A Conversation with Vartan Gregorian About the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program

Carnegie Coporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian

Carnegie Corporation of New York has a long history of awarding fellowships for scholarship over the years. Can you tell us about some of the more memorable initiatives? 

Depending on who the president was and what was happening at the time, we have supported research projects in the form of books, such as the famous Carnegie Endowment for International Peace twelve-volume history of the Balkan Wars, which remains a very good piece of research and scholarship about how diplomacy worked. Unfortunately, one year later, war began, but in 1913 it was considered a triumph of diplomacy as major powers got together and discouraged two small states from creating a war that would lead to an even bigger conflict. So that was a great moment.

[Gunnar] Myrdal's famous study [An American Dilemma] was another one, namely in that it changed the entire notion of race, even though it was a very controversial book. As you may know, we did not want to release the report because it was very advanced for its time in terms of its impact. In retrospect, we're proud to have issued it, but at the time there was debate about whether it should have been released.

There’s also Bob Caro, as well as Henry Kissinger; Kissinger was not famous when we supported him. It was his first book, and we're very proud to have supported it. There are several others, too.

When I came here in 1997, four years before 9/11, I was asked what issues we were not covering at Carnegie Corporation, and I said Islam. I realized the public needed more scholarship on the topic, but not just in terms of scholarly papers. So we launched the Islam project for scholars, where recipients engaged in all kinds of media activity.

So we have always supported scholarship, whether through organizations and universities or directly through individual scholars who hail from those organizations and institutions.

How are fellows selected? What’s the criteria and process?

We had twenty-five outside readers, or evaluators. When appropriate, Corporation program officers also offered their comments because they’re experts in their specific fields. And then, of course, there’s the jury, which is very prestigious.  That's one way we want to attract candidates; if you receive a fellowship chosen by a jury that includes the heads of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania, the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Institute for Advanced Study and the former heads of MIT, the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University, and on and on, it becomes a very special group of fellows. If one is awarded a fellowship from such a distinguished group, given the jury’s judgment that the research is significant, I am sure the fellows will not have a problem publishing their findings or disseminating their research.

There are a lot of fellowship opportunities out there for scholars, and certainly this is unprecedented in terms of scope, but how else is this opportunity different?

There are, in fact, not a lot of opportunities. The National Science Foundation has significantly cut funding for social sciences and political sciences. In the humanities there are not many opportunities, either.

Another unique thing about this initiative is the fact that we have not only asked university presidents, provosts, and deans to nominate candidates, but also editors of publishing houses and magazines from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, all of whom are interested in the issues the fellows will address.

That's one of the reasons we have so many excellent applicants. Once the fellows are ready to publish, these magazines will be aware of the kinds of scholars doing work on these important and timely issues, and they can source op-eds or articles. The intention is to combine dissemination with creation.

What do you hope to see in terms of outcomes in the long term?

I'm happy that so many presidents and others have nominated assistant associate professors who are at the beginning of their academic careers, as well as a considerable number of female scholars and minority scholars. It reflects the diversity of America.

As one of the custodians of Andrew Carnegie's legacy, how do you think he would view this?

One of the things I've worried about for twenty-five, thirty years is that we're living in an age of specialists. The role of special knowledge, or specialist groups, that serve special needs. A specialized society. Specialization is very important for the advancement of civilization and culture. But without general theories, they stand apart.  The other problem is that anything that's not applied to an immediate crisis today does not attract sponsorship. You have to either be partisan or you've got to have something to sell, an immediate product.

So you must educate the public, and you need to bring about interdisciplinary scholarship to advance the field—not just challenge it, but set new standards. The whole point is that we need an educated citizenry so people can make decisions knowingly rather than through impulse or reflex.