Vartan Gregorian

Reflections on Encounters with Three Cultures, Part II

VTR Date: January 9, 2007

Vartan Gregorian discusses educational milestones.


GUEST: Dr. Vartan Gregorian
VTR: 03/05/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and this is the second of two programs with teacher, historian, scholar Vartan Gregorian, now President of Carnegie Corporation of New York, formerly President of Brown University, and before that President of the New York Public Library.

Immigrant, now citizen Gregorian – born to Armenian parents and raised in Iran – is clearly a man for all seasons. And what occasions these visits to The Open Mind is my own delight in his newest Carnegie Corporation “Report of the President”, so aptly titled “Reflections on Encounters With Three Cultures”…those of the great Library, the great University, and the great Foundation.

He’s led them all now, taking a path few, if any others, have paralleled.

Well, last time we identified that what does tie these three cultures together, and what does in turn separate them
from the world of commerce and profit – though both worlds require hugely strong and competent and enterprising leadership – is the fact that my guest is first and foremost a teacher, nor a seeker after material riches.

And it is to themes relating to teaching and learning – as they surface in Vartan Gregorian’s “Reflections on Encounters With Three Cultures” – that I want to return today.

And I guess Mr. Gregorian … I know you struck the “Doctor” from your identification … why did you do that?

GREGORIAN: Well I’ve always felt uncomfortable being called “Doctor” because doctors are for medical profession. Now with PhDs usually a scholarly title is given.

HEFFNER: Herr Doctor Professor.

GREGORIAN: Professor is much better title than doctor.

HEFFNER: Because you’re really a teacher.


HEFFNER: You know I, I want to go back to that notion and pick up some of the themes in your “Reflections”, the Carnegie Corporation Report … and when it comes to the Academy, there was a statement that you made at some point that educators always try to do more with less but we’re clearly running out of “more”. Or, one could have said out of “less”.

GREGORIAN: No. The actual quotation is this, “We can do more with less as long as we don’t run out of less”.

HEFFNER: Are we running out of “less”?

GREGORIAN: Well, depending which institution you are. Harvard’s not running out of “less”.

HEFFNER: Clearly.

GREGORIAN: Princeton is not. Yale is not. Thank god Brown has managed not to … anymore. But I’ve always found that institutions that have less are trying to struggle to do more. Because they have used their imaginations, sagacity and laws of survival in order to be able to compete better.

HEFFNER: But what do you think is going to happen to higher education? Let’s leave out those major incredibly …


HEFFNER: …well endowed universities. What’s going to happen in this struggle for existence?

GREGORIAN: Well, I think the most important thing for us to know is American higher education is very diverse. You have over three, four thousand universities and colleges in the United States. It’s unheard of in the world.

For the first time, first time in world history … higher education has become a “right”, rather than a privilege only. And the United States in the past, maybe, a handful would go to university, but now almost become a necessity in this age of knowledge.

And public universities, unfortunately, are no longer primarily public. Because what has happened, for the first time in … since late twentieth century … public universities used to rely on public sources, private universities on private sources, but now private universities go after public funding and public universities go after private funding.

So that the University of Michigan, for example, 18 or 19% of its funds comes from the State of Michigan. And many universities, public universities are trying to be as independent as possible because they find that that 19% or 18% or 20% of public funds are tying their hands vis-à-vis their competitors.

So, but opportunity is still around because some of … or not all of the universities charge $30,000 or $40,000 tuition and there are still colleges and universities that are charging $6,000, $7,000 a year. There are universities such as Northeastern which is co-op. You work and you go.

So the genius of American public and American, Americans, is the fact that they’re gone into this realm of learning through many ways. So I’m not worried about … as long as the equal opportunity has been guaranteed. Because many universities have scholarship funds for those who cannot afford.

In Brown University, for example, 38 … 40 … 42% now are on scholarship. Not financial aid … just scholarship. I don’t call it financial aid, I call it scholarship.

So the worry I have is not whether you’re poor, but the worry I have when you don’t qualify because you’re lower middle class or middle class and your children don’t qualify for financial aid. It’s a very complicated thing. But at the same time we have loans … Pell grants and Pell loans … unfortunately more and more it’s become loan rather than a grant. So that students who graduate from our universities, that’s where the problem is … they graduate with debt … so if you are M.D. you can pay off your debt. If you are MBA, you can pay off your debt. But if you’re a teacher, social worker, public official, librarian and others, it’s very hard to be able to pay your loans to university and federal government. That’s what we have to spend more attention to see how we can alleviate the burden of those in order to make equal opportunity pay in the long run.

So if I were running the show, I would have said those who are going to be teachers …prefer teaching as a profession …I would forgive their debt.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that that …

GREGORIAN: Well, we’re moving in that direction … but not the way I would have liked. That people who are going to the library, I would forgive their debt. People who are going to work as doctors in rural America … I would say, by all means, we’ll pay all their debts and so forth. Because then public service would be valued because if you finish, let’s say, any major university, whether Ivy or other Big Ten … and you see your friend and colleague from the same, with the same degree is getting 50% more time or 20 … not more time … more …

HEFFNER: Dollars?

GREGORIAN: … compensation than you are … it’s a morale issue and also it brings a thing that I dealt in my report … that we say we respect what people … who people are … rather than what they have. But in reality we measure people with their income, unfortunately, rather than their worth. And that’s one of the things … as we discuss the financial aid in university scholarship, how to facilitate public service to be valued as being as important as other professions.

HEFFNER: But in the meantime, if I believe the press, the tuition goes up and up …


HEFFNER: … and up.


HEFFNER: There’s no indication of a slackening and there’s no indication of proper respect for learning.

GREGORIAN: Well, there is respect for learning. But you pay a price for it. And that’s what I’m talking about. Because the other thing is … you should know what you get for your money at the university.

You’re fed. Your health insurance is covered. Your entertainment is covered. Your security is covered. Sometimes your transportation is covered. And your cultural needs have been covered. Your newspaper is covered. Namely, universities as I described are mini-small states … or, not to be redundant … mini-states in which your tuition, unfortunately, believe it or not, pays only a fraction of the cost of the university education.

HEFFNER: And that’s … that statistic is true?

GREGORIAN: And that, that’s part of the problem.

HEFFNER: What fraction?

GREGORIAN: I would say maybe 50%. The other comes from endowment, annual giving, faculty research that brings overhead for the university. Endowment of the university … all of these are trying to compensate. Plus, many universities have buildings, which they call … under “deferred maintenance”, which I call “planned neglect”. So university is very complicated.

The main … most important thing I would stress is how much money a university has put aside to make equal opportunity possible in our society. And how much money Federal government is putting to assure that and how much money states and municipalities are putting in order to make it possible.

HEFFNER: And at the moment? What can you say about states, Federal government?

GREGORIAN: I think they could do more, in my opinion. But they’re not doing that more. For example, in this very building we have City University of New York Graduate Center.

One of the great universities in the country. As you saw latest rankings, it’s graduate programs rank with the best in the nation. So, the respect for public money should be as much as for private money. $50,000 by state of New York, or City of New York to the budget of CUNY equals $1 million dollar endowment. So the money is alright, but the flexibility is not there.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by “flexibility”?

GREGORIAN: Flexibility … if you have an endowment, you can use it for whatever purpose you have.


GREGORIAN: But if not, you just earmark it for certain positions only.

HEFFNER: Now what are the … what are the giant foundations doing about this problem … what should they be doing?

GREGORIAN: Well giant foundations are not there to support financial aid. But they are there to support education.


GREGORIAN: Higher education. We all are helping higher education in this country. For example in my report I mentioned the fact that we are trying to help schools of journalism … 11 of them by … with the Knight Foundation in order to revamp their curriculum. In order to allow journalists to know about subject better before they report.

We’re doing the same thing with 11 universities, schools of education. Trying to revamp schools of education so that a teacher who graduates from a university certified as a teacher not only knows the subject, but they’ll have recourse to the university as long as he’s teaching, for assistance from the university.

We’re trying at the same time to have K to 12 education to see to what extent an urban education … that’s our function. Our function is to help K to 12 which is the pipeline to higher education and that sets up higher education study … we’re the best critics of higher education and best assistance to higher education.

HEFFNER: Is that the job of the foundation?

GREGORIAN: Absolutely. To be … to quote John Gardner, one of my favorite heroes say, “to be a critical lover and loving critic, but never indifferent.”

HEFFNER: But, of course, when he used those phrases, he was saying, there weren’t many critics who were loving or lovers who were critical.

GREGORIAN: Yes. That’s why we have to increase the number.

HEFFNER: And how do you do that?

GREGORIAN: Well, by making universities responsible for K to 12 education. Insisting that these are your future students, you cannot neglect … we spend more money on remedial education than preventive.

HEFFNER: Now … say that again. Making universities responsible …

GREGORIAN: Responsible for the quality of K to 12 education by providing great teachers.

We have 12, 13 hundred schools of education … some 600, 700 of them are not even accredited. No university should be allowed to have schools of education that are not accredited and top quality.

As far as I’m concerned, schools of education should be the central mission of universities … not apologetic sideshows of universities.

HEFFNER: Is that happening?

GREGORIAN: Of course, because people … like CUNY now … City of New York insists that we want the best teachers, we’re going to invest in CUNY. And CUNY, thanks to the Chancellor is doing a great deal, trying to make teacher education central function of CUNY.

The same thing is happening all over the country where governors are saying, we want quality teachers for our … quality of students. Because we know now of all the factors, teachers are the most important factor in making students learn.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that communities will accept the role of state universities, of universities within the state in that respect.

GREGORIAN: They have to.

HEFFNER: Ah, ha. Or?

GREGORIAN: Or the public will hold them accountable. Because remember land grant universities were created to help the problems of estate … that’s why they were created.

You have agriculture in California, mining in Minnesota, dairy industry in Wisconsin. All of them, as last time we discussed, were beneficiaries of land grant universities. Teaching profession should not be immune to the same priority.

HEFFNER: Is Carnegie putting any, its emphasis on this …


HEFFNER: … in this area?


HEFFNER: Are other foundations?

GREGORIAN: We have collaboration with other foundations … many foundations, also Wallace Foundation, Eli Broad, everybody’s interested in this problem because unless we solve our K to 12 … quality of our K to 12 education in this age of knowledge, or knowledge industry … globalization, whatever you call it. Unless we’re able to education a whole generation of Americans to be able to be, to be able to compete, to be able to excel, we’re going to lose ground. Not to material terms alone, I’m talking about citizenship, learning, values of our society and traditions of our society and potentiality of our students as future citizens and future human beings.

HEFFNER: Now, key question. In this era of heavy, heavy politics …


HEFFNER: …are any of the would be candidates expressing themselves, or working at this problem in the way that you’re suggesting?

GREGORIAN: No Child Left Behind …


GREGORIAN: … Act has put education on the front burner of everyone. The fact that every Mayor wants to control education is great in my opinion because they’re accountable. They’re accountable for the quality of education of a city, quality of education of estate governors.

The fact that Eliot Spitzer has put education as one of his top issues … unheard of in the past. You pay lip-service, if it did not work, you fired the Superintendent, you fire Board of Ed, and so … but no more because the public wants this to be fixed. It’s … other than Defense … the biggest industry we have and we cannot allow the learning business, knowledge business to be neglected and then diminished. Because as it diminishes, so is the quality of our society …


GREGORIAN: … and foundations of our democracy, in my opinion.

HEFFNER: And I don’t have to dismiss this as the, as the result of the fact that the man before me is a, is an optimist, a believer in what can be done … a possibilist. Can this really be done?

GREGORIAN: It can be done. Must be done. We have no choice.

Now let me tell you another thing. When you’re in the middle of the ocean, and you’re swimming. You don’t think, “can I reach the shore or not?” Yes, you have to have faith. If you stop swimming, you drown.

That’s where we are. We have no choice but to do justice to a generation that is before us, who is competing against the rest of the world. Because in the past we did not have any competitors. Now, thank god, I say … everybody is competing with us. That’s good for … the world, but we have to be able, with all the universities we have, with all the resources we have … with the quality of society we have, it’s unconscionable, as far as I’m concerned to condemn half of our society to a permanent underclass. We cannot do that…without diminishing our democracy.

HEFFNER: And you feel that you see a movement?

GREGORIAN: Oh, of course, I see a movement. People don’t … well, if you have a hospital where 80% of the people die, you don’t say you have a choice to send your children to that hospital. The same thing with schools. If a school is terrible, you should shut it down. You cannot say “let the poor go there because we have bailed ourselves.” The quality education is a must for our society. And remember education always has been an equalizer in our society.

HEFFNER: As a historian, I remember in American history that wonderful speech by John C. Calhoun, “Health, Health, Health.” Surely you can call, cry out “Health, Health, Health”, but does that do it?

GREGORIAN: It’s not cry out. It’s a slogan. But when the people know the best possession of theirs …their children, are you willing to trust your children to a system which is going to fail them? The answer is “no”.

HEFFNER: The answer thus far is not “no”, is it? How have we gotten to where we are?

GREGORIAN: Well, but I’m saying there’s a great awakening now … people about their rights. They know about equality. They see that … degree … college degree … puts you 20 times ahead of others. Or whatever the percentage is. So there is built a society in which … some have access to good schools, good education, therefore good jobs, good minds, good citizenship and then the others … when 40% of our high school children, youth, drop out … there’s no excuse for us. We have to find a way … we can no longer afford waste. Because in the 19th century we had blue collar work with manufacturing. We don’t have that. Now we’re in age where education is your license to dignity, to freedom, to progress and to identity, but most importantly, for living a good life along with others. And a democracy you cannot divide X to become underclass and Y to become participatory citizens of a democracy.

HEFFNER: and you feel this is happening now. And I, I guess … you know, earlier today … we’re taping this on, I guess it’s the fifth of March … earlier today, one of my guests, whom you know very well, Arthur Levine …


HEFFNER: … we were talking about American education and I asked him about the element … the factor of tenure …


HEFFNER: … and what role it plays in improving or staying the same. What’s your fix on tenure?

GREGORIAN: Well, first of all … as … well, I guess I mentioned last time … we owe tenure to Chancellor Bismarck of Germany … he is the father of not only Social Security, but also tenure because he made professors part of civil service. He did not want every, every now and then as German government changed … winner … you know … winner takes all kind of system. People go out and you bring your own people. He wanted an independent social services … professors were part of that independent social service. So tenure was there to guarantee your security so you’ll be able to be a good professional. Tenure was not a sinecure in a sense.

HEFFNER: You think it has become that?

GREGORIAN: No. It has become for some, but not others. Tenure also, in our society, is protecting academic freedom, in especially universities. In other places, I would have … why don’t you give them ten, fifteen year renewable contracts?

But tenure is also, has become pejorative in many ways, because it’s like “hanging on”. But seniority is not questioned in civil service. In the Army. Nowhere. In bureaucracy, seniority … it they are called seniority … it would be something else. Tenure is not. But I think tenure is in a shaky ground now because many universities will be hiring and do hire part-time faculty.

HEFFNER: What is happening there? The numbers, I understand, are extraordinary.

GREGORIAN: Yes, well I write in my essay that two of the greatest strength of the universities has been the faculty. As that strength, coherence of faculty diminishes, faculty power or authority will diminish likely.

Because now you can get lecturers from England per course. You can buy videos per course eventually and people are cutting corners. Or virtual university where you get courses on the air and take exam. Nothing wrong with that, but what is happening … universities that hire part-time faculty, like 20%, 25%, 30% …some universities because they want to save on health, they want to save on office space … secretarial and all kinds of things become a piecework again … 19th century style.

That will be in the short hand good for the fiscal stability of some of these institutions, but in the long run I think it will be undermining the position of tenure and its position of faculties.

HEFFNER: But that is what is happening now.

GREGORIAN: Gradually it’s happening.


GREGORIAN: Not major universities. But other … the rest of the country.

HEFFNER: You know I, I get the signal now that we have just two minutes left, and I want to ask if you were to pick out the remaining elements that you would most want the people who read you “Reflections” …


HEFFNER: … to think about … what would they be?

GREGORIAN: First, our country is blessed by having great libraries. Great museums. Great universities. And great philanthropic institutions. A peculiarly American institution, philanthropy. Where $265, $270 billion dollars annually given by Americans for various causes. That’s one.

Second, for the first time in world history, each individual, each American has their own Library of Alexandria … for the first time. Unheard of.

Third. It’s a crime … United Negro College used to have this great slogan, “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Waste”. A generation is a terrible thing to waste. We have no excuse not to take advantage of the great miracle that Internet and others have provided us to provide America with the best learned generation in its history.

HEFFNER: So you’re not afraid of the camera and the machine and the computer?

GREGORIAN: No. They are … technology is a means. As I wrote in the essay, “connectivity does not guarantee communication”. When Maine was connected to San Francisco, Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “Maine is connected to San Francisco, and Maine has nothing to say to San Francisco.”

HEFFNER: You always have a great deal to say that’s important. And Vartan Gregorian, thank you for joining me …

GREGORIAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … on The Open Mind again.

GREGORIAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts 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.