The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research was launched in March 1955 to pursue a bold vision of promoting Armenian Studies by establishing endowed chairs at some of the foremost universities in the United States.
Within a few short years, NAASR achieved this ambitious goal by establishing the first chair of Armenian Studies at Harvard University in 1959 under the leadership of NAASR’s first three founding members, Manoog S. Young, Thomas T. Amirian, and Arra S. Avakian. Over 1,000 people packed into Harvard’s Memorial Hall and celebrated the successful conclusion of the Harvard Chair campaign at a gala banquet where it was announced that the campaign had exceeded its goal of $300,000. The chair at Harvard was the first professorship to be endowed by a community organization. The second chair in Armenian Studies followed not long afterward at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), due to NAASR's fundraising efforts, primarily in California.
As a result of advances in Armenian Studies, led by NAASR, the general public now has gained access to an ever-increasing fount of knowledge regarding Armenia, its history, people, and rich 3,000-year-old culture. Before the establishment of NAASR, Armenian Studies in the United States was the unrealized dream of only a few people; since the establishment of NAASR, it is a reality for everyone.
A major impetus for NAASR’s establishment came during a lecture by Professor Richard N. Frye of Harvard to the Boston branch of the Armenian Students’ Association when he stated that Armenia’s rich heritage deserved recognition and that “Armenian Studies needs to be an established and respected discipline in the universities.”
“Armenian Studies needs to be an established and respected discipline in the universities.”
- Professor Richard N. Frye
To meet this challenge, NAASR’s first three founding members, Manoog S. Young, Thomas T. Amirian, and Arra S. Avakian, determined that the most effective means to reach this goal was to establish an endowed professorship, or chair, in Armenian Studies at a leading university. After considering several prominent institutions, the NAASR founders selected Harvard University.
The university’s recognized position of leadership in the academic world, its many noted scholars with an acknowledged interest in Armenian Studies, its unexcelled library and research facilities, and its related departments and centers of research (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Russian Research Center, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library) were the major determining factors, along with Harvard’s location in the midst of one of the largest and oldest Armenian communities in the United States. Harvard University was quick to endorse the NAASR proposal.
At NAASR’s fourth anniversary, in 1959, NAASR celebrated the rapid and successful conclusion of its Harvard Chair campaign at a gala with over 1,000 people packed into Harvard’s Memorial Hall who heard that the campaign had exceeded its goal of $300,000. The chair at Harvard was the first professorship endowed by a community organization.
Earlier, in 1957, the Armenian Studies Program at Harvard had been initiated with the appointment of Avedis K. Sanjian as postdoctoral fellow. In 1961 Sanjian became Assistant Professor of Armenian Studies and began an Armenological curriculum encompassing the Armenian language, literature, and history.
“I have seen, and have been a part of a good many campaigns for funds in this country for diverse projects, but this is the first one for purely a cultural or academic object … We have fortunately reached the stage of maturity in which we realize that the life and destiny of a nation is insured through its investments in cultural and spiritual endeavors.”
- Rev. A. A. Bedikian, NAASR Founding Member
In 1969 the Harvard Corporation voted “to establish in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences an Armenian Studies Professorship,” and six months later Robert W. Thomson was appointed to the chair, which was subsequently named in honor of the fifth-century Armenian saint, scholar, and visionary Mesrob Mashtots. In 1992 Thomson accepted the Gulbenkian Chair in Armenian Studies at Oxford University in England, and James R. Russell was named as the second occupant of the Mashtots Chair.
Through NAASR’s fund-raising efforts primarily in the California Armenian community, the second chair in Armenian Studies in the United States was established at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1965.
In 1969 Avedis K. Sanjian was appointed to fill that chair, subsequently named in honor of the medieval Armenian mystic poet Grigor Narekatsi. The Narekatsi professorship was the first endowed chair ever established at UCLA. Since that time several graduate students have successfully completed their studies at UCLA, taking advantage of the superb collection of Armenian books in the UCLA library. The Narekatsi Chair has been occupied since 2000 by S. Peter Cowe.
Subsequent to creating the Armenian Chairs at Harvard and UCLA, NAASR supported a full-time professorship at Columbia University for ten years until it was endowed by a private benefactor. Nina G. Garsoian became the first occupant of the Centennial Chair of Armenian History and Civilization at Columbia and was among the leaders in training a new generation of Armenian Studies professionals.
“As an Armenian, you should rejoice in your present accomplishment just as an Armenian you must clearly realize the effort necessary to carry on the multitude of projects which NAASR will indulge in now that their first goal has been reached. A lamentable void has been filled and NAASR’s role in the filling of this lamentable void is to be hailed by every single scholar today, let alone every Armenian in the world today.”
- Armenian Mirror-Spectator, May 30, 1959
NAASR has grown from the vision of a group of sixty Armenian Americans and Harvard professors -- individuals active in academic, professional, religious, business, and organizational circles -- to become an internationally known nonprofit, advancing Armenian Studies, research, and publication on a permanent, scholarly, and objective basis, and preserving and enriching Armenian history, culture, and identity for future generations. NAASR’s pioneering successes have benefited scholars, authors, researchers, and the general public throughout the world.
There are now thirteen endowed positions and many more non-endowed programs at universities and colleges throughout the United States. NAASR has also supported Armenian Studies programs at a number of these universities, including the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Amherst, Wayne State University, Tufts University, California State University at Fresno, University of Connecticut, Rutgers University, Bentley College, University of California at Berkeley, and Sage Colleges in New York. From the impetus provided by NAASR, some eighteen endowed chairs (professorships), programs, lectureships, and research centers have been established at United States universities and colleges, primarily by individuals and foundations. Other programs are in the planning stage, and a large number of colleges and universities offer programs or courses in Armenian history, culture, and language.