Distinguished historian and humanities scholar Vartan Gregorian, the twelfth president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, died suddenly on April 15, 2021, in New York City at age 87. He had been hospitalized for testing due to stomach pain. 

During his tenure at the Corporation, from 1997 to the present, Gregorian championed the causes of education and world peace, key concerns of Andrew Carnegie, who established the foundation in 1911. Like Carnegie, Gregorian was a naturalized U.S. citizen whose experiences in a new country helped shape him, including his belief in the importance of immigrant civic integration to the health of American democracy. Gregorian was devoted to higher education and was the widely admired president of Brown University and former provost of the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, Gregorian is renowned for revitalizing The New York Public Library during his presidency in the 1980s.

“On behalf of the Corporation’s board of trustees, the Corporation’s staff, and the entire Carnegie community, we extend our condolences to the family of our dear friend Vartan Gregorian,” said Governor Thomas H. Kean, chair of the Carnegie Corporation of New York board of trustees and past governor of New Jersey. “Vartan Gregorian served the Corporation for 24 years as an extraordinary leader and a devoted steward of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. We will remember him most for his immense intellect, his thoughtful generosity, his witty, learned, and sly sense of humor, and his uncanny ability to both inspire and challenge each of us to do our utmost to advance the Corporation’s mission above all else. He was a man of the world who inspired the world.”

 “We will always salute Vartan Gregorian for his generosity of spirit, keen and probing intellect, and tireless dedication to making this world a better place — as a scholar, educator, mentor, colleague, and above all as an unstinting advocate for the causes he held most dear: education, democracy, and world peace,” said Janet L. Robinson, vice chairman of the board of trustees. “Like Andrew Carnegie, Vartan was a proud immigrant to this great nation — and he led a truly remarkable life, one epitomizing the American Dream. We are all inspired by his example. His impact was and will remain global. I mourn the loss of a great friend — and a great man.”

With Gregorian’s guidance, the Corporation focused its grantmaking to serve as an incubator of innovative ideas and transformative scholarship. For example, early in his tenure the foundation embarked on an ambitious program to strengthen higher education in the former Soviet Union, concentrating on the humanities and the social sciences to help rejuvenate scholarship in newly independent states and to foster stability and world peace. In response to a growing trend toward democratization in Africa, the Corporation under Gregorian embarked on an unprecedented collaboration between five major foundations to form what became known as the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Grants to nine countries totaled $440 million over ten years, improving conditions for 4.1 million African students enrolled at 379 universities and colleges.

The state of American education was also a priority for Gregorian, who created new initiatives aimed at improving teacher education, advancing adolescent literacy, meeting the most significant challenges facing large urban high schools, and helping the United States restore its competitive advantage in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields by generating effective strategies and improving access to high-quality education for all students.

When Gregorian joined the Corporation, its Strengthening U.S. Democracy program was already in existence, but he added a new mandate to advance immigrant naturalization and civic integration. Gregorian instituted the Carnegie Scholars program, which supported groundbreaking public scholarship with a focus on Islam and the Modern World. He later started the Andrew Carnegie Fellows program to provide two-year research sabbaticals for scholars working in the humanities and social sciences. Gregorian brought together several themes that infused the Corporation’s work — education, civics, journalism, and collaboration with peer foundations — through the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education to improve journalism education in the United States. He also developed ways to work collaboratively with the more than twenty sister organizations established by Andrew Carnegie. For example, Gregorian inaugurated the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2001, which honors philanthropists worldwide who have dedicated their private wealth to the public good. Often described as a “citizen of the world,” Gregorian was born to Armenian parents in Tabriz, Iran, and received his secondary education at the Collège Arménien in Beirut, Lebanon, overcoming many obstacles, both personal and financial, in order to leave Iran.

In 1956, when Gregorian moved to California to attend Stanford University, he was already proficient in seven languages. At the urging of his advisor, he majored in history and the humanities, graduating with honors in 1958. He was awarded a PhD from Stanford and wrote his thesis on traditionalism and modernism in Afghanistan. His research formed the basis of his first book, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880–1946, which remains the only broad work on Afghan history that considers ethnicity rather than religion as the defining influence. His personal story is detailed in his autobiography, The Road to Home: My Life and Times, published in 2003.

Gregorian began his academic career as a teacher. He taught European and Middle Eastern history at San Francisco State College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin. In 1972, Gregorian joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, was appointed the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences two years later, and rose to become the school’s twenty-third provost. While at Penn, Gregorian became a U.S. citizen and commented on his adopted country, saying, “Like many other immigrant forefathers of ours, we have come not only to enjoy the benefits of America but to contribute to its development, to its growth, and to its welfare. We have come to contribute to the achievement of what is left undone or unfinished in the agenda of American democracy. We have come to contribute to that perfect union.”

In 1981, Gregorian became president of The New York Public Library, which was in crisis after drastic cuts to funding and services. He responded by forming a public-private partnership that raised $327 million and restored the library as an intellectual, scholarly, and cultural repository for the nation. In 1989, Gregorian returned to academia as the president of Brown University, and once again revitalized a financially distressed institution. While cultivating an environment dedicated to inquiry and the liberal arts, he ran a capital campaign that doubled the university’s endowment, raising over $500 million, and brought in 275 new faculty members, including seventy-two professors.

Gregorian’s work was recognized with numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, which was presented by President George W. Bush. President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal, and President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. In 2017, Gregorian was awarded France’s Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in recognition of his efforts to strengthen U.S.-France relations. The president of the Republic of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, bestowed upon him the Order of Honor in appreciation of Gregorian’s service to the country.

In addition, Gregorian was decorated by the Italian, Austrian, and Portuguese governments and received scores of honorary degrees. As a volunteer, he served on numerous boards, ranging from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to Brandeis University and Human Rights Watch. In 2015, Gregorian cofounded the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, which was created on behalf of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and seeks to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. It administers the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, for which Gregorian served on the selection committee. Gregorian was a recipient of numerous fellowships, including those from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Gregorian was predeceased by his wife, Clare Russell Gregorian. He is survived by his three sons: Vahé Gregorian and his wife Cindy Billhartz Gregorian of Kansas City, Missouri; Raffi Gregorian of New York, New York; and Dareh Gregorian and his wife Maggie Haberman Gregorian of Brooklyn, New York. He is also survived by five grandchildren—Juan, Maximus, Sophie, Miri, and Dashiell—and a sister, Ojik Arakelian, of Massachusetts and Iran.  

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Vartan Gregorian, the twelfth president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, died in New York City on April 15, 2021, at the age of 87. He led the Corporation’s international philanthropy from 1997 until his death. Gregorian was also the sixteenth president of Brown University and a past president of The New York Public Library.


Vartan Gregorian wears the Order of Honor bestowed upon him by the president of Armenia in 2017. Gregorian was also decorated by the United States, Austrian, Italian, Portuguese, and French governments. He is seated next to Corporation former trustee Edward P. Djerejian, who was also honored.


In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Vartan Gregorian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, describing him as “one of our most respected academic leaders.” In 1998, President Clinton awarded Gregorian the National Humanities Medal in recognition of his work to advance the country’s understanding of and access to the humanities.