Mirror On Line 05-05-04
1) Locals Raise Their Voices against Closing Melkonian
By Alin K. Gregorian
WATERTOWN, Mass. ' At a meeting whose mood can only be described as electric, approximately 100 people raised their voices in vehement opposition to the closing of the Melkonian Educational Institute half a world away in Cyprus.
The meeting, organized by the Armenian Cultural Committee of Boston, and held at the Church of the Good Shepherd hall in Watertown, featured a panel debate over the fate of the AGBU-owned school.
The AGBU's Board of Directors has voted to close the school in June 2005 and there are many people, both alumni and members of the Armenian community, who have voiced their opposition to the decision.
The panel featured moderator Hagop Vartivarian of the ADL Central Committee, with Nubar Dorian of the AGBU, Edward Boghosian, publisher of the Armenian
Reporter International and Vartkes Tamzarian, a Melkonian graduate. Vartivarian first gave an overview of the situation, noting that the Melkonian school was 80 years old, and was a venerated diasporan institution, one which many feel should not be closed, and on the other hand, the AGBU is an organization whose status is firmly established in the diaspora, and one which does not make such decisions lightly.
Dorian angrily quoted from the savemelkonian.org website, a site that has been created by Melkonian alumni in opposition to the AGBU decision. Dorian, who has written at length in the press in favor of the decision to close MEI, derided the poor quality of the postings on the site, saying that the poor English showed that Melkonian was not doing its job in educating the young properly now.
He also expressed his fury at the personal attacks posted on the site on AGBU's former president, Louise Manoogian Simone, and current president, Berge Setrakian.
"Louise doesn't need my defending her. She is the biggest philanthropist we've ever had," Dorian said. "She has gone to Armenia so many times [and] she should not be ridiculed like this."
He added, "I love Melkonian as much as you. It was a treasure, but not now," he said, to the booing of the crowd. "I will continue to praise the AGBU Board for their much-needed and far-sighted decision to close Melkonian," Dorian said.
He suggested that many people pay lip service to Melkonian and its importance, yet they are not sending their children there. He asked if Melkonian is attracting high-caliber students now or fulfilling its mission. "My answer to all these questions has been 'no.'"
Dorian also took issue with the presence of 10 percent of the student body from Armenia and Karabagh. "Do we need to bring Armenian students from Armenia and Karabagh to teach them to be Armenian?"
He suggested that "things change" for reasons outside the control of the AGBU, such as the civil war in Lebanon, which "drastically change the demographics of the Armenian Diaspora, and the new republic of Armenia."
He added, "The source is dry. There are no new ones coming."
Dorian continued that the AGBU is still supporting 27 schools in 20 countries, giving them, including the American University of Beirut and Yerevan State University, $5 million annually.
He also suggested that Melkonian is not able to instruct its students well in Arabic, since at one time the Armenians in the Middle East were really not required to learn it, but that now they cannot survive without it. He noted that the AGBU had given MEI time to improve, but that it didn't.
He called the caricatures of Simone and Setrakian as "ugly and shameful for Melkonian graduates."
Next spoke Edward Boghosian. He said that in a way he felt responsible for all the commotion with regard to the future of MEI, as he had written a long piece three years ago in which he suggested that since MEI is sitting on such valuable land, perhaps the school's current site should be sold, and a cheaper school site be bought and developed instead. "I said the AGBU, as the owners of Melkonian, has the right to make whatever decision they want."
Now, however, he said, he has changed his mind because the AGBU is not presenting a plan for the funds they will get from the sale of Melkonian.
He suggested that Simone had made the decision 10 years ago, and that she had stepped down from the Central Board's chairmanship in order to avoid anger, which was expected over the move.
"The AGBU Central Committee is made up of people that are not involved with the Armenian culture and life," he said. "This decision has been made by two or three people."
"I suggested to Berge [Setrakian] to form an independent committee to study" the fate of Melkonian. "I'm not an expert and I can't make a decision. If they say it should be closed, then I have no problem."
He added, "AGBU must present a clear plan of what they will do with the money after it closes Melkonian. They haven't."
Boghosian also spoke against the structure of the AGBU as it stands now, saying that many of the local chapters have been closed, with only a small group, the Central Board, making decisions for that multi-million dollar organization.
He said now, "the AGBU doesn't exist, only a few names and they can close all the schools. They allow them to fall into disrepair and then close them."
He cited as an example the highly respected Boston AGBU school, which had been in Watertown for years. The school was closed because the AGBU cited declining enrollment. But, he said, now two Armenian schools founded in the past 20 years, St. Stephen's Armenian Elementary School in Watertown and the Armenian Sisters Academy in Lexington, are both enjoying high enrollment.
Boghosian agreed that Melkonian doesn't need students from Armenia, and instead suggested that the school recruit them from Lebanon and Syria and the rest of the Middle East, as was the practice previously.
He also said that the AGBU's Education Committee chair, Carol Aslanian, does not know or appreciate Armenian education, as she herself is not Armenian.
"I suggest that they keep it open one or two years and see what changes they can make. A group of experts should make that decision," Boghosian said.
The final speaker, architect and builder Vartkes Tamzarian of Manchester, NH, a Melkonian graduate, was the fieriest and drew the most applause. He praised the farsighted Melkonian brothers, Garabed and Krikor, who willed their fortunes to the school in the 1920s to make sure that both girls and boys could receive a great education after surviving the Genocide so that they could pass on their Armenian pride to their children.
"It's our nation's school," Tamzarian said.
Taking on the AGBU, Tamzarian said that the organization's Central Committee has cited two reasons for the need to close MEI: money and straying from its original mission.
He berated the board members, many of whom "cannot put two words together in Armenian" for making the decision to close the school. He also said the accounting for the school's expenditures was murky.
"The year 1957 was the last time that the Melkonian budget was [presented] in black and white," he said.
He charged angrily that the initial seed money that the Melkonian brothers had left for the operation of the school, $4.6 million in the 1926, had gathered an interest of about $131,000 that very 1957 year alone. "How can they explain now that the money is worth only $5 million now?"
He added that the AGBU had sold tracts of land on the MEI property in order to bring money in, yet that money was put in the general AGBU funds, as opposed to specific Melkonian use.
Also properties which had been built on the MEI site and rented out by the AGBU, brought in $400,000 annually in the 1990s. In addition, The government of Cyprus gives money to Melkonian for its students, a sum that has been raised to $600,000 annually at the present. Thus, he concluded, money is not a reason to close the school.
Tamzarian then tackled the question of the school's mission. He agreed with Boghosian that Melkonian needs to attract students from Lebanon and Syria, where the Armenian spirit is inculcated in them, as well as countries like Bulgaria, where often the Armenians don't speak the language. "They used to visit elementary schools in the region and picked the best students there,"
Tamzarian said. The practice has stopped, he noted.
He added a country such as Iraq now can provide a lot of students to MEI.
He also boasted that MEI had produced two Fulbright Scholars in the past and that its graduates had gotten into many prestigious universities.
"There are no convincing arguments [to close MEI]. If the AGBU cannot continue, the money should stay in a bank and the Catholicos [Karekin II] should oversee the school's operation," Tamzarian said, as spelled out in the original agreement between the Melkonian brothers and the AGBU, which stated that in case of difficulty, the Holy See of Echmiadzin take over running the school.
The Catholicos, he said, has not responded to the appeals of the MEI alumni and students.
He continued that the newly-formed alumni organization has met the same response from the AGBU board. When they asked for a budget breakdown of the MEI, he said, the AGBU refused.
He also suggested that Setrakian, who was in Armenia in April, refused to meet with Melkonian alumni who were trying to meet with him.
A boisterous question and answer session followed, with many of those gathered suggesting that Melkonian should be kept open, to thunderous applause.