Philanthropists receive Gregorian slant

“Live rich, die poor. Never make the mistake of doing it the other way around.”

Thus spoke Vartan Gregorian, quoting prominent philanthropist Walter Annenberg (W’31,Hon’66). This was the tone of the Ninth Annual Walter and Lenore Annenberg Distinguished Lecture in Communication, as Gregorian recounted the history of American philanthropy.

Gregorian began at Penn in 1972 as a history professor, became the founding dean of the School of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and finally ascended to provost in 1978.

His homecoming evening began with an elegant reception amongst meticulously stacked beverage glasses and tuxedoed servers weaving through the crowds. The gathering had a reunion-like feel to it as the guests greeted each other in high spirits, producing a lively din.

Though the convivial atmosphere continued as the lecture began, the audience listened attentively. Penn president Judith Rodin introduced Gregorian. “Greg certainly embodies the goal of our founder, Benjamin Franklin, that is, to use knowledge and use education for the betterment of humankind,” she said.

Here’s how. After serving as provost here, Gregorian moved on to the presidency of the New York Public Library, followed by a stint as president of Brown University.

Gregorian completed his presidential triad in 1997 by becoming president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911. He is also currently an advisor in philanthropic giving to the Annenbergs, donors not only for the eponymous lecture but also for the eponymous school.

Gregorian, a man with an amiable visage framed by a gleaming white goatee, then began his lecture, titled “The Role of Philanthropy in the Nation.” He opened his speech with a background of philanthropy in America, in which Benjamin Franklin was in the forefront, and then moved on to the most well-known philanthropists, such as John Rockefeller (the nation’s first billionaire), Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. These reformers, he explained, set out to create institutions and trust funds that would continue to grow and benefit mankind—or, as Gregorian said, “gifts that kept giving.” Today Gregorian’s Carnegie Corporation, just one of eleven Carnegie institutions, controls $2 billion in assets.

Gregorian spoke fondly of Walter Annenberg, who donated $500 million to public schools, the largest gift ever to public education.

“I firmly believe that giving and volunteering not only lifts our spirits, but also enriches and strengthens our democracy. It’s our way of making E Pluribus Unum a reality,” Gregorian concluded. The audience, impressed, delivered extended applause.


Originally published on November 30, 2000