Michael KreponIn Appreciation of Vartan Gregorian

Dr. Vartan Gregorian (1934 – 2021)

Quotes of the week:

“Dignity is not negotiable.”

“In our democratic society, the library stands for hope, for learning, for progress, for literacy, for self-improvement and for civic engagement. The library is a symbol of opportunity, citizenship, equality, freedom of speech and freedom of thought, and hence, is a symbol for democracy itself.”

 I’m reminded of some lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and I quote, “What is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your own heart.” — Vartan Gregorian

Vartan Gregorian was, first, last, and in between, a humanist. His good works advanced multitudes. Born in Iran and schooled in Beirut, he traveled to the United States with empty pockets to attend Stanford. He somehow lost his airline ticket for the flight to the west coast, and was gifted with a new ticket at the airline counter. Vartan spent the rest of his life paying this gift forward.

He believed deeply in many causes. I focus here on just one – by no means the most noted – because it’s personal as well as professional. Vartan sought to reduce nuclear danger. He inherited this cause from his predecessor at the Carnegie Corporation, David Hamburg, and held to it steadfastly.

Effective philanthropy is harder than it seems. There is endless choice, and with choice, it’s hard to stay focused and coherent. Many existential problems persist even if our attention to them waxes and wanes. There are no silver bullets; there is just idea generation, persistent refusal to accept worst cases, and a sustained commitment to make headway. Public policy entrepreneurship is a long game. It’s for visionaries who play for keeps, not for short-term gains.

Measuring the effectiveness of philanthropy is hard when success is reflected by bad things that don’t happen as well as by good things that do happen. How did it come to pass that nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare for three-quarters of a century, that nations do not test nuclear weapons to demonstrate utility, and that tens of thousands of these weapons have been dismantled by treaty or recognized as wretched excess? 

All of this happened by dint of hard work by people and by institutions committed to preventing mushroom clouds. This community exists because of philanthropy. Without philanthropy, our numbers would shrink and our voices would grow fainter.

Vartan used to say that the Carnegie Corporation was supposed to be an incubator and not an oxygen tank, but when he found reliable return on investment he acted otherwise. He was a nurturer as well as an incubator and oxygenator. There wouldn’t be a Stimson Center — at least not one that has grown into a powerhouse — without Vartan Gregorian and the Carnegie Corporation. Stimson has good company in this regard.

Vartan never pulled together his philosophy of philanthropy into a single essay, but its central tenets were readily discernable. The CliffsNotes version is that philanthropy is about our common humanity. He presided over an amazing grant making operation that provided risk capital for human growth.

His initial thoughts on philanthropy upon assuming the reins of the Carnegie Corporation in 1997 were these:

I would like to pay tribute to my immediate predecessors David Hamburg, Alan Pifer, and John Gardner. All three were visionaries, all three were thoughtful intellectuals and pragmatic activists in the cause of education, peace, and social justice. Their example of using foundation funds as a form of risk capital, supporting the work of gifted minds that may come up with new solutions to old or current problems, is an inspiration to me and will be a constant guide in my own work on behalf of the Corporation.

Vartan honored his inheritance and stayed on this path, while being open to new initiatives. Programming needed to evolve as existential threats mutated. Vartan was all about discovery that led to rediscovery.

Grant making isn’t just about the money and the betterment of public policy. It’s about finding opportunity despite resistance. Advancement happens when an indomitable human spirit overcomes resistance. We get knocked down by life, and life can help us get back up again, often with the help of others. Human growth comes from resilience and from learning.

Vartan’s challenge to the graduating class at Notre Dame in 2005 was:

to think critically and analytically, to exercise your creativity, to explore ideas and to search out the depths of your heart and the limitless horizons of your mind and to do all this in order to find, for yourselves, the eternal truths that every generation has to discover and rediscover for itself. Indeed, that is the purpose for which we, as a society and as a civilization created universities: not to inculcate students with packaged truths, but to give you the resources and the teachers, as well as the confidence, the curiosity and the faith to allow you to seek out and acquire the truth for yourselves.

This wasn’t just Vartan’s credo; it was his philosophy of philanthropy, a philosophy of enablement and connectedness. He was a skilled weaver, a bridge builder, a natural teacher, a motivator, and a master raconteur. He had uncommon patience as well as vision. His modesty, wrapped in a mischievous and irreverent wit, never masked the greatness of his spirit.

Vartan closed his 2005 commencement address at Notre Dame with these words:

Much of life is about the routine, not the extraordinary, but do not let the routine distract you from your pursuit of the exceptional. Throughout history, artists, poets, theologians and philosophers have borne witness to the fact that the routine and the ordinary can all too often capture your attention and draw your eye and your heart away from the big picture. So don’t forget to keep focused on that big picture, on what role you want to play in the great human drama. Remember that you are not mere actualities. You were born as potentialities. Dare to be and dare to know.

The following year, Vartan gave the commencement address at Stanford. This is how he closed:

The world around us is full of raucous chatter and noise. Amid all this cacophony, it’s hard to see ourselves as part of a larger whole, a continuing eternal harmony, that music of the spheres that the ancients thought we would hear only in our inner ear. Well, today I would like to remind you of your connection to history. Try to listen with your inner ears to those who went before you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on, who all wanted to be good ancestors to you.

As an historian, educator and a fellow student, I feel bound to remind you that the time has come for you to return the favor. You have to learn to be good ancestors to the future.

Our ancestral spirits now have good company. A great human being has passed. Those of us who have been touched by his spirit celebrate him and his good works.