NEW YORK – Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor at a ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City on February 9. The French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, presented the insignia to Gregorian in recognition of his three-decade effort to strengthen Franco-American relations, advance links between French and American institutions of higher education, and promote the study of French culture and language.
Napoleon Bonaparte established the Legion of Honor, considered France’s highest honor, in 1802 to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France. In 1908 Andrew Carnegie, the founder of the Corporation and many other sister institutions, received the Commander of the Legion of Honor when he was president of the New York Peace Society. He was given the award for helping build the Peace Palace in The Hague and for being “a good citizen of all the world.” At the ceremony, Carnegie said, “I do find with every successive year of my life that I take higher and higher views, that I think more and more of humanity, that I have brighter and brighter visions of the future.”
Ambassador Araud noted that Gregorian, like Carnegie, shared France’s democratic ideals of liberty and equality.
“Vartan Gregorian is a visionary and a living example of the modern man of letters, for whom education and knowledge is the key to opportunity and peace,” said Ambassador Araud. “It is through cultural exchanges and by opening new pathways of cooperation that we promote understanding in the world. Vartan Gregorian has been a true partner in our advancement of dual language education in public schools. His love for the French language and culture has been a pleasure to discover.”
“I am fortunate and most grateful to France and to your government for bestowing this singular honor upon me,” said Gregorian. “I owe much to France and to French culture because they provided the foundation for my formal education, starting in Beirut at the Collège Arménien. Throughout my youth and career, the ideals of the Enlightenment and the legacy of the French Revolution—liberté, égalité, fraternité—have been sources of inspiration for me.”
In addition to Carnegie, two other previous Corporation presidents have received the Legion of Honor: Fred Keppel, in 1911, prior to his tenure at the foundation and while he was dean of Columbia University and secretary of the American Association for International Conciliation; and Henry Pritchett, in 1922, while he served as acting president of the Corporation.
For Gregorian, this is the second time the French government has recognized his efforts to promote Franco-American relations. In 1986 Gregorian was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, an honor given to eminent artists and writers, and others who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. Members of the Order include Agnes Gund, Richard Meier, Robert Paxton, and Meryl Streep. Gregorian received the honor for his work as president of The New York Public Library, where he strengthened the French language holdings and launched acclaimed exhibitions on the Statue of Liberty and the French Revolution, each accompanied by important scholarly publications and related programming.
Throughout his distinguished career at several U.S. institutions of higher education, Gregorian, who is multilingual, worked assiduously to promote the study of French language and culture. As founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and subsequently provost at the University of Pennsylvania, he helped strengthen the ties and promoted scholarly exchanges between Penn and the Sorbonne, and helped preserve the high academic standing of Penn’s Department of Romance Languages.
Gregorian’s efforts continued during his presidency of Brown University, where he worked to reinforce relations between Brown and French universities and other cultural institutions. In his current position as president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, Gregorian has supported French culture and education through such establishments as the French-American Foundation, Sciences Po, and the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme. He has also promoted the study of French language at New York City schools.
The Legion of Honor is comprised of five different classes, including Chevalier, and may be awarded to foreign citizens, although such recognition is relatively rare. In recent decades, American honorees have included poet John Ashbery, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, musician Ray Charles, operatic soprano Renée Fleming, author Norman Mailer, singer and actress Barbra Streisand, and hundreds of World War II veterans who defended France.
In addition to France, Gregorian has been decorated by the Austrian, Italian, and Portuguese governments, as well as by the U.S. government. In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal, and in 2004 President George W. Bush honored Gregorian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian decoration.