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09. Nina G. Garsoian

Nina Garsoian

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Early Career

Nina G. Garosoian (1923-present) was born in Paris and came to the United States in 1933 with her Russian born parents. “I was headed from the first toward a musical career,” she said, “but somewhere down the line my interests shifted to the fascinating field that now dominates my intellectual life.”

Miss Garsoian prepared to be a concert pianist by studying with Nadia Boulanger, the conductor, as well as with Robert Casadesus, the great pianist, and his wife Gaby. “That's when I was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr,” she said. “The Casadesuses lived and taught at Princeton. In concert performances, I specialized in 18th‐century compositions.”

At college, Miss Garsoian majored in classical archeology, and later received a master's degree in the same discipline at Columbia. In 1958, she received her doctoral degree from Columbia — in Armenian. Byzantine and Medieval History—and later taught at Columbia, Smith College and Rutgers University.

First Woman to Serve as Graduate School Dean

Improved conditions and expectations for women in American society led slowly to an increased female presence in the Graduate School. Princeton’s not altogether dated reputation as a male undergraduate “country club” and the tardy, often begrudging, acceptance of undergraduate women undoubtedly dampened women’s interest in doing graduate work there. Early Graduate School policies did not help. The first women students received no University fellowships, and married women were not allowed to live in the Butler Project if their husbands were not also Princeton graduate students. By 1965 there were only twenty-four women enrolled; small wonder that ten of the pioneering thirty-two (31 percent) left after the first-year, not always for the same reasons a quarter of the men withdrew. In 1968, however, women numbered 120, only to leap to 204 the following year as the undergraduate college went coed. Within three years, women constituted 20 percent of Princeton’s graduate students, 25 percent by 1975. Although they did not claim a third of the seats until 1990, their absolute numbers climbed steadily before dipping slightly to 616 (36 percent) in 1998.

It was within this context that Nina G. Garsoian, by this time a distinguished scholar of ancient history at Columbia University, shifted most of her energies to the contemporary problems and challenges of being Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University in 1977.

As the first woman to hold the top academic post in Princeton's Graduate School, Dr. Garsoian observed: “I am aware that Princeton has a plan for affirmative action, and that just as it is so elsewhere, there must be room for improvement.”

“I helped write the affirmative action plan at Columbia. I take such matters seriously, indeed, but not shrilly. I like results, not decibel points. I have perhaps too little patience with women who shout and seem to move forward rather than state quietly and refuse to move backward. I believe in action, and can only point out that my department at Columbia has the highest percentage of tenured women in the university.”

In discussing the women's movement, Miss Garsoian's often merry and unself‐conscious view of life asserts itself. When asked about her marital status, for example, she had this to say: “I have never married, for reasons I really don't recall—if I ever had any. And so I like to be called Miss Garsoian. Not, please, ever, ever that abominable ‘Ms.’ In my work, which is ancient history, ‘Ms.’ has one and only one meaning—manuscript, the abbreviation for manuscript. I do not wish to be addressed as a manuscript.”

“But I won't be abandoning studies in Middle East languages and cultures,” said the 53‐year‐old Miss Garsoian, who was chairman of the Columbia department dealing with those studies. “I’ll continue to guide the work of 14 of my graduate students at Columbia, teaching at least one course there. At Princeton, I'll teach one course in Byzantine history and an advanced seminar in the same field.”

“I'm keeping my New York apartment, although I look forward to the civilized atmosphere of Princeton and, particularly, the Graduate School, which has a long tradition of academic excellence,” she said.

Miss Garsoian, a tall, dark‐haired woman whose mellow voice is lightly dusted with the rolling “r's” of her Armenian heritage, maintains she never tires of work, although she likes to play the piano for relaxation. “If you don't paint yourself into a corner, doing one thing all the time, one type of work tends to relax you from the other,” she said. “And when I get sick of seeing people, I get a book and do some research. At such times, I do some of my most productive work.”

Honored as a scholar of Armenia

She served the Graduate Dean position until 1979 when she became the first holder of Gevork M. Avedissian Chair in Armenian History and Civilization at Columbia University. She retired in 1993 and as Professor Emerita of Armenian History and Civilization.

Garsoïan is the director of the Paris-based Revue des Etudes Armeniennes and a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of American and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She has participated in Byzantine Studies Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, twice serving as a co-director.


New York Times Interview by Albin Krebs March 27, 1977

Rounding Out a Century: The Princeton Graduate School, 1969-2000 by James Axtell (This article originally appeared in Willard Thorp et al., The Princeton Graduate School: A History, Jory, ed. Patricia H. Marks. Princeton, NJ.: Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, 2000), pp. 177-178)

Other References:

Princeton University Library

Nina Garsoian

De Vita Sua by Nina G. Garsoian

Isaw Library Receives Collection of Nina Garsoian

NAASR Armenian Studies 60th Academic Awardees

Coeducation: History of Women at Princeton University

Princeton Portrait: Dean Nina G. Garsoian, Princeton Alumni Weekly, February 7, 1977

An Evening at St. Nersess in Honor of Professor Nina Garsoian