An Interview with Vartan Gregorian (Part I)

Education: Its Values and Pitfalls

CARNEGIE CORPORATION, N.Y.—On Nov. 7, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, will be honored as Professional of the Year by the Armenian Professional Society at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, Calif.

An interview with Gregorian is a unique experience. He impresses one as a brilliant, wise, self-confident, and utterly forthright individual. As he came out of his office on Monday afternoon, Sept. 28, his well-known exuberance was evident as he warmly greeted me with a big bear hug and beaming smile. Expecting to see an opulent office with expensive furniture for a person of his exalted position, I was happily surprised to find a cozy room lined with thousands of books, many double-stacked in bookcases, on his desk and some even crowding the seats. It could have easily doubled as a comfortable library setting. As befitting the man, it was truly a working office, not a showplace.

Gregorian is a man on a mission, and his relaxed down-to-earth demeanor belies the intense passion he feels on the subject closest to his heart, that of education. His responses in the first of two parts of this exclusive interview reveal that earnest feeling.


Florence Avakian: Dr. Gregorian, why are you so devoted to the need to foster higher education?
Vartan Gregorian: The United States has been the world’s leader in higher education because of several factors. First, even in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln established land grant universities. That was historically one of the most important turning points for America, whereby every state would have a university. He put universities in populated areas, and where the potential of those states would be realized. Lincoln’s foresight in expanding access to higher education provided America with leadership later on, in the industrial revolution.
Second, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was instrumental in promoting a future for science. During World War II, because of Roosevelt and a landmark report by his science adviser, Vannevar Bush, science, unlike in Europe and the Soviet Union, was to be centered in universities, in order to bring competition and different perspectives, and also so that undergraduates and graduates could be exposed to research. This was very important. Even after Roosevelt died, his successor, President Harry Truman, adopted that policy so that a post-war strategy for advancing science in the U.S. would be firmly established.
Third, the G.I. Bill democratized American higher education. Eleven million returning military servicemen, instead of becoming unemployed, went to universities. Similar programs are in place today. In the decades following the end of World War II, a related concern was how to provide support for the growing number of students who wanted to attend institutions of higher education. This problem was addressed, in part, through the 1973 Pell Grant program, which has awarded more than $100 billion in grants to an estimated 30 million post-secondary students, rather than giving it to the universities. The portability of these grants led to much competition and put universities on the defensive. They had to satisfy their clients, the students.
Then, worries that Sputnik meant the Soviet Union was outpacing the U.S. resulted in a resurgence of science in America, which also led the way for men to go to the moon. Though this was a reactive mode and not planned, the Cold War in many ways did accelerate the organization of higher education in the U.S. The Fulbright, Muskie, Humphrey, NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities], NIH [National Institutes of Health] fellowships, etc., promoted research in all the fields, from humanities to the sciences. America has been the leader in all of this.

FA: Yes, I was one of the recipients of the NEH fellowship at Cornell University. You have said we were the leader in higher education. This all sounds very positive. What have been the problems and what are the challenges of obtaining this higher education in the United States?
VG: We were and still are the leader, but the rest of the world is catching up, and we’re “sleeping” for two reasons. First, only 50 percent of our high school students graduate. In the 19th century, higher education was only for the elite. And we had a population of under 100 million. Now our population is about 300 million.
Second, as land grant universities were established, higher education was supposed to be supported by the state. For example, I came to California in 1956 as a freshman. At that time, tuition was $750 at Stanford University. Berkeley was $50 a semester. Today, it is somewhere around $40,000 at Stanford, and at Berkeley somewhere around $10,000-$14,000. And it’s important to note that Berkeley is a public university, not private. When I was at school, the states underwrote the entire cost of public higher education, but are no longer doing this because they don’t have the funds. The state of Michigan, for instance, provides only seven or eight percent of the support needed by the University of Michigan, one of the best universities in the country. The California university system is turning people away because the demand is so great and there are not enough seats for all the students who want to attend. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that 90 percent of the funding that the university needs now has to come from tuition, fundraising, and faculty research.

FA: How can this very serious problem of finances be resolved?
VG: States have to provide support, but there are even more obstacles in the way of universities developing their own resources. For example, Michigan says you can only have 33 percent of the students from other states—and it is out-of-state students who pay higher tuition fees. State universities also welcome foreign students because they are among the few who can pay full fare in terms of tuition. So more and more, we are educating foreign students in order to make money and help our universities survive. And the worst thing is, the more we increase the number of students, the more tuition goes up. We also have a 19th-century infrastructure trying to serve 21st-century educational needs. So new solutions are required.
One solution is to fundraise for public universities. In the past, that was the province of private higher education: Private institutions relied on private sources and public institutions relied on public sources. Now, in that realm, there is no division between public and private universities—both try to raise funds from both sectors. But public universities have another roadblock in their way: Since the state is the major shareholder in state universities, even if you want to build a new campus building or facility, you need to get state authorization.

FA: From what you have discussed, is this part of the 20-year plan you had envisioned?
VG: I was misquoted on this. What I had said was that there ought to be a 20-year plan. And what I have now described should be in this plan. How do you fix all these problems? Maybe you have to have a special tax. For example, perhaps five percent of the tax Californians pay should go to their universities. There has to be a solution, or else people who want to study but can’t afford it will go into great indebtedness or simply not be able to access higher education, especially now with the economy still in such trouble. Thankfully, interest rates remain low, so student loans are still relatively reasonable enough to encourage people to pursue higher education. On the graduate level, ironically, if you study for your Ph.D, the university will underwrite the cost, but if you study for any other graduate degree, you have to pay.

FA: Dr. Gregorian, you mentioned that the rest of the world is catching up to the United States. What are the advantages that they have that the United States doesn’t have? Can you elucidate?
VG: From Singapore to China to India to Germany, etc., many countries have state-supported programs that make tuition affordable. Two years ago, the University of Denmark president came here and we were talking at NYU. He was astonished at the idea that public institutions in the U.S. had to raise money from private sources. He said that in Denmark, it was illegal for him to raise private funds.

FA: Those are the Scandinavian states. What is the current situation in Armenia? They had free tuition under the Soviet rule. How do they manage now?
VG: There is no more free tuition—and who said they’re managing? The first thing that Armenia has to invest in, like the Scandinavian countries, is education. Even in the Armenian army, they should teach computer science, mathematics, and other sciences. Speaking to that point, let me mention that the last time I was in Armenia, I could not find a bookstore. Ethnically, Armenians and Jews during the Soviet period had the highest percentage of degrees in science, chemistry, mathematics, etc., and one could order books from Eastern Europe. Books could be obtained from bookstores and libraries. The collapse of the Soviet Union, in many ways, has washed away many of our gains. And now, there is no modern bookstore where you can order foreign books.

FA: What is the reason for this regression in Armenia?
VG: After years of a repressive regime, suddenly Armenians have the freedom to focus on personal gain first, and only after that come the interests of the family and of society. When I was in Armenia, I found an abundance of karaoke singing, casinos, hamburger joints, cafes, ostentatious houses, and many, many churches. Following 80 years of Communism, I believe that we have built enough churches now. The church itself should begin to invest in education. We like to think we’re the first nation to become Christian, that we’re the best, the cleanest. But Armenians have a long way to go to accept the very concept that the state is now theirs. That means that if something goes wrong in the country, it is likely to affect all the people. I don’t blame Armenia, because for centuries it was under foreign rule. Self-preservation was the major issue. That’s why rebuilding Armenia is a major challenge today.

To be continued…


  1. One of the things that did stand out for me when I visited Armenia was the lack of bookstores. There is a nice one in the hrabarak across from the Marriott. Otherwise nothing. Anyone know of any others in Yerevan? Gyumri?

  2. There is a lack of bookstores in Yerevan, granted. But Dr. Gregorian seems to have misplaced the few ones that existed the last time he went. After the collapse of the Soviet regime, many closed, but there was always at least one or more. I can mention three survivors from the pre-independent period: the one Random Armenian mentioned before (“Ani”), the one on Mashtots Street accross the office of Aeroflot (“Grkeri Ashkharh”) and the one near Matenadaran (“Luys”). Also we have to mention “Noyan Tapan”, along “Ani” across from the Marriott Armenia,  and “Arvesti Kamurj”, better known as “Art Bridge” on Abovian. Last August I heard, but didn’t see, of one in the University of Yerevan, of at least one more in the outskirts, and I know that the Matenadaran has a small bookstore on its entrance. Also deserves to be mentioned the bookstore of the Holy See, at the entrance of St. Echmiadzin.

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