Vartan Gregorian

Reflections on Encounters with Three Cultures, Part I

VTR Date: January 9, 2007

Vartan Gregorian discusses educational milestones.


GUEST: Dr. Vartan Gregorian
VTR: 01/09/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I should say right up front that no one has benefited more over the years from an association with Carnegie Corporation of New York – whose President, Vartan Gregorian, is my guest today – than I have.

But I mention Carnegie support for this program as well as for the Open Mind’s Online Digital Archive – found now on the web at – not out of conflict-of-interest concerns, but because of our mutual interests – and because of my own delight in Dr Gregorian’s newest Carnegie Corporation “Report of the President” titled “Reflections on Encounters With Three Cultures”.

“Three Cultures”, indeed. In introducing his “Reflections”, my guest writes: “1764, 1895 and 1911. Those dates represent quite a span of time. The first is the year that Brown University was founded; the second is the year that The New York Public Library was established, and the third is the year that Andrew Carnegie created the philanthropic foundation he named Carnegie Corporation of New York.

And he writes on, “It has been my privilege to serve the three above-named institutions, each representative of a different nonprofit culture, each with a different structure, different history, and different dynamics.

Now to be sure, immigrant, now citizen Gregorian, born to Armenian parents and raised in Iran, has been President of all three great American institutions … the New York Public Library, Brown University and now Carnegie Corporation of New York.

And I would first ask him now which qualities in terms of the qualities that bind – and which qualifies in terms of the qualities that most separate – their three cultures. Which of these brings them together? And which of these separates them? You’re part of all of them.

GREGORIAN: I think learning. All three of them about are learning. You learn at the Library, an institution where no one graduates from … no one can. There are no entrance examinations, no mid-terms, no finals, thank god, and it’s always stood for life-long learning.

Then university, which is a struggle between heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Always challenging, always moving forward, always developing knowledge, information, controversy, but most importantly scholarship, which has no boundaries … is housed in our universities world over.

And then naturally philanthropy which facilities the task of the other two, if you have commitment to learning, scholarship and progress. And also progress begets progress. In all three institutions are in the business of progress, enlightenment. And that’s why it’s been very exciting.

HEFFNER: And that’s been your life.

GREGORIAN: That’s been my life from childhood on, in the business of learning … first as a student, then as a teacher, then as a keeper, and as promoter, and as dispenser.

HEFFNER: Now how do they fair, these three cultures? How are they doing now?

GREGORIAN: Well, in the case of libraries … the biggest revolution that is happening is, of course, technology and libraries. There’s a great controversy about Google … whether access is more important than the right of the authors, “right to libraries”, possession …

HEFFNER: Do you dichotomize that way?

GREGORIAN: No, I think that way to explain the public. I don’t dichotomize them, because access is very important to the public. But somebody has to pay for it. Writers can’t live through access, if everything’s accessible without people buying their books, losing their patent or their copyright, depending what you’ve created.

The third thing is, naturally, how you differentiate them … is the whole notion that the library is kind of DNA of our culture, DNA of our civilization. Libraries and museums are libraries of our civilization because it retains our entire memory, our entire past, the entire spectrum of human learning, human experiences, follies and wisdom and so forth, is in the library. The library is the only earthly institution that can claim to give you immortality.

Neither the church, nor buildings, nor streets, none can give you immortality except libraries, and universities if one’s name is well-endowed … the building is sacrosanct, the scholarship is continually being up-dated. And then philanthropy in many ways … you know primarily mostly an American phenomenon in its … not its origins, as scope.

Because one of the things that fascinates me about America is how de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, where he created the word “individualism” to describe the American character, that had components.

Component one was the self interest, which every major philosopher has said self interest is the beginning of also altruism, in a sense.

Adam Smith, father of modern capitalism, people forget, was not an economist, was a moral philosopher. That self interest has to be … in a broader sense, when you take public interest also into account.

So, de Tocqueville created, fabricated …

HEFFNER: Fabricated?

GREGORIAN: … fabricated the term “individualism” …

HEFFNER: Ah, the term.

GREGORIAN: The term. To describe the American character as distinct from Europeans. Because American character had the self interest plus altruism … common bond … common interest. And how this has developed in America of such an extent, now Presidential candidates have to (laughter) not only show that they paid their taxes, they have to show how altruistic, philanthropic they are, how charitable they are. It’s an unheard of phenomenon that the giving … whether you believe it or not has become a public testimony of one character and one’s commitment to our democracy.

So these are the things that I’ve been fascinated of how these three cultures … library as repository … university as engine of educating next generation …and philanthropy as one that does not supplant the obligations of the State, but compliments it.

HEFFNER: You said we differ from other countries …


HEFFNER: … in terms of the role of philanthropy.

GREGORIAN: That’s right.


GREGORIAN: Well, in all the cultures that I know … this Judeo Christian culture … or Judeo Christian, Islamic, Abrahamic faith … they all have charity built in, in their doctrine. You have to give.


GREGORIAN: What happened in 19th century … charity … along side the charity came philanthropy … philanthropy deals, not out of giving out of a sense of pity, sense of sympathy to the destitute, needy … by scientific philanthropy as the term Andrew Carnegie coined it … John D. Rockefeller coined it … had to deal with the problem, not the symptoms, but the causes. So that philanthropy becomes an investment, not just giving away money, but investment.

Either to demonstrate a project, demonstrating a big haven for ideas, challenging notions, but always there on the sideline of American, you know, government, American society and American institutions. And that’s one of the things that I think fascinating … the scope. To have … I mentioned in the essay … that … you have … my friend, who I admire very much, Bill Gates and Warrant Buffet … given together … if they put 50 billion dollar foundation, let’s say, eventually.

But 5% giving is 2 and a half billion. Big amount of money, $2 and a half billion a year to give away. 5%

But American giving … annual giving … is something like $270 billion dollars Americans give for charity and philanthropic causes. It’s become less than 1% they’re giving. This is unheard of, the magnitude of this kind of giving. And in case your viewers will be impressed by the amount … I am more impressed by the fact that most of the money that is given in America by people who make $70,000 to $100,000 … not just the very rich. And that is peculiar because … it may have its religious origins, giving has been democratized in such away that it’s become part and parcel of American society.

HEFFNER: Now my friend Claire Gaudiani insists that not the amount, but the proportion of our incomes that we are giving is decreasing, not increasing. Is that a fair statement?

GREGORIAN: That’s fair, depending on GNP. She takes, I’m sure, the GNP. But I’m taking absolute numbers. And she’s my friend, too, Claire Gaudiani … from University of Pennsylvania days. But I tell you one other feature that people do not mention … there are 1.4 million, 1.4 million non-profit organizations in the United States. Most of them benefiting from private philanthropy, but also receiving now contracts from government sources and others.

One out of ten Americans, or 11 Americans works now for non-profits. More Americans work for higher education today than what there is left of the automobile industry, steel industry, textile industry … all of them combined.

Because the magnitude of the independent sector, non-profit sector, made America a resilient society. So again, it’s the structure, the impact of all this non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations … civil society we call it in the world. That has been … along side with our public funds … been a major source of resilience of America.

No other society gives in absolute terms as much … yes Sweden, Norway and others give, in their foreign aid a lot of money comparing their GNP with ours. But in terms of ordinary citizens giving that much, nobody has matched us yet.

HEFFNER: Vartan … I … this is a question … you may not think appropriate for me to ask … could you picture yourself … former President of the New York Public Library, former President of Brown University … present President of Carnegie Corporation … could you picture yourself ever being in the world of profit-making.

GREGORIAN: I could make great profits, if I wanted to.

HEFFNER: Oh, I didn’t say whether you could make them or not.

GREGORIAN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Could you picture yourself?

GREGORIAN: Not exactly. Because it’s a matter of calling, a matter of temperament. I’ve always loved to teach.

HEFFNER: And what you’re doing … all the way through you’ve been teaching ..

GREGORIAN: That’s right. I’ve always been teaching. As a matter of fact, I don’t mind to tell … for the first time maybe … I’ve been asked to give advise to many billionaires. Whether Walter Annenberg, whether Ted Turner, even Mr. Gates at one time when I was a member of his Board … I’ve done all of it. And a few others now, Tom Hunter in Scotland, a member of his Board. I have done this all pro bono. Because it keeps my independence; I can meet them as equals in the realm of ideas in teaching, rather than subordinate position.

And, the other thing is, people ask my opinion, a variety of individuals, causes and others … I don’t mind to tell you … I give to them … I could be consultant and make money. But I think that will transform my relation into a different form of relationship with individuals. This way the teacher in me, the professor in me, the scholar in me … all of them are at the disposal of people who ask questions, they’re inquisitive, and you give the answer.

HEFFNER: Then I wonder what your reaction was the very day that we’re taping this program … to the front page story in The New York Times … about the difficulties some university presidents are having …


HEFFNER: … these days. And those difficulties seem to relate to a certain extent to the extraordinary salaries that they are receiving.

GREGORIAN: Well, part of it is that. But not necessarily all of it. I mean no university president makes Home Depot president’s outgoing … Home Depot’s two hundred million …


GREGORIAN: Or Mr. Grasso’s hundred forty or fifty million separation fee. Actually the highest they have reached is a million dollars, maybe. And that’s six, seven people who make that kind of money.

But, universities as Mr. Drucker mentioned are far more complex organizations than corporations. Even the biggest corporations. Because universities … this is one of the least understood institutions in the United States. They’re big business universities. They’re no long Mom & Pop Shops. When Brown, you mentioned founded 1764 … the fourth president of Brown had six students, one building, two teachers. They started that way … dormitory, classroom, all of them were the same.

Now we’re talking about big business. You have universities with 40,000 students … 44,000 students. In my essay I mentioned the fact that universities are practically city-states … Greek city-states.

Ideally … Aristotle was from five to fifty thousand. Well now universities from Swarthmore, 5,000, let’s say … go to Wisconsin 40,000, 50,000, we’re big …

They have their multi-billion dollar budgets. This building … CUNY … CUNY is a big enterprise, far more complex than GM. Because you’re dealing with the last horizontal organization in the world … of universities.

Where you want to be vertical, because you have to be … but you’re horizontal because faculty considers each faculty member as equal. They are equal whether you’re a Nobel Prize winner or a lowly classics Latin teacher. When we go to a faculty meeting, we are members of the commonwealth of scholarship and learning … we’re equal.

The job of the president is far more complicated than it … especially nowadays. Because the president is caught between two cultures … as I indicate in my essay.

One is corporate culture, since you’re running a business you have to be efficient. You have to have good investment. You have to have reserve funds. Deferred maintenance is not a deferred maintenance plan … neglect if you have not made provisions how to cope with deferred maintenance.

You have tuition. Taxation. In the form of taxation in the non-public universities where you raise the tuition; the power to raise tuition. You have fees. You have your orchestra. You have your choir. You have you student publications. You have your 44 or 45 different athletic teams. You have you alumni, ex-patriots, alumni association. You have you propaganda department or spin department or external relations department. You have your judiciary … university judiciary … far more complicated than other judiciaries because it’s based on idealism … equality and tolerance … but sometimes becomes very intolerant.

Then you have your relation with the government. Since you get funds from the government, you’d better obey x number of government regulations … Title 9, title this, title that and so forth because … yes, you’re free not to obey them as long as you don’t receive any federal funds.

Then you have your relation with other universities. Then you have … you have to put together a campus which is reflective of the United States and the world. You have to recruit students from … not just prep schools … public schools, yeshivas, parochial schools and others in order to represent (:????) nation.

And then, of course, in the essay I mentioned … the President is supposed to be at one-time a scholar, he’s supposed to be a scholar … he’s supposed to know about buildings. He supposed to know union rules. He’s supposed to be a good negotiator. He’s supposed to give incessant speeches … speeches incessantly. He’s supposed to be nice to everyone. He’s supposed to consult everyone, offend no one and act expeditiously and accomplish.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’ve described all the reasons the college president has … the university president has … many, perhaps many more …


HEFFNER: … burdens than the top paid executive …


HEFFNER: … business executive. But what he brings in terms of his attitudes toward whether he’s a teacher or not …


HEFFNER: … doesn’t that mean that if he is to be able to do the one, he perhaps is not equipped to do the other?

GREGORIAN: No. Well, that’s a very good question. And I have struggled with that. Leaders know about their limitations. They can hire managers. Managers are never be able to hire leaders. In this university culture, you’re caught between the corporate culture of efficiency, accountability and everything and academic culture … it’s like a … incessant tussle … I don’t say “battle” … tussle. Unconscious sometime between these two cultures.

And I write in the essay, and I have instances by name and others … without mentioning some of their names … when university presidents would like to receive the respect and support of the Trustees … mostly businessmen. Not all, mostly.

So to them, you have to say how hard it is to deal with faculty. These unruly, tenured radicals. Or just tenured people, have never met a payroll … are unruly so sympathize with me.

And the same president may tell the faculty … these Philistines, just because they’re rich, they give … they’re trying to run … I’m sparing you.

That’s a wrong attitude. President’s job is to negotiate between these two cultures. These two cultures and must never forget, in my opinion, that’s my personal preference … that with all else you’re an educational institution. Nor a corporate institution. Your make-up can be corporate, but above all your calling is a teacher.

HEFFNER: And you have a calling as a teacher?


HEFFNER: You are not a businessman.

GREGORIAN: No. Otherwise there’s no reason why the university should not just hire a businessman to run it as a business. And some of the universities are run … for profit organization … are run … there’s no problem with that. It’s that wanting to be both that creates the kind of tension.

For example, if a president gets X amount of salary … high salary … and faculty does not get that much … immediately a tussle.

I don’t mind tell you … my wife and I had big arguments in the past when I turned down salary raises. When I had no car at Brown … I would take the bus … Bonanza Bus from Providence to Boston Airport. I did it deliberately in order to create the culture, the culture of scarcity demands accountability. Was it hard for me? Sure. But it was also part of not becoming the cause … university is the cause … you don’t become part of the conflict … other conflicts.

HEFFNER: You’ve just said a very, very, very great deal now.


HEFFNER: You’re giving away a good deal, you’re saying that your own sense of what you needed to be, as an educator …

GREGORIAN: Yes. Yes. Well, the library … one thing in common for all three cultures … the library … when I came it had a car … Lincoln Continental … I got rid of it. Why? Did I … I don’t cars? No. I don’t like luxury? That’s not the point. The point was library could not say, “Give us $30 so we can keep the library doors open and the president has a driver and then go … so … whenever I went to see Mayor Koch, my friend … he said, “Is your driver coming to pick us up?”

I said “What do you think I am? I’m a keeper of the libraries. You have to give me ride in your … you have … not like you public official … you give me ride to the library.” And he did.

When I took bus from library to my home, all the library users know that I’m part of the same culture. That’s very important now, but no more because we now value what you have, how you live, and so forth as more important for a celebrity than being with the scholars and students. But that’s a personal choice many presidents can make. In the process some become cause of controversy.

I was never cause of controversy, with the exception of the first time when I came to New York when somebody wanted to buy an apartment to give me … Richard Salamon … when I came to the library … I naively thought $90,000 … you can buy an apartment in New York … from Swarthmore. I was naïve Philadelphian when I came here.

Richard Salamon, great leader wanted to loan me interest free money, $640,000. I said “No”. the first time we disagree … and you’ll said, “Who bought your apartment?” I said give the money to the library. But in the process, people thought, “My god, library’s trying to buy a place on Fifth or Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue as an investment. What the hell is going on, asking for $35 donations and then trying to buy an apartment for the president the library on Park Avenue and so forth.”

Then you have to go explain to the public that that’s money earmarked from an outsider, that the library will benefit. That apartment, incidentally, was sold years latter … six or seven million dollars and library benefited from that.

Even then, I don’t mind I was tempted … they want to sell me the … at the purchase price … the library wanted to give me the apartment when I left New York. I said “No”. They’ll say, “he came poor, he left as millionaire.”

You cannot deal with public institutions lightly because yo have an ethos to protect, your values to protect. Again, that’s a personal choice.

HEFFNER: It’s the choice …

GREGORIAN: It’s the choice …

HEFFNER: … of the educator.

GREGORIAN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And my choice now is to say our time is up …so you must promise now to come back, so we can do this program and the next one and perhaps the next one as a series.


HEFFNER: All right, Vartan Gregorian, I’ve got your word.

GREGORIAN: 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.