the late Vartan Gregorian at the carnegie Corporation for a meeting on the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. photo courtesy of carnegie.
the late Vartan Gregorian at the carnegie Corporation for a meeting on the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. photo courtesy of carnegie.

Reflecting on his journey to American citizenship, an immigrant from Asia wrote in 2018, “In retrospect, I am amazed at the generosity my adoptive country showed me.” He went on, “Americans lived in a relatively young country, but they enjoyed the protection of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. ‘We the people’ did not mean that one’s entire identity was given over to the state, and becoming an American did not mean sacrificing my culture and my identity. I was not set apart, I was included.”

That immigrant was Vartan Gregorian, the son of Armenian parents living in Iran, whose life journey took him from childhood in the Iranian city of Tabriz to a career at the pinnacle of American academia and civil society. Most recently, his job was in philanthropy—he served as the longtime president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Gregorian, who passed away this month at the age of 87, was hailed by Princeton University’s Stanley Katz as “the last of an old guard of foundation leaders” in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s obituary. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker called Gregorian “an icon in higher education and philanthropy—and a giant in my life.”

In one sense, Katz’s characterization rings true. I didn’t know Gregorian personally, and only started writing about philanthropy during the final years of his life. Gregorian took up the reins at Carnegie in 1997 (back when this particular writer was still in elementary school), a role that followed a storied career as a scholar and administrator, not to mention master fundraiser, at cornerstone institutions of this nation’s intellectual life. A standout example is his role as the savior of the New York Public Library in the 1980s, lovingly detailed in the New York Times’ obituary.

Yet despite the scope of Gregorian’s career and the magnitude of his accomplishments, one image that stands out to me is depicted at the end of the Times piece—Gregorian as a young man, freshly arrived in New York in 1956.

Having misplaced his plane ticket to San Francisco, and due to register at Stanford the next day, Gregorian pleaded in halting English with an airline agent at the counter. After some hesitation, the agent relented and let the aspiring student board without a pass. “He gave me my future,” Gregorian said in a recent interview. “For years, I wanted to thank him, but couldn’t find him. I told the story in my book to thank him—and now my conscience is clear.”

It’s impossible to say for certain, but if it weren’t for that one act of charity, the New York Public Library might only be a shadow of what it is today. Brown University’s endowment, which Gregorian doubled during his tenure as president, might be substantially diminished. And what of all the nonprofits he supported as president of Carnegie, channeling the fortune of another successful immigrant and devotee of the American public library?

Gregorian’s influence is clear in Carnegie’s U.S. Democracy program, which predated him, but grew under his leadership to encompass a special focus on immigrant integration—that is, the cultivation of people from different places into American citizenship and civic life, as opposed to wholesale cultural assimilation and the erasure of heritage. Plenty of other philanthropic institutions fund immigrant advocacy alongside more typical democracy work, like efforts to protect voting rights. But few link the two as closely as Carnegie did under Gregorian, a leader whose lived experience bore that connection out.

In another interview, Gregorian discussed what it’s like to integrate, and the process of feeling one’s way toward American citizenship. Like some immigrant students and unlike others, he expected to leave the country after his education. “But then one thing led to the other,” he said. “And then suddenly, you’re working now in the university. Suddenly you feel, ‘My God, I’m [a] guest worker, almost.’”

Gregorian met his wife, Clare, during his time as a young student at Stanford. But he had also used marriage as an analogy for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, speaking of citizenship as a lifelong commitment. What a newcomer avoids by taking up the duties of a citizen, he said, is a drab existence where “[I] live here, but I don’t participate in the country’s life, the country’s future.”

Some might ascribe a liberal bent to much of Carnegie’s democracy work, but Gregorian was no ardent partisan, appropriately enough. He has referred to President Ronald Reagan’s “beautiful” evocation of the idea of a “city on a hill,” but one in which, “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” A good portion of Carnegie’s U.S. Democracy grantmaking under longtime Program Director Geri Mannion has sought to build bridges on the issue of immigration. That includes efforts at places like the Cato Institute and the Niskanen Center to build an economic and ideological case for immigration reform that appeals to people on the right.

But just as it spanned questions of identity, economics and ideology, Gregorian’s life was a testament to the intellectual appeal of immigration. Many who knew the man have talked of him as a scholar at heart, one who shared the fruits of his erudition in a way that was “learned but never donnish”; an academic who never lost the “twinkle in his eye.” Others have described him as a “citizen of the world,” polylingual, who was able to bring his international experience amply to bear on the intellectual life of his adoptive home. One of his books, “Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith,” was published in 2003 during the early throes of the war on terror. That followed a long career as a scholar of modern Afghanistan—qualifications that no doubt appealed to the trustees of a philanthropy with longstanding commitments to international peace and security.

Gregorian is just one example of the intellectual pluralism possible in a nation of immigrants. His stewardship of Carnegie’s resources is also one case where that uniquely American brand of intellectual pluralism has fostered philanthropic pluralism—the public trust that private organizations and individuals deserve some leeway to pursue their own visions of the common good in exchange for a lighter tax burden. If people like Gregorian are citizens of the world, we might think about the United States they’ve helped shape as a nation of the world, one where cosmopolitanism can equal strength, not weakness.

But we all know that’s only the positive side of the story. Though Gregorian enjoyed a brilliant career here in the U.S., many others like him haven’t been so lucky. The anti-immigrant sentiment that has become so virulent over the past several years has stubborn antecedents going back centuries, forming a dark parallel narrative that is just as much a part of the American story as the sunnier vision Gregorian espoused.

The results of the 2020 U.S. Census, just released, show the slowest rate of national population growth since the 1930s. That’s partly to do with lower birthrates and an older population, but declining immigration is also a factor. People can differ on the minutiae of immigration policy. But if we do accept that immigration is a unique source of strength for this country, that is troubling news.

Discussing Gregorian as the last of a philanthropic old guard, Katz referred to the Carnegie president’s distaste for the “new foundation language” of heavy-handed evaluation, a corporate-influenced set of sector norms with which most of us are all too familiar. Though not all evaluation is bad—far from it—there is a sense in which the paperwork-heavy version of “impact” adopted by many grantmakers these days represents a turning inward of the philanthropic sector. Coupled with a wider national turn inward, continued myopia on the part of civil society doesn’t bode well.

Luckily, that’s not the whole picture. Philanthropy may be a slow-moving dinosaur in many ways, but it’s also the site of some innovative and vital work to challenge norms and push boundaries, often led by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Even though the pandemic has shuttered borders and closed us in, it has also shaken things up. Combined with new energy around racial and economic justice, there’s a lot of potential for new practices to take hold. There are also signs that the next generation of nonprofit leaders may come to the work with a healthier spirit of critique for the elite circles in which Gregorian spent much of his later career.

Maybe once the pandemic ends, we’ll have the chance to welcome the next Vartan Gregorian into the country, newly arrived at the airport, speaking in faltering English. It might take a half-century before we know it, but maybe he—or perhaps more likely, she—will go on to save a cherished institution, make a discovery, start an organization or otherwise make a mark that enriches the U.S. in a lasting way. The question is whether we let them board that plane.