Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York: Philanthropy in a Post-9/11 World

November 13, 2002
Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York: Philanthropy in a Post-9/11 World

Fourteen months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the question is no longer whether the world has changed, but how much and to what end. Have our actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Philippines, and the Middle East since September 11 made us more or less secure? Has our determination to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists strengthened the hand of the United Nations or alienated allies we will need in the struggle that lies ahead? Have we struck the right balance between homeland security and civil liberties, or have we sacrificed the rights of a few for the many? And what is the role of organized philanthropy in all this?

In an environment in which difficult questions are matched by elusive answers, it's easy for individuals to feel overwhelmed. But that's a luxury, many would argue, we can no longer afford. In an increasingly interdependent world, it is the responsibility of every individual, in every country, to think globally and act locally.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted in October, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, about many of these issues, including the global challenges confronting the United States, the importance of accommodation between the West and mainstream Islam, the philanthropic response to the terrorist attacks, and the philanthropic legacy of Andrew Carnegie, both here and abroad.

Gregorian is the twelfth president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grantmaking institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911. Prior to his current position, which he assumed in June 1997, he served for nine years as the sixteenth president of Brown University.

Gregorian was born in Tabriz, Iran, of Armenian parents, receiving his elementary education in Iran and his secondary education in Lebanon. In 1956 he entered Stanford University, where he majored in history and the humanities, graduating with honors in 1958. He was awarded a Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford in 1964.

Gregorian has taught European and Middle Eastern history at San Francisco State College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin. In 1972 he joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty and was appointed Tarzian Professor of History and professor of South Asian history. He was founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974 and four years later became its twenty-third provost, a position he held until 1981.

For eight years (1981-1989), he served as a president of the New York Public Library, an institution with a network of four research libraries and eighty-three circulating libraries. In 1989, he was appointed president of Brown University.

Gregorian is the author of Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, 1880-1946. A Phi Beta Kappa and Ford Foundation Foreign Area Training Fellow, he has been the recipient of numerous fellowships, including those from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Philosophical Society. In 1969 he received the Danforth Foundation's E.H. Harbison Distinguished Teaching Award and in 1986 was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. In 1989, he received the American Academy of the Institute of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for Service to the Arts, and in 1998 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton.

Philanthropy News Digest: Earlier this year, you wrote that the United States was facing a crucial era in its history, an era in which global challenges had become national ones and problems around the world have immediate impact on American daily life. Are we, as a nation, prepared to meet the challenges of a post-9/11 world?

Vartan Gregorian: I don't think we are. First of all, I think one of the problems we face is whether we can have a national policy that changes every four years. You have to understand, the rest of the world sees our foreign policy as one of continuity, whereas Americans tend to see foreign policy as an extension of domestic developments and politics. That kind of thinking used to be fine, but now, in our increasingly interdependent world, changes in our foreign policies have great ramifications and we must be aware of that.

Second, having buried it twice, in the First World War and again in the Second World War, we still don't understand the importance of nationalism as an historical phenomenon. We have gotten better at understanding ethnic conflicts, racism, and racial politics, but we haven't yet understood that nationalism works in similar ways, with similar consequences. Excesses of nationalism erect barriers when we need to be dismantling them.

And third, there is still a misunderstanding in this country about the importance of multilateral institutions and the urgent need to make them an absolutely integral part of the global political system. So, in my opinion, we are not ready to cope with certain realities of a post-9/11 world, not least because we still have lots of self-analysis and educating to do.

PND: What is it that the American public needs to learn? And whose responsibility is it to teach them?

"...It is critical that Americans become more knowledgeable about the complex world beyond our borders. We must acquire a better understanding of how our national interests fit, or don't fit, with the national interests of other peoples...."

VG: It is critical that Americans become more knowledgeable about the complex world beyond our borders. We must acquire a better understanding of how our national interests fit, or don't fit, with the national interests of other peoples — and we have to learn how to address conflicts that arise. The media, not to mention our elected leaders, schools, and universities, have a primary responsibility for helping us understand the world and the global implications of our policies. We are belatedly recognizing the enormous importance of journalists in the success of our democracy, much as we are recognizing the contributions of teachers and librarians. With this recognition comes the imperative to greatly increase society's investment in the education and training of the professionals who are responsible for transferring knowledge and objective information.

PND: As a scholar of the history and culture of Afghanistan specifically, and South Asia in general, do you see the September 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. government's response to those attacks as harbingers of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West?

VG: No. As a matter of fact, I've just written a seventy-page report entitled "Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith." There is no single Islamic civilization, just as there is no single Christian civilization, Jewish civilization, or Buddhist civilization. And while I do not believe in the clash-of-civilizations theory, I do believe that we have seriously neglected the study of religion as a political phenomenon. In the sixteenth century, during the Renaissance and Reformation period, secular powers in Catholic and Protestant Europe used religion to advance their secular goals. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it's the other way around: religious organizations all over the world are using secular authorities to advance religious goals. So religion is a very important factor in the current geopolitical climate, and it needs to be studied both as a cultural and as a political phenomenon.

Having said that, I've learned, through my work on the report, that in the entire history of Islam there has never been unity. Islam, like Christianity, is divided along racial, cultural, ethnic, historical, and class lines. So, I do not believe a clash of civilizations is inevitable, although I do believe we need to do much more to understand religious phenomena at a time when globalization is spreading cultural uniformity and conformity to every corner of the globe and nationalism and religion are serving as vehicles for people desperate to hold on to their cultural identities.

PND: Given the militant nature of radical Islam, can the West fashion an effective response to the threat posed by that segment of Islam that does not include a military component?

"...We need to be careful not to legitimize the radicals who claim to speak for all of Islam. And we must recognize the dangers of mindlessly applying Cold War theories to the current situation...."

VG: Again, one of the things we have to be careful about is to not allow all of Islam to be identified with its more radical elements. There are many, many brands of Islam, but only the radicals are eager to claim a monolithic Islam — because that allows them to claim that they represent all Muslims. It would be like any Christian sect pretending to represent all Christians. So, first of all, we need to be careful not to legitimize the radicals who claim to speak for all of Islam. And we must recognize the dangers of mindlessly applying Cold War theories to the current situation — Islamism is not replacing Communism as our new nemesis.

As a matter of fact, Carnegie Corporation, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, sponsored a major international conference in October in Grenada, Spain, that addressed that very question: "Who Speaks for Islam?" Again, it's easy for any Muslim radical to say he represents Islam, whereas no single Catholic can say, "I represent Catholicism," because there's a Vatican that has filled that leadership role for centuries. Islam, in contrast, does not have a central controlling authority, which leaves it susceptible to misinterpretation and abuse, and that's one of the things we have to clarify. We have to isolate the militant fundamentalists and not legitimize them by accepting them as spokesmen for Islam. The same kind of thing has happened in this country. We have accepted Minister Louis Farrakhan as the voice of the Nation of Islam, whereas in reality, Prophet Elijah Mohammed's son and successor, Walid, disbanded the Nation of Islam and gradually integrated that community into the orthodox Muslim community. Farrakhan's organization merely revived the Nation of Islam name and revived the original organization's image as intolerant, racist, and militant. Because Walid is not controversial, few people pay much attention to him, while everybody discusses Farrakhan precisely because he is provocative and controversial. So we need to deny that kind of publicity and legitimacy to the militant extremists who are seeking it and, instead, call them what they are: extremists or terrorists who do not represent Islam and, in fact, violate the tenets of mainstream Islam.

PND: Tell us what the foundation did in response to the events of September 11?

VG: We did a number of thing early on that were important. First, as you probably know, I was asked by the mayor's office and the governor's office whether Carnegie could coordinate the philanthropic relief efforts. Of course, we were not equipped to do that, so I politely declined. We did, however, invite sixty different organizations, including the local chapters of the United Way and the Red Cross and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and large New York foundations like Ford and the New York Community Trust, to our offices in late September to discuss basic issues of coordination. And out of that came a good many collaborative measures.

Second, I was very much involved in advising the New York State attorney general's office, which had the jurisdiction to monitor the relief efforts but not to coordinate them, about how they should organize that effort.

And third, we created a $10 million relief fund — on top of, not in lieu of, grants we were already making. At the urging of FEMA, we decided to hold much of the fund in reserve for medium- and long-term needs, many of which, the agency told us, would not emerge until two or three years out. To date, we have used those funds to help pay for the reconstruction, in a different location, of the transmission tower destroyed in the collapse of One World Trade Center that broadcast programming for WNYC, the local public radio station, Channel 13, and other television and radio broadcasters. We've also supported public broadcasters' 9/11 news and analysis efforts, and we helped several schools in Lower Manhattan, including opening two libraries in honor of all the public-school teachers downtown who performed so admirably on September 11 — I believe they were the only major group of people whose efforts were not duly recognized during this entire tragic event.

PND: So the plan is to dip into those funds to meet needs that emerge over the next couple of years?

VG: Yes, exactly. We're already looking for the next set of needs, and we're also looking at the situation in Washington, D.C., where we may do something like a scholarship fund for minority and other kids in memory of those who died in the attack on the Pentagon.

PND: What, if anything, did the philanthropic response to the events of September 11 tell us about the field of philanthropy? And if 9/11 was supposed to change everything, did it change philanthropy?

"...The charitable response to September 11 did not greatly warp patterns of giving, and, with few exceptions, the rest of the nation's charitable and philanthropic work was not neglected as a result of 9/11-related contributions...."

VG: There has been lots of propaganda and misinformation about 9/11. Many people felt that, after September 11, New York received all the charitable dollars in the country. But as you know from the various analyses that your organization and others have done, the 9/11 relief effort attracted roughly $2 billion in contributions, the equivalent of a few days' worth of the nation's annual charitable giving, which reached a record $212 billion in 2001. In other words, that $2 billion did not take the air out of everybody's tires — that's one thing that needs to be corrected. Yes, it was an extraordinary response, with seventy-four percent of Americans contributing to 9/11 relief funds. Americans are a giving people, and their generosity in a time of crisis and need was overwhelming. But it did not greatly warp patterns of giving, and, with few exceptions, the rest of the nation's charitable and philanthropic work was not neglected as a result of 9/11-related contributions.

Secondly, because September 11 was a unique event on an unprecedented scale, the New York philanthropic community was not adequately prepared to cope with it. As a result, we learned that, in the future, we have to do a better job of cooperating, we have to have information in order to act appropriately, and, most important of all, we have to exchange that information freely and not worry about who does or doesn't get credit. What needs to be done is more important than who does it, and in this regard, I'm happy to say, there was a great deal of discovery as we went along.

In a sense, I compare the philanthropic response to 9/11 to a potluck dinner following a disaster. There was an enormous tragedy that required everyone to pitch in whatever they could. And then somebody said, "Wait, this isn't a balanced meal. Where's the menu?" Well, there was no menu. That's something we're trying to develop now in the event, God forbid, that a similar tragedy happens. But at the time we did not know what was needed, and to a certain degree we still don't.

Overall, however, I think New Yorkers did a great job and the nation did a great job. My only plea, as I commented to the New York Times, was that the kind of generosity and outpouring of kindness we saw should also be met with gratitude, rather than by people complaining about the amount of money they did or didn't get. Look, one of the things we're not used to — and have to do a better job of explaining — is the difference between need and equity. FEMA and the Red Cross and others have a lot of educating to do; they need to make it clear to people what emergency assistance in a disaster situation really means. Let's say there's a disaster that results in tragic loss, and you need to pay your $6,000 mortgage, otherwise your house will be taken; that's an emergency. My rent is $200; that's an emergency for me. But once the public realizes you got $6,000 and I only got $200, they're going to think that was inequitable. Meeting both needs is the goal, not equalizing the payments. So one of the factors that has to be explained to the public is the idea that basic emergency relief can mean different things in different circumstances.

Similarly, the Red Cross needs to explain that it should always have cash on hand, therefore it needs to put aside X-amount for a rainy day, because that's the only way it will be able to distribute blankets and cash assistance and food within a few hours, in New York or anywhere else, the next time disaster strikes. That needs to be clarified.

In a sense, we discovered, as a result of September 11, that we have not adequately explained to the public what philanthropy is, or what charity is. As a field, we have not adequately explained to the public what our mission is, and what we can and cannot do, and why we cannot do certain things. I guess what I'm saying is that we need an open accounting of what the relief effort was in the wake of September 11 in order to educate the public. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that Americans have a short memory. They forget, and therefore we all have to make a concerted effort to periodically explain what we're about and what we can and will do in the event, God forbid, that another disaster happens.

PND: Do you think 9/11 will spur more foundations in the U.S. to think locally and act globally?

VG: Absolutely. Because the other thing we have to realize — and this is very hard for people to process — is that AIDS and tuberculosis, water pollution, global warming, and many other issues are not isolated phenomena anymore; they're part of the global family phenomenon. And sooner or later they will affect us.

PND: These kinds of transnational phenomena are, by definition, beyond the scope of any one government or stakeholder to solve. Do you think governments, multilateral organizations and NGOs, businesses, and foundations can put aside their different agendas and join forces to actually eliminate some of these threats?

VG: Yes, but the big question is when? After crises unfold? Or before they do, when prevention is at least feasible.

PND: From the rapid introduction of information technologies to the dramatic growth in foundation assets and giving, to the development of new styles and forms of charitable giving, we've seen tremendous changes in the field of philanthropy over the last decade. Are foundations doing a good job of responding to these changes? Are they still positioned — as they were a hundred years ago, at the dawn of the modern age of philanthropy — to be re-shapers and re-inventors of American society?

VG: That's a big question.

PND: [Laughs.] It is, isn't it.

"...The fundamental thing we have to realize is that America's greatness lies in its diversity, including the diversity of its nonprofit organizations and institutions...."

VG: Well, let me take a stab at it. First, the fundamental thing we have to realize is that America's greatness lies in its diversity, including the diversity of its nonprofit organizations and institutions. We have something like one-point-four million nonprofit organizations in this country, not including religious organizations, that go about their business each and every day. And because there is such great diversity, it's simply impossible to say whether all these organizations are fulfilling their historical mission or meeting their goals.

Now, in terms of foundations, I would say this: As long as we obey the wishes of our donors, and as long as we are transparent and accountable and do our work in the public domain, where we are subject to both praise and criticism, we're doing our job well. I have no problem with a foundation spending all its assets in pursuit of a single cause or mission. And I have no problem with a foundation such as ours or Ford or Rockefeller existing, as their founders wanted, in perpetuity, as long as it remains open to adjusting its goals and strategies as needs arise. I believe that American foundations are unique and the envy of the world because they provide things — programs, ideas, projects, experimentation, demonstration, unbiased research, nonpartisan advocacy, and so forth — that no other nation has in such abundance. In fact, they've have become an indispensable part of America's fabric of progress, as well as of its growth in terms of social, economic, and political justice.

PND: Not too long ago, venture philanthropy looked like it was going to be the next new thing. But, following the collapse of the dot-com bubble, much of the buzz around it has dissipated. Do you think the term will still be used five years from now? And is there anything in the venture philanthropy critique of the traditional philanthropic model to which the field should pay attention?

VG: I think you're going to see the term used less and less. The "venture" part of the term was picked up from venture capitalists, and in the current economic climate — a climate in which venture capitalists are on the defensive — nobody wants to be engaged in ventures; they want to be engaged in sure things. But I, for one, have a high opinion of venture philanthropy — of any philanthropy, for that matter — as long as the people engaged in it are doing what the organization was intended to do. That's the important thing. If a donor decides to give away his or her money while they're alive, such as my friend Mrs. Astor or Irene Diamond, that's wonderful. I don't think we should criticize them; we should judge them by results. And some results unfold over the long term. Take Mrs. Diamond's AIDS Research Center. The fact that she created it is great, but it's going to take years for researchers to find a solution to the AIDS epidemic. Is that venture or traditional? I think it's both. Or, say, we decide to invest in scholarly research, the results of which may not be known for ten or fifteen years. School reform — any kind of systems reform, for that matter — can take fifteen, twenty years. We can do that, because there's room in the system for experimentation and demonstration. On the other hand, somebody wants to build public housing tomorrow, that's also welcome. As long as we're on the right path and get yearly check-ups to ensure that we're making progress toward the goals we set, I don't have a problem with it.

PND: Does the view of wealth that Andrew Carnegie promoted in his career as a philanthropist — namely, that it was the obligation of those who had amassed it to use it for the betterment of society — still resonate with Americans?

VG: Absolutely. But not only Americans. I'm getting lots of calls to speak in Europe these days, and, of course, the whole idea in Europe has been that the state is responsible for the progress of society. In America, in contrast, from the seventeenth century on we have believed that progress, including the public's health and welfare, is the responsibility of everybody, not just government. In fact, there has been a revival of the Tocquevillian view of American democracy over the last twenty years, in Europe as well as here, that American democracy's real strength lies in its participatory nature, that it is all the organizations we have and are continually creating — from the PTA, to Elks and Rotary clubs, to grassroots nonprofit organizations — that makes our democracy so successful. And in that sense, Andrew Carnegie's vision still resonates, not only in the United States but, increasingly, around the world.

PND: You're the president of what many people consider to be the prototypical modern foundation. And in many ways, you've taken the foundation's program back to its roots by re-emphasizing support for libraries, higher education, programs in the developing world, and so on. Does the Corporation's historic position in the field give it special leverage in these areas?

"...What's special about what we do at Carnegie Corporation is not about money, it's about ideas. Our role, in my view, is to constantly challenge the conventional wisdom...."

VG: What's special about what we do at Carnegie Corporation is not about money, it's about ideas. Our role, in my view, is to constantly challenge the conventional wisdom. We're the yeast, if you will, not the bread. I'll be honest with you; I get frustrated when people use money as an excuse for lack of ideas, because Carnegie has always been about ideas — ideas about international peace, about reform, about education — always challenging and questioning the norm and building models and institutional capacity. In that sense, we're still doing, and accomplishing, what our founder intended.

PND: What are your ambitions for the foundation going forward?

VG: Well, we've set ourselves some big challenges. One is district school reform. Until now, we had always bragged about how individual schools had been reformed. But we now see that the time has come to reform not just individual schools but entire school districts. So we've selected seven urban school districts to work with in an effort to transform the entire district school system — not just elementary and middle schools, but high schools as well.

The second challenge we've set ourselves is teacher education reform. Frankly, I'm troubled by the quality of our schools of education. Most of them are mediocre at best. I don't think our teachers, or the next generation of our children, deserve that. I'd like to see those schools be transformed into real intellectual centers, not just training centers for teaching skills, where teacher education is viewed as challenging, rewarding, and replenishing.

Then we have the challenge of increasing civic engagement, especially among immigrants and young people. You know, there are hundreds of thousands of young men and women who do volunteer work on a regular basis but who don't participate in the political process. So we're engaged in doing something about that.

We're also helping regional universities in Russia, because we're worried about a potential brain drain in Russia that would weaken democracy there and have major ramifications for the rest of the world. In the realm of international security, we've expanded our research and public policy work to include the concern that terrorists, not just hostile states, may obtain weapons of mass destruction. And in the area of libraries and higher education, we're working with a number of library systems and universities in Africa. It's very important that Africa maintain centers of academic and intellectual excellence during these times of crisis on the continent.

And, of course, we intend to do something on Islam, not the least because it is the fastest-growing faith in the United States and the world. We need to learn how to create bridges between the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — in this country and abroad. So that's another challenge for us.

PND: You've already touched on this, but I'll ask it a little differently. Given the general loss of confidence in all institutions, both public and private, over the last few years, what should the field of philanthropy do to retain and build on the trust of the American public?

VG: Transparency and accountability. As a field, philanthropy needs to be more analytical. We can't be afraid to point out where we failed — it can't just be a stream of successes. If we don't tell the public about our failures, as well as our successes, we will lose the public's trust. It's as simple as that.

PND: Well, thanks very much, Dr. Gregorian, for your time this morning. We'll be following the foundation's work with interest over the next year or so.

VG: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Vartan Gregorian in October. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at