Vartan Gregorian – Educator, Historian, Philanthropist and Restorer of a Fading Library – Passes Away at 87; He Was President of Brown University When His Highness the Aga Khan Became the First Muslim to Deliver Baccalaureate Address to Brown’s Class of 1996

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On the morning of Friday April 16, 2021, while quickly scanning through the subject column of new emails that I had received overnight, my heart sank when I saw “Carnegie Corporation of New York Mourns the Death of President Vartan Gregorian.”

As a personal tribute to him, I would like to share three beautiful memories I have of Mr. Gregorian, who had previously held the positions of President both at Brown University and the New York Public Library.

The first memory is when I saw him introducing Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, to the University’s graduating class of 1996. I had specially travelled to Brown from Philadelphia for the historic occasion, and watched the entire event from the University’s “Green.” The tribute to Mawlana Hazar Imam will be etched in my heart forever, and you can read it in Barakah by clicking HERE. But here is a very short excerpt from the piece:

“His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is the first Muslim baccalaureate speaker in Brown’s history and I dare say in the history of the Ivy League. He embodies the ecumenical spirit that links the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed, became 49th Imam — spiritual leader — of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in 1957 at the age of 20….The new Aga Khan shouldered great responsibilities even before he received his undergraduate degree. His challenge was awesome. After all, he was succeeding his grandfather, a world leader….In spite of his youth, he established himself firmly not only as spiritual leader, but also as an enlightened guardian of the far-flung Ismaili community’s welfare and progress.” — Vartan Gregorian

At the end of the speech, President Gregorian thanked Mawlana Hazar Imam for entrusting Prince Rahim’s education to Brown University.

May 26, 1996: A captive audience at Brown University’s “Green” watches a live telecast from the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church where Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan delivered the Baccalaureate Address to the 1996 graduating class. Photo: Barakah/Malik Merchant.
May 26, 1996: Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, receives a standing ovation at the conclusion of the Baccalaureate Address at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Next to him is Vartan Gregorian who was then President of the University.
Prince Rahim Aga Khan graduated from Brown University. In this photos, he is seen delivering his commencement address for the Graduation Ceremony of the Institute of Ismaili Studies held at the Ismaili Centre in London in 2007.

During the same weekend, Brown University also conferred Mawlana Hazar Imam with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Aga Khan Vartan Gregorian Brown University
Brown University President Vartan Gregorian (right) confers the honorary degree Doctor of Laws upon Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, in May 1996. AKDN / Gary Otte.

It was the event at Brown that inspired me to read more about Vartan Gregorian. I learnt that he was responsible for reviving the New York Public Library (NYPL), before he became the President of Brown University. And this is how he re-entered my life after the Brown event — my second wonderful memory of him.

After a number of years of trying and finally been given the go-ahead in December 2006 to re-open the Ottawa Jamatkhana Library that had been closed for several years for unexplained reasons, my thoughts immediately turned to Carnegie Corporation, which a few years earlier had published an insightful monograph entitled “Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith” by Mr. Gregorian. I contacted Carnegie to send us as many copies of the book as were available, because we wanted to use it as an incentive to attract members to the Jamati library! Carnegie Corporation sent us the entire remaining stock of more than 100 books. The incentive idea worked as we had over 100 members join the library during the first week. Individuals inspire us in so many ways, and Mr. Vartan Gregorian inspired me to stay on course to re-establish an important institution in the Jamat — the library — and using his book to impart knowledge and increase library membership. I am pleased to include Gregorian’s book as a PDF file. Please click Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith.

I may also note that during his long tenure as President of Carnegie Corporation, Mr. Gregorian contributed insightful and thoughtful essays on diverse matters of interest in the Corporation’s magazine, The Carnegie Reporter. You may download the magazine as a PDF file or subscribe to it for free home delivery by clicking Free Carnegie Reporter. It is a very good read every month.

Carnegie reporter
Winter 2020 edition of Carnegie Reporter. The quarterly magazine may be downloaded as a PDF file or delivered by mail free of charge to your address.

The third beautiful memory I have of Mr. Gregorian is when Mawlana Hazar Imam honoured him with a major gift to Brown University. In its press release dated October 15, 2010 under the headline “His Highness the Aga Khan Honors Vartan Gregorian with Major Gift to Brown University,” Carnegie Corporation of New York stated:

“Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has established the Aga Khan Visiting Professor of Islamic Humanities at Brown University in honor of Vartan Gregorian, President of Carnegie Corporation of New York, who served from 1988 to 1997 as President of Brown University. The gift of $2 million was announced following the October meeting of the Corporation of Brown University.

“The university said that the gift will allow Brown to bring in experts from a wide range of disciplines, including religion, history, anthropology and comparative literature. The Aga Khan Visiting Professor of Islamic Humanities will come from any of the various disciplines depending on who is thought to be the best for the job in a given year, and will be affiliated with the Cogut Center for Humanities.

“For many years, Vartan Gregorian served on the Board of the Aga Khan University.  During Dr. Gregorian’s tenure as president of Brown University, the Aga Khan was the first Muslim spiritual leader to give a Baccalaureate Address at a major American university. He is also the recipient of an honorary degree from Brown University, from which his son, Prince Rahim Aga Khan, graduated.”

In response to the gift, President Gregorian said:

“I am deeply moved and extremely grateful that the Aga Khan has chosen to make this wonderful gift to Brown University in my honor. It is particularly meaningful to me because the Aga Khan is internationally recognized as a major activist for civilized humanity and in promoting the universal values that unite and transcend us all. And he believes that education, self-reliance, solidarity and character are the elements which keep a community vibrant and healthy and lead to enlightenment and dignity. In addition, he supports the education of women as central to global progress. I salute him, I thank him, and I celebrate the bond that he has created with Brown University today, and with the generations of students, faculty, scholars and others who will continue to benefit from his generosity on into the future.” (Read Complete Press Release).

With these fond memories of Vartan Gregorian that I will always carry with me, I now reproduce the email message I received from Carnegie Corporation announcing his death. It is then followed by a link to a detailed obituary posted in the corporation’s flagship magazine Carnegie Reporter.

We convey our condolences to all the members of Mr. Gregorian’s family and wish them strength and courage at this time of bereavement.


Brief Announcement from Carnegie Corporation on the Passing of Vartan Gregorian

At the JFK Library in Boston, Vartan Gregorian addresses new citizens, friends, and family at a naturalization ceremony. (Photo: Celeste Ford.

Dear Friends of the Corporation,

Vartan Gregorian, an international luminary, legendary educator, distinguished historian and humanities scholar, and 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 related to stomach pain.

Gregorian served as the twelfth president of Carnegie Corporation of New York at the time of his death. During his tenure, beginning in 1997, he championed the causes of education, immigration, and international peace and security — key concerns of the philanthropic institution’s founder, Andrew Carnegie. Like Carnegie, Gregorian was a naturalized United States citizen whose experiences in a new country helped shape him, including his belief in the great importance of immigrant civic integration to the health of American democracy.

Gregorian was especially devoted to higher education and was the highly respected president emeritus of Brown University and the 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. The recipient of more than 70 honorary degrees and dozens of significant awards, he was decorated by the governments of the United States, France, Italy, Austria, Armenia, and Portugal. His extraordinary story is told in his autobiography, The Road to Home: My Life and Times, published in 2003.

At the Corporation, Gregorian focused the foundation’s grantmaking on aiding the development of innovative ideas and transformative scholarship. During his presidency, Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded more than 10,000 grants totaling some $2.8 billion. He will be sorely missed by all who crossed his path in whatever manner during his long and fruitful life, but especially by those of us who had the good fortune to call him a friend and colleague.

Thomas H. Kean
Chair, Board of Trustees
Carnegie Corporation of New York


Tribute to Vartan Gregorian in Carnegie Reporter

Vartan Gregorian. Click on photo to read obituary in Carnegie reporter. Photo:

Please read Former president of Brown University and The New York Public Library, illustrious scholar, and steward of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy dies at age 87

Date posted: April 17, 2021.


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