In Conversation with Vartan Gregorian

April 17, 2012

On April 17, 2012 Jonathan Fanton sat down with Vartan Gregorian to discuss his renowned career as an educator, scholar, and philanthropic leader.

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, the Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.  This historic building, home to Eleanor and Franklin, and Franklin’s mother, Sara, is now the center of Hunter College’s Public Policy program.  In addition to teaching and research, Roosevelt House sponsors programs that bring policy maker together with faculty, students and the general public to discuss issues of the day.

Tonight’s program is a little different.  I have long wanted to have a series of public conversations with the most interesting people I know personally, people I have met in my years at President of the New School and the MacArthur Foundation but also through civic activities such as Human Rights Watch.

My first guest was former Mayor Ed Koch.  Our conversation, no surprise, focused on the local state and national political scene.  Next was a conversation with Agnes Gund, former President of MOMA who is one of our country’s most articulate advocates for the arts and art education, a major collector and a builder of cultural institutions.

Tonight is a very special evening for me as we welcome one of my very closest friends, Vartan Gregorian, a mentor who has taught me much about the world, different cultures, indeed life itself.  We first met when we both came to New York, he as President of the New York Public Library and I as President of the New School.  His appointment as a Professor of History at the New School accelerated the revival of the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science.

Vartan has lived an amazing life.  Born in Tabriz, Iran of Armenian parents, he went to elementary school in Iran and secondary school in Lebanon before coming to Stanford in the late 1950’s where he earned both his undergraduate and Ph.D. in history.  He taught at San Francisco State, UCLA, and The University of Texas before coming to the University of Pennsylvania where he was the founding Dean of Arts and Sciences and then Provost.  We came to know him for reviving the New York Public Library in the 1980’s before moving to Brown University as Provost.  And I had the pleasure of being his colleague again when he became President of the Carnegie Foundation when I was President of the MacArthur Foundation.  We are both healthy skeptics of how large foundations work and so at the annual meeting of the big foundation Presidents we took care never to make eye contact lest we share a knowing smirk as one or another of our colleagues was going on about saving the world.

For all of his leadership accomplishments, Vartan is at heart a teacher and a scholar, one of those rare administrators who continued teaching.  His books on Islam and the emergence of modern Afghanistan have founded renewed relevance.  And his The Road to Home is the most honest and sensitive autobiography I have read.

Our mutual friend Bill Moyers describes Vartan as “an erudite charmer, a master of the handshake and bear hug, …..a champion of the public good.  His passion for education, philanthropy and friendship is contagious.”  And his colleague of many years, John Silber, said “He has the innocence of a baby, the integrity and dedication of a saint and the political skills of a Talleyrand.”

To that I would simply add that Vartan is the most loyal friend I know, always there to share the high points and cushion the reverses.  He manages to see the world in all its complexity, a realist but not a cynic, an optimist but not a romantic, confident but humble.

We are all glad that the road to home brought Vartan back to New York.

Vartan, you are our north star, brightening our lives, putting our institutions on a sure course, making a complex universe more comprehensible and humane.

A wise woman once said you don’t build a reputation or make a name for yourself on what you are going to do.  You just do it.

Vartan, your grandmother would be proud.

And I hope I have followed the advice she gave you as a youth: “Don’t insult a crocodile before you cross a river.”

So here we go.

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