Vartan Gregorian, president of the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation, died in Manhattan today at the age of 87. He had been hospitalized for testing related to stomach pain, according to an announcement on the Carnegie website.
A former professor and provost at the University of Pennsylvania who was a finalist for the top job at Penn back in 1980, he served as president of Brown University from 1989 to 1997. Under his stewardship Brown’s endowment grew from $400 million to $1 billion and the faculty added 270 members. He taught history courses at the same time, including a seminar on Alexis de Tocqueville.
From Brown he went to Carnegie, the foundation created by robber baron Andrew Carnegie in 1911. A grantmaking organization that promotes education and peace, it had an endowment of $1.5 billion when Gregorian joined. The endowment has since swelled to $3.5 billion.
He is best known for his stint as head of the New York Public Library, from 1981 to 1989. When he took the job, the library system was decaying and its finances were a mess. He raised $327 million through a public-private partnership for its 83 circulating branches and four research libraries and presided over a $45 million renovation of the main branch on 42nd St. “[T]he library is not a cost center!” he is quoted as saying. “It is an investment in the city’s past and future!”
Born in Iran to Armenian parents, he was the first immigrant to head the library. His father worked as an accountant and his mother died of pneumonia when he was six years old. He and his younger sister where raised by their illiterate maternal grandmother. After studying in Beirut, he got a scholarship at Stanford where he earned a bachelor’s in history and the humanities in two years and then a Ph.D. Before joining the Penn faculty in 1972, he taught at San Francisco State, UCLA and the University of Texas.
In addition to his work in scholarship, teaching and heading universities and nonprofits, he advised philanthropists including Walter Annenberg, executives of the J. Paul Getty Trust and Bill and Melinda Gates. He won scores of awards throughout his career, including the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush. He wrote three books, including volumes on Afghanistan and Islam and a 2003 memoir, The Road to Home: My Life and Times.
He is survived by a sister, three sons and five grandchildren.