The following is a conversation between Vartan Gregorian, the President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: It is now my pleasure, indeed my honor, to welcome to the show one of the greatest friends that philanthropy and education has ever had. As president and CEO, he oversaw the renaissance of the New York Public Library in the 1980s. He left Brown University in far better shape than he founded where he served as its president through much of the 1990s, and who has been the guiding spirit of the Carnegie Corporation for nearly 20 years. He is Vartan Gregorian, the President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Mr. Gregorian!
Vartan: I’m delighted to be with you.
Denver: Let me start, if I may, with the man himself. I don’t think that many Americans fully appreciate the profound impact that Andrew Carnegie had on the world of philanthropy. He along perhaps with John D. Rockefeller are arguably the fathers of philanthropy and he had particular influence with an article he wrote back in 1889 entitled “The Gospel of Wealth.” Tell us a little bit about the man and “The Gospel of Wealth.”
Vartan: One of the things I admired with Andrew Carnegie—when I was a student, as a matter of fact, high school student, I read “Self-Made Men.” It was a translation of Spencer, I think. I forget now the name, a 1912 translation of Self-Made Men. It had Fulton, it had all kinds of—it included also Andrew Carnegie, that he came as a poor immigrant, very young, and by the time he was an adult, had become one of the richest man in the United States, if not the world. I empathized with him, without knowing one day I’ll be president of his institution, because one of the things that touched me deeply that he loved books, to read books, but there was no library to lend him.
And as you know, his family was Chartist radicals and they were not welcome in many places in Scotland including the public park of their city, which was open once a year for general public except Carnegies. But the book, which—I have lived the same situation. I had no money to buy books, I rent books. I had to rent, but then the lender divided the book into 5, 3, 4 volumes, each one we had to rent separately because otherwise, I would have stayed and finished within the same night. So I knew about him and I had never realized one day I’ll be here.
So I empathized with his love of books and also the idea that he found that wealth is an instrument. We can use it for bad or for good, for glory to self or glory to humanity. And what I loved him about was not how he made his money, which is controversial still in some circles, but rather, he decided along with John D. Rockefeller, one for moral purposes – religious impulse for John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were humanistic impulse – namely that wealth should be served public good. So, I fell in love with him or the idea that he would be father of modern public library system in the United States and elsewhere, from Fiji Island, South Africa, wherever, to Canada, but also here.
Denver: Here, I think he built about 1,680 libraries?
Vartan: Yes, libraries including New York Public Library. And also he created the atmosphere whereby people who did not get public libraries, they initiated to have public libraries such as, for example, Newark Public Library. A referendum established Newark Public Library; 80% of New Jersey population voted for that library. So he started learning public institutions, giving you first, second and third chance to catch up what you lost.
Denver: And he was well ahead of his time, I think, as it relates to charity. That he did not look at charity as just dispensing something to an individual. He looked at it as investing in that individual and making that individual self-sufficient, and that seems to just be catching on today. He was 125 years ahead of his time.
Vartan: This year is his 180th birthday. For him, to be able to see education as an investment, wealth as an investment, not as charity because all religions have charity as their mission. Love and charity, you help the destitute, you help the weak, you help the downtrodden – that is reacting. He wanted not just to, as the famous saying goes, “to give you a rod and fish, but also a fishing rod.” One made you dependent, the other made you independent. And that was his principle. And then, he was a curious man. People who are wealthy, they think they know everything. He did not think he knew everything. He read about everything and he hired people who knew about different issues.
So when I was in McGill giving a speech years ago, two doctors thanked me for insulin because Andrew Carnegie—I do not know Andrew Carnegie had given $12,000 grant, which went to fund origins of discovery of insulin. So I went to South Africa, somebody said Andrew Carnegie. Small places in the United States. This year is 100th anniversary of many of those libraries. He’s remembered. And he was very smart because he knew the difference between charity and philanthropy. Philanthropy was an investment to find the cause of illness, not to suit the illness or how do you cope with that illness.
Denver: Right. And that informs the Carnegie Corporation’s philanthropy very much today. If he were to come back today, do you think that he would update his Gospel of Wealth in anyway?
Vartan: Yes. He’ll add inflation to it. No, really. He’s a remarkable person. He had anticipated everything except inflation. Because when I was president of the New York Library, I told Mayor Koch who was a good friend that Andrew Carnegie said, “We’ll build a library. You have to put the books in there and manage it and so forth, at least 10% of my investment.” Well, he did not include [unintelligible 0:06:37] doing 10%, he did not include inflation. So that’s one thing.
Second thing is he did not challenge his fellow rich to join him in the Carnegie libraries. Now, we have no problem now to have others join us because the good itself is more important than the name. So that’s one other thing he did not anticipate.
Education has two components: One is self-discovery and the other is knowing one’s society and one’s profession and others…Understanding and curiosity. Education is supposed to make you curious.
Denver: Carnegie felt that education was the central engine to democracy, and he felt that the more people who are educated and the better they were educated, the stronger democracy would be. How do you think he would feel about America today in that regard?
Vartan: That’s a very fundamental question. Education has two components: One is self-discovery and the other is knowing one’s society and one’s profession and others. I think we have lost that balance because the way it is now, if you read and write, that’s not sufficient. Understanding and curiosity. Education is supposed to make you curious.
..ēducātiō is how to draw out from you what’s in you already (Plato’s). It’s not just putting something.
Denver: A love of learning.
Vartan: Love of learning. Actually, ēducātiō is how to draw out from you what’s in you already (Plato’s). It’s not just putting something. And what I’m surprised that Andrew Carnegie knew importance of education, importance of knowledge, the brain and learning. We have in many ways talked the good talk, but we have lost the sense that education is also for culture, for knowing the world, for being curious rather than—
Denver: Getting a job and earning money.
Vartan: Even the job is so fragmented that you become a cog in it rather than an educated person. And he was way ahead of his time also because in 1930s, Fabian socialists in England start publishing books for factory workers, that is there’s no reason you would not read Tolstoy’s War and Peace because we’ll provide the condense version, but we like you to know about literature. They did not classify people according to economic status because knowledge was what everybody should aspire regardless of their profession and state in life.
The New York Public Library was the best example of it. I would walk into the Jewish study room, you would find there Trotskyites, one of [unintelligible 0:08:58] remnants. You’ll find an Orthodox rabbi, Reform rabbi, secular Jews, all of them, and they’re looking at the text, not at each other because that was a place for everybody had their heritage.
And then of course you know that Polaroid, all kinds of things were invented, discovered at the New York Public Library because nobody asked you “What are you doing? Why do you need so many books and so forth?” They were entitled to it; it was a public good. Andrew Carnegie cultivated that public good aspect of it. And, of course, people criticized him, that he build libraries, but he did not give workers enough time to read because he was talking about the next generation.
So that’s the other thing. I think the whole idea of curiosity, cultured person, that because you’re poor, it does not mean you will not be educated because democracy needs educated citizens. That was his belief. That specialized educated citizens.
Teachers fail, students don’t fail.
…you’d never know how you affect as a teacher people’s lives because you bring out the best in them. You don’t put them in there.
Denver: Picking up on your point before about pulling the best out of somebody, you are a teacher at heart. And I know that you believe that teachers have a responsibility to bring out the potential of every child. And of all the students that you’ve taught and the scores and scores of papers that you’ve corrected, after all that time, you’ve only held on to one blue book, which is emblematic of that. Tell us about the blue book that you held on to.
Vartan: Well, I’ve never used teaching assistants. I’ve always corrected my exams and all have been essays, no multiple choice. I always give the exams—I taught European Intellectual History, History of Europe, History of Middle East, History of Armenia or something. But always at European Intellectual History and Modern Europe, are the role play for students. I had the Marxists to defend Conservatives. Conservatives defend Liberals. Liberals defend—because people till today, when they see me, they thank me for it because not many people take the role of the opponent. That’s the only way you can learn all the arguments.
So, my exams were very difficult. Even now, the other day, I pulled one, I could not answer it. But this student of Intellectual History of Europe comes and then after half-an-hour or so, hands me his blue book. I read – he’s answered some, he’s not answered the others. So I wrote a page of commentary on that one-and-a-half paragraph or two paragraphs, whatever it was, why it was wrong. So I got the paper back, “Take it easy. I did not study.”
I always have felt maybe wrongly, and I hope I don’t offend anybody by saying this, teachers fail, students don’t fail. Because there’s one way you can touch a nerve in somebody, his imagination, somebody’s inner world, somebody’s sense of piety, sense of passion, sense of concern, suffering, and then start from there building up that individual’s base. I was taught that way and I practice that way.
And then five, six months ago, somebody stopped me in New York in front of our—on West 57th Street. “Mr. Gregorian,” I said, “Yes?” “You were my teacher. Thank you. You changed my life.”
Denver: Wow. That’s special.
Vartan: “How?” He said, “You were teaching Goethe’s Faust. In the middle of it, you quoted Marlene Dietrich.” I said, “Are you sure? What did I say?” “Marlene Dietrich, when asked what’s the most important thing in life, said “how to overcome the routine in order to do the essential.”” I said, “Thank you. I don’t think I said that, but…” “No, you did. And I’ve decided to practice that. 2007, my hedge fund was a part of a $17 billion hedge fund, I pulled mine there, then I decided to do the essential. So I’ve travelled around the world now, all the institutions, a place that you talked about so I read about it. I’m doing this. I’m sorry, I’m running late for my drumming lessons now.” And he saw my jaw dropped, then he wanted to authenticate, he said, “My triplets are freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania.” Two weeks later, one of the triplets called me, “Would you be my advisor?” I said, “I don’t do that anymore.”
So these are anecdotal, but you’d never know how you affect as a teacher people’s lives because you bring out the best in them. You don’t put them in there.
Denver: And one of the things that’s really set you apart is that you’ve never given up on a student, and I think that is really the key. You just never give up. Because as you know, if you dig enough, you will hit that nerve and you will change their lives. You have said that the Carnegie Corporation, you invest in ideas. You’re an incubator for ideas. You don’t invest in need. Everybody’s got need and you’re not an oxygen tank. One of the ideas that you’ve invested in and perhaps are more proud of than any other thing you’ve done in your professional life are the female fellowships in South Africa. Tell us about that program and tell us about what else Carnegie is doing in Africa.
Vartan: That’s a very difficult question. I have to be autobiographical. In my family, I was the only one to go to college. My father and uncle went to American high school in Iran. My sister was the no.1 student in Iran, but my stepmother and father did not send her to university. So that has been the sore point in my life because she’s brilliant. So I did not know this was a motivating force.
But then, when I went to South Africa with – I have a great guide, Vincent Mai, who’s a great philanthropist, born in South Africa, member of our board – I visited various places. It was as if I was visiting my childhood during World War II. There’s a blackboard, all white. There’s not room to write. It’s worn out. And I went through all the schools. People coming through elementary school, their shoes are in the school. When they come to the school classroom, they put their shoes on as a respect for learning. I was very moved. And then decided how can we help? And on the spur of moment, instead of fellowships, we said, “We’ll do 1,000 fellowships for young women.” Not in lieu of people going there already, but people who had no chance to get in there. And that has now been almost 2,000 or 3,000 students. And then I announced this in Uganda. I said, “When you educate a woman, you educate seed of civilization. You educate a man, you educate a gypsy. They pack and leave.”
Denver: No argument here.
Vartan: I should not have told them that because men were not pleased. But the vice president of Uganda, when I announced, she said she was going to marry me.
Denver: How did that go over at home?
Vartan: A big ceremony took place. It was a joke. The tribe had to come dance around me and so forth. But I said, “I’m doing this because women are continuing seeds of civilization.” And I believe in that because I have seen mothers suffering to raise their children for school, sacrificing everything. My grandmother did, and the others who raised me, and so I have always a soft spot there, but I did not know until I went to South Africa for graduation of one of the classes.
So this Muslim girl, South African, said, “When I got married, my mother has told me to quit school. My mother-in-law also concurred. But thanks to my husband and Carnegie Corporation, we rented a small apartment, and now today, I’m getting MA in Neurosciences from the University of Capetown.” I was very moved. I cried.
Denver: I’m sure the images of both your sister and your grandmother must’ve strong [unintelligible] your life.
Vartan: Yes. My grandmother was illiterate and my sister—
Denver: But an incredible woman.
Vartan: Yes. So she raised us. And that’s what I’ll always remember: Empower woman and they’ll build your future. And then they’ll educate men.
Denver: And we’re not easy. Another thing that Carnegie Corporation is involved in is International Peace and Security. And Andrew Carnegie was probably the last private citizen in the world who have the capacity of bringing national leaders together and by that I mean heads of state, and he tried to do that before World War I and much to his disappointment, was unable to prevent it and perhaps died somewhat brokenheartedly as a result of that. What are some of the things that Carnegie is doing currently in that arena that you think has shown some dividends and has particular promise?
Vartan: Andrew Carnegie believed that a capitalist does not need war to expand markets, there were plenty of opportunities; that conflicts can be resolved with mediation, arbitration, not war. He believed in the rule of law. So what we have done for years—and he also tried to convince Teddy Roosevelt and then later President Taft, to do one thing simple, especially Roosevelt. He paid most of the safaris of Teddy Roosevelt. He wanted Teddy Roosevelt, on his way back from Africa, to stop and talk to Kaiser Wilhelm to say war is not necessary among Kaisers – Nicky, Willy, George. Roosevelt never did. So their relations sour there.
But he believed arbitration, rule of law, and communication and diplomacy. And that’s what we’ve been doing. We have Track II in North Korea. We still have ongoing two or three organizations. We have Track II with Iran. We have Track II with Kashmir in the past. All of these because you keep channels open and we worked also Helsinki, Arab, Israeli issue to people to be in touch with, talk about it, even if there’s no current solution. Think of possible solutions. So when you’re ready to do something, nitty gritty details will not become a major impediment.
For example, you know that Mandela negotiated from prison for five years while people were being killed, demonstration. They did not hurry because they want to answer all the questions that may cause war and disrupt the community. We also are supporting Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We’re supporting Carnegie Palace for Justice in Hague. We’re supporting nuclear non-proliferation, have been since 1946, when it started. Knowledge of Soviet Union, knowledge of Russia now because we don’t associate Russia with Putin. Russia is a major country, major people. You have to always study because once the dust settles down, you still have to cope with these people. We also have established a variety of grants for institutions that are doing nuclear non-proliferation, but also occasionally, we have done chemical, biological warfare, which is very dangerous.
So we involve with all of these plus Aspen Congressional Program. For 27 years, we supported senators and congressmen to go visit outside of United States, to meet with experts – Europeans, Asians, and others, American – in order to discuss in atmosphere which is not hostile, to discuss with each other and learn from experts without expressing their opinion that will be in the papers and all over because it’s all confidential.
Denver: That leads me to my next point, and that is how does an organization like Carnegie Corporation, which just celebrated its centennial a few years ago, stay so relevant and vibrant? Many legacy organizations have a hard time in doing that, and I think in a world of the changing landscape of philanthrocapitalism and impact investing and social impact bonds, this organization has remained intellectually fresh and curious. How do you manage that?
Vartan: Andrew Carnegie had a vision in his charter saying trustees are in charge. They did not want to impose his detailed execution because he knew about progress, he knew about problems changed. But the fundamental thing does not change, then they have to eliminate conflict, how to educate people, how to build bridges rather than walls, all of that. And so he gave opportunity, the fact that we have only over 10 trusted presidents in the history is also indicative of stability.
Denver: That’s a lot of continuity of there.
Vartan: But the most important thing for me is I’ve never, unlike some people may have in the past in other foundations, I don’t confuse whose wealth is it. It’s Andrew Carnegie’s wealth. It’s his mission, his pictures. There’s no picture of mine anywhere here. It’s his picture everywhere in rooms we meet. Because it’s important as a historian, that’s one of the important points, you’re aware of entire creation, establishment and history of Carnegie Corporation so you don’t reinvent things. We have no identity crisis. But periodically we check, every five to seven years, we study what are we doing. Are we doing the right thing? What are we missing? So we’re aware of it. But we don’t do things in many ways to be newsworthy. Because we make news, we don’t want to be newsworthy. And we also are very secure. We collaborate, because for me, at least, my philosophy has been what needs to be done is more important than who’s doing it. So we share credit. If you share credit, you can go far.
Denver: I don’t think many of our listeners really understand how a foundation works and maybe one way to convey that is give us a sense of what a typical day for you might be in running one of the major US foundations. And from what I gather with what you just said, you seem to be quite aware also of the awesome responsibility you have in being one of Carnegie’s successors.
Vartan: Yes. First of all, let me tell you every single proposal that goes out of Carnegie, I’ve read it, from 10,000 to a million. There’s no surprise. I’ve read it. Actually, I have not only read it but I also comment and then people come back. We go over also to see whether they have met my objections or observations or corrections. That’s one thing.
Second is I’m reading three or four daily newspapers.
Every July 4, we have the pictures of 48 immigrants in order to sensitize people that we are a nation of immigrants who have come to be American. We have not come to live here to make money only but to participate in the life of our country and to become, without losing their religion or their identity or their culture.
Denver: You started that when you were a paperboy, right? And you’ve never stopped.
Vartan: I’ve never stopped. I read, and even though now everybody is on the cellphone, the smell of the paper, the texture of the paper, and in fact, when I open a newspaper or a magazine, I see 20 issues. I was not looking for some of those issues. So that also entices my appetite. So I keep up with what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in the United States, what’s happening in sister institutions and have close relationship with all major foundation heads. We collaborate on many issues; African Higher Education is one of them, libraries in Africa, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. We’re doing a lot on immigration. Every July 4, we have the pictures of 48 immigrants in order to sensitize people that we are a nation of immigrants who have come to be American. We have not come to live here to make money only but to participate in the life of our country and to become, without losing their religion or their identity or their culture.
Denver: That’s right. I see it in the New York Times. You’re an immigrant and obviously, one of the best import we’ve ever had in this country was Andrew Carnegie who came from Scotland and he said this – “There is no class so intensely patriotic as a naturalized citizen and his child. For little does a native-born citizen know the value of rights which have never been denied.” Now, again, you were born in the Armenian Christian Community of Iran. You came to Lebanon. You went to California around 1956. So as an immigrant and as an historian, as somebody who’s met people from across the globe, you probably have a little bit of a different view of America than many of us do. So I’d be curious as to how your perspective of America is different than let’s say mine and how it informs your actions.
Vartan: Well, I wrote today as a matter of fact the three things I hate I learn in America. One is incompetence, indifference and ignorance. Those are the three things, I think, in my book they’re original sins.
One of the things, if you read my autobiography, The Road to Home, it was published 2003. It’s one thing I wrote that many people have reminded me. I drove to New York and stopped in Omaha. Johnson and one of Howard Johnson’s restaurants. I’m in line, I looked back, there’s a colonel behind me and I immediately cut out of line, I said, “Please, sir.” He said, “There is a line.” That left such a great impression because in Iran or in Lebanon, whether airport and others, you give way to important people. After all, they’re elected officials, rich people, military. One small thing, “there’s a line” was most instructive to me.
Denver: Same as when you were in Stanford and you saw people raising their hands to ask questions. You were flabbergasted that somebody was able to actually challenge the professor.
Vartan: Absolutely. And there’s a funny part. A professor of Intellectual Historian from Austria was there, he starts his lecture, a student raised his hand. He thought he wanted to go to the bathroom. “You may leave,” he said, because he’s not—even professors are not accustomed that in the middle of their lectures, you’ll dare to raise your hand and ask a question.
But I learned a lot. I stood up whenever a professor came to classroom. I stood up. Later, I told everybody who was looking at me as very weird, why am I doing this. Because I was taught you respect the teacher. You respect learning. Because my grandmother’s saying was “I take you to school, they’re in charge of your body or whatever it is. They’re commander of your body. They can take the flesh, but I need the bones. Because when you come back, you know how to learn and how to behave.
We took it, physical punishment was accepted by us as normal, people slapping you with their ruler, attacking you with even a kind of horse whip. Well, we did not know it was illegal.
Denver: It was accepted.
Vartan: I came from that kind of background.
Denver: Did you learn from your grandmother who I know had a profound influence on you a quality of yours which I really admire, and that is that you go directly at the things that you are most afraid. Now this probably started with the big bully who was picking on you and you took him on and ended up with a bloody nose maybe but the harassment stopped. Tell us about something in your professional life that you were just absolutely terrified about, went right at it, and how that worked.
Vartan: When I was chosen to be Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, I had not been an administrator. I had to put five colleges together in one year. I did not know it could not be done. As a result, I did it.
The most important thing I learned about America, that you are a citizen, not a subject. You have rights. People don’t realize it’s such a luxury to rights, to have the bill of rights, to have the constitution. Many people have not read it, but they don’t know what they’re missing. Because people died in order to get the constitution and people protested in order to expand its rights to all Americans.
Denver: That was the only good thing you can say about ignorance.
Vartan: Yes. I did not know. But I felt I could do it because I believed I could do it, but also the other thing is you have to know how to ask for help. I was too proud initially to ask for help. I think America thought me also that. The most important thing I learned about American democracy and others it’s not shame to work as long as it’s a means towards an end. So I did not want to be a waiter, I want to be a dishwasher because people could not see me. But then in the end, I discovered it’s a virtue that I earned my way through college. It did not pay all of it but at least you did your share, so $0.55 an hour or $0.70 an hour at five different jobs.
But the most important thing I learned about America, that you are a citizen, not a subject. You have rights. People don’t realize it’s such a luxury to rights, to have the bill of rights, to have the constitution. Many people have not read it, but they don’t know what they’re missing. Because people died in order to get the constitution and people protested in order to expand its rights to all Americans.
But as an outsider, I have greater appreciation of America and greater love and love of the convert, which I’m always most fanatical than others, and I’ve always defended America abroad because it’s easy to come to America and be anti-America as some radical Muslims did. [Unintelligible 0:30:19] who came 1930s saw naked woman, people don’t respect their parents. Short visits are dangerous because you pick up all your prejudices. Long stay, you find all the exceptions, and that’s one other thing I discovered about America. I have good friends who taught me a lot and the generosity of Americans. Americans may be naïve, there’s nothing wrong with it, but they’re not vicious. They’re educable. They also are open. In many ways, I could not be here today without American generosity, hospitality, and also help. Every professor adopted me at Stanford. Everybody has helped and I in turn have considered myself—
Denver: Pay it forward.
Vartan: You have to pay it forward.
Denver: Speaking of modern-day America, let me get you out on this: We’re living currently at a very unique political moment. No matter what you may think about, we’re sort of witnessing things now that we’ve never seen before. I’d be curious as to what you think this means for civic engagement and philanthropy going forward.
Vartan: It’s a very difficult question because civic engagement does not mean march of dimes alone. It means you have to be engaged in the country’s future institutions. We started America with citizen diplomats, citizen politicians, citizen this. And then we turned later into a professional class of people who should do that. As a matter of fact, it was 1946, [unintelligible] write bills [unintelligible] pamphlet, I can’t find it now, that post World War II era is going to be the age of lobbyists and finance capital. And I read and dismissed it at the time, but then I discovered that it’s not dignified for you to run for office but you can sponsor somebody to do it. It’s not for you to do something. You delegate. You have lobbyists do it for you rather than you personally engage.
Denver: Do it yourself. Right.
Vartan: That direct engagement and the process through volunteers, to those view from below, and then on the top, to keep all your politicians ears to ground and then keep them honest to see that they don’t confuse that by electing you, they have abdicated from their right to intervene in the process. Because America in my opinion is a very, very great treasure and easily lost to indifference, ignorance, not malicious things. And that’s one of the things I always have felt that students have to, I have said you have to be loving critic and/or critical lover, but never indifferent when it comes to America.
Denver: You want the passion one way or the other. Well, Mr. Gregorian, I can’t thank you enough for a very informative, insightful, and entertaining conversation. It was a real pleasure having you on the program.
Vartan: Thank you very much for having me.
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