The USC Institute of Armenian Studies—the first academic center of its kind in the U.S.—will promote scholarship and activities in a variety of fields. Concerns of the community will be a top priority.
By Eva Emerson
Working in close collaboration with the local Armenian American community, the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences has formally launched the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, a new multidisciplinary academic center with a broad mission to increase understanding of modern Armenia and Armenians.
The USC Institute of Armenian Studies will promote scholarship and activities in a wide spectrum of fields, from dance, music and the arts to politics, literature and community affairs.
This multidisciplinary approach will make the USC institute the first academic center of its kind in the United States and the greater Armenian diaspora, said Joseph Aoun, dean of USC College.
“The impact of this institute will extend far beyond USC. It will help the world to understand the many contributions of Armenians to society, as well as to remind them of the tragic history of the Armenian people,” said Aoun, a key architect of the institute.
Though Southern California is home to an estimated 350,000 Armenians – the largest Armenian community outside the Republic of Armenia – no scholarly center devoted to Armenian studies has existed in the region until now.
USC College’s Richard Hrair Dekmejian, professor of political science and international business, played a pivotal role in the USC institute’s formation.
“This will be a center of learning and research that responds to the immediate concerns and needs of the Armenian community,” Dekmejian said. “The focus will be on contemporary studies — the recent past, the present and the future. It will be a think tank, a venue of creativity, a resource center and much more.”
Some 575 guests attended a recent event at USC celebrating the institute’s launch, which set a new record for attendance at a college event. So far, college-led fund-raising efforts have resulted in nearly $1 million in donations for the institute, the majority from the local Armenian community.
The long list of Armenian American leaders and dignitaries at the event included: Paul Ignatius, Secretary of the Navy in the Kennedy Administration; Federal Judge Dickran Tevrizian; Alex Yemenidjian, chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; and Harut Sassounian, president of the United Armenian Fund.
L.A. Mayor James Hahn lent his endorsement to the institute in a brief speech. USC trustee Edward P. Roski and USC College board of councilors member Gerald Papazian, a former USC trustee and past president of the USC Alumni Association who has been a prime supporter of the institute, also attended.
“We’ve made remarkable progress,” Aoun said. “Six years ago, we had only a vision. We have succeeded in creating the institute only because of the full participation of the Armenian community in this effort. And it’s that level of commitment that will help the institute thrive in the coming years.”
The institute has “a truly ambitious” mission, Dekmejian said.
A center for the study issues confronting Armenians everywhere, the institute will concentrate on providing guidance and solutions to those who live in Southern California. Outreach to the local and global community will also play an important role.
Among many other goals, the institute will look to sponsor public events such as academic lectures, exhibits, concerts and other programs that promote Armenian culture.
The institute hopes to provide internships, scholarships and advising for students, with an eye toward training the next generation of community leaders. It’s designed to serve as a focal point for the more than 1,000 Armenian American students who attend USC each year.
The institute’s steering committee, made up of prominent local Armenian Americans, also plans to create a library with photo and film archives documenting Armenian heritage and history.
Strengthening the ties between USC and the Armenian community of Southern California represents a key component of the institute’s mission. USC has a long history of connections to the Armenian American community, said Mihran Agbabian, emeritus professor of engineering at USC.
Beginning with the first Armenian student to enroll at USC in 1901, USC has educated thousands of Armenian Americans, many who have gone on to distinguished careers in business, government, the arts and the professions.
Armenian Americans have held top leadership positions at USC. The late Zohrab Kaprielian, an electrical engineer, rose through the ranks to hold the positions of dean, director of research, senior vice president and executive vice president.
Dan Mazmanian currently serves as dean of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.
In addition to Dekmejian, Donald E. Miller, the Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion in USC College, will play a key role in the institute. Miller, whose wife is Armenian, is a noted scholar and author of books about contemporary Armenia as well as about survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
Armenians can trace their history back more than 2,500 years. Today’s Republic of Armenia consists of 12,000 square miles of territory and is bordered by Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Armenians first immigrated en masse to the U.S. in the 1890s, with a second wave after the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and a third wave in the 1950s and ’60s. The most recent mass immigration, in the 1980s and 1990s, was spurred by increased instability in the Middle East (especially in Lebanon and Iran), the demise of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis in the newly independent Armenian Republic, Dekmejian said.