Vartan Gregorian, sixteenth president of Brown University, was unanimously elected at a special meeting of the Corporation on August 31, 1988. Born in Tabriz, Iran, on April 8, 1934, he attended an Armenian-Russian school until he was fifteen, when he left Tabriz with fifty dollars and a letter of introduction from a French vice consul and entered the Collège Arménien in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1955 he received a degree in Armenian studies. The next year he was awarded a scholarship for study overseas, and entered Stanford University. Studying through the summers, he received a bachelor of arts degree in history and humanities in two years. He earned his Ph.D. degree at Stanford in 1964, writing a dissertation on “Traditionalism and Modernism in Islam.” He taught at San Francisco State University from 1960 to 1968. He won the Danforth Foundation’s Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1968, and in the same year became professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1972 he was named Tarzian Professor of Armenian and Caucasian History at the University of Pennsylvania. The next year he was named faculty assistant to the president and provost, and served until 1980, when he resigned. A year later he became the president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library, which he restored from a declining institution to a financial and cultural success during the next eight years.
When Gregorian was awarded an honorary degree at Brown’s 1984 Commencement, the citation observed, “The lions who guard the steps of the Library are named ‘Patience’ and ‘Fortitude,’ but when we consider your accomplishments, it is the courage of the lions that we are more apt to remember. We thank you for your inspired stewardship of one of the world’s great repositories of humankind’s accomplishments.” He was able to combine teaching with his presidency of the Library, receiving appointments in 1984 as University Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and as professor of history and Near Eastern studies at New York University. He accepted the presidency of Brown in 1988, arrived on campus in January 1989, and was formally inaugurated on April 9. Summing up his career for the Brown Alumni Monthly, he said:
“A reporter from the Times asked me, ‘Would you have imagined that one day you would be president of an Ivy League university?’ And I told him, ‘If in 1956 when I came to the States without speaking English, someone had told me I would finish a Ph.D. degree, that I would be a professor at University of Texas, that I would be the second foreign-born provost of the University of Pennsylvania (the first one, William Smith, was brought in by Benjamin Franklin), that I would have the opportunity to be chancellor of Berkeley, that I would be the first foreign-born president of the New York Public Library, and finally the first foreign-born president of an Ivy League University, I would have considered that person to be crazy.’ But then I said to him, ‘You know, these kinds of things happen only in America.’”