

GREGORIAN: Absolutely. That’s a very symbolic …

HEFFNER: You know in reading “The Road to Home”, your … it … should we call it an autobiography?


HEFFNER: Memoir.

GREGORIAN: Half autobiography. Half memoir. Up to the New York Public Library it’s a memoir. Then I stopped the memoir because it becomes an account of institution building.

HEFFNER: It’s quite extraordinary, the story of your, of your younger years. But as a … as one who began his academic career on the West Coast, I’m particularly taken by your devotion to Stanford, to San Francisco State College and then to Texas.


HEFFNER: You really are a Texan in a sense.

GREGORIAN: Not by accent … [laughter] by temperament, maybe yes. Because America I always thought was land of possibilities, not land of limitations. And Texas reinforced that in me … that instinct that you can do it.

California was optimistic. Texas was ambitious. And it took New York to accomplish things. But every job I have had … you are absolutely right, I have taken as a mission, not as a job. And my advice always has been that institutions need missionaries in many ways more … some, like the New York Public Library … than job seekers. Because without that sense of mission, the deprivation one suffers and effort one puts in … all of them, there comes a time that will breed cynicism or pessimism. It’s that sense of mission that librarians have that keep institutions going; it’s that sense of mission that professors have, that keeps institutions of higher learning or even K to 12 going.

HEFFNER: Now you talk about librarians and your talk professors … but you also seem now to be very much interested in journalists …


HEFFNER: … the other educators, shall we say.


HEFFNER: Are you as optimistic about journalism as I think you are about formal education?

GREGORIAN: Yes. I, I … when I … I gave an interview when I came as President of Carnegie Corporation of New York … I gave an interview to The New York Times. In it I said there are two institutions … actually three professions … very important for America now. One is librarians who have to broker information or try to help you transform information to structured knowledge. Because at a time when there is so much information you need connoisseurs to help you shift through piles and piles of information in order to get nuggets of gold, nuggets of knowledge, nuggets of wisdom. Therefore I thought librarians have to be better educated than anybody else in many ways.

HEFFNER: Are? Or should be?

GREGORIAN: Should be. Roman Jacobson tradition. Not what’s located where … but which edition contains which preface. Which introduction can add to your insight … or this and that.

Second. I thought teachers are the most important profession. Not in that order, but teaching profession. Because we entrust the future of our children … as the future of our country … our society … to teachers, so they have to be better educated. And better compensated also. But better educated in that order. Because we pay our plumbers … nothing wrong to pay them too much. Electricians. Mechanics for cars. But not those to whom we have entrusted our children. So therefore schools of education I thought have to be completely reformed in terms of content. Now there are the lowest possible … the totem pole … bottom of totem pole. They have to be re-vamped, re-energized … make intellectual respectable. And they have to be central … universities mission. Now they are not. They are peripheral.

And third thing which I did. I mentioned the schools of journalism have to be also re-vamped. Because it’s not method that journalists need, it’s knowledge. So that they’ll be able to hold institutions of our democracy intact, or safe, against all kinds of manipulators be it corporate, governmental … be it ideologues and others … because you need facts; you need interpretation, you need knowledge. And, therefore, content is very important for a journalist to be able to read an 800 page corporate report and not to fall for their spin … but to find … so therefore reforms of schools of education, schools of journalism and communication of library … there are three things I thought needed reform.

I got lots of mail, by the way. As a matter of fact in one lecture I gave to a college board … hundreds of teachers, I asked them … if I were them I would bring a class actions suits against all universities for malpractice. Because students borrow money, going into teaching … noble profession, but they’re not well prepared, in terms of content, in terms of placement, in terms of mentorship, in terms of help throughout their career. The same thing … journalists. They need constant revitalization and learning in order to be on the top of the heap. Not on the bottom.

HEFFNER: But you know, Dr. Gregorian, I … there is something wrong with that, and … I believe … forgive me … and as I’ve read your speeches and I’ve read things written about you … I thought that what you say about journalism doesn’t conform to the fact that in our country …


HEFFNER: … journalism, unlike education, unlike librarianship …


HEFFNER: … is not a public function …


HEFFNER: … it is a private, for profit …


HEFFNER: … function. So when you talk about revising the curricula …


HEFFNER: … in schools of journalism, what good does it do if the purpose of journalism is to make a buck …


HEFFNER: … not to educate or …

GREGORIAN: Well, maybe I’m … what I’m saying is anachronistic … or idealist. But I still believe that that owners of media have an obligation toward democracy also. We’re an open society. And therefore the better educated the journalists are, the better the news will be, the better investigators are … the stronger our democracy will be. I believe in that. Whether it conforms to reality or not.

HEFFNER: Ahaaa. [Laughter]

GREGORIAN: That’s a different issue.

HEFFNER: Because I would ask you whether you can say to the owners of the press … electronic and print alike … whether you could honestly say to them … what you are suggesting will enable them to achieve their mission …


HEFFNER: … as well as your own.

GREGORIAN: Yes. I, I believe that democracy and excellence are not mutually exclusive. A library dedicated a hall to me … one of those halls … and the only quote I agreed to was that … that democracy and excellence are not (mutually exclusive). Otherwise I tell you all the lip service that others may pay to our democratic open society and so forth, pretty soon would be hollow words … and maybe they even they are now because the status of journalists, as they go down, so would the status of sales or whatever it is … and the profits, as well. Entertainment is no substitute for knowledge. I’m not saying knowledge has to be boring, but I find now that the country’s needs, our societies needs require a better informed, knowledgeable society. And I really believe in that. Why bother education because we think, also in my opinion that journalists, if they’re very good, they’re great assets for newspapers and for media. Otherwise, if looks are the only thing that counts, and people can hand you to read something that they agree … then we’re in a sorry shape. And we’re reaching there.

HEFFNER: Well you, you frequently quote Jefferson as saying “a nation that expects to be ignorant and free …

GREGORIAN: And free …

HEFFNER: “… expects what never was and never will be.” But it’s … rather than exhort journalists, you think that perhaps we have to start again with our approach to what a free press is in terms of its obligations. You talk about the obligations …

GREGORIAN: Yes. Well, currently, I mean … I’m working with several deans of schools of journalism, and I’m also trying to bring in media leaders … owners … and others … just to deal with this issue. Exhortation is not enough and I know it’s limitations. To put people to shame is not enough. Self-interest of people is very important. The other thing is there will come a time when the public will not be happy … its air rights that belong to the public … airwaves belongs to the public … they are not free … to put conditions, once again … that we did.

Carnegie Corporation which started among others, our public television process … Seasame Street and this and that and so forth … puts public interests above everything else. And that, if not taken care of … I’m afraid will become …the solution may not be ideal for owners and others eventually.

Remember last year when they wanted to do some acquisitions and mergers and remove certain laws … they received hundreds and thousands … dissatisfaction … and they shelved that for the moment. FCC, did. That day will come again, in my opinion.


GREGORIAN: So, if there’s self-interest to improve the quality, to respect the public, to take their job, their trust … that CBS, NBC and all the cable and others are given licenses for public good … not just for public business … for public good. And public faith in them, therefore, is necessary to keep those licenses and their missions. That is the biggest, I think, pressure for self-interests for owners and others to pay attention to the public.

HEFFNER: So you still believe in voluntarism?


HEFFNER: You think self-interest … enlightened self-interest will do it?

GREGORIAN: Hope so. Otherwise governmental regulation will force them to do it.

HEFFNER: You know, we have … I’m getting a signal our time is almost up, but … you think maybe we’re going to have to bite that bullet? And accept that as a resolution? Do you think recent history demonstrates that?

GREGORIAN: Well, no, I don’t give up on that. Can’t. Because the stakes are too high. We claim to be the only super power in the world … we have responsibilities to the world, to humanity, therefore, to be knowledgeable, to be educated. To have a responsible society. An enlightened society. Because if we don’t know about our history, we don’t know about our ideals, we don’t know about the world, we don’t know about humanity; we don’t know about issues experts will handle for us … is not the solution because experts have to be responsible to the public; that’s what democracy is all about.

HEFFNER: And that’s the point at which we’ll stop because you’ve promised me that you’ll stay where you are and we’ll do another program. Okay.


HEFFNER: Vartan Gregorian, thank you again for joining me on The Open Mind.

GREGORIAN: Thank you very much. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.