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The East-West Center, which has faced big funding threats in recent years as federal support for its programming dwindled, is about to start head-hunting for its first new president in nearly two decades.
Longtime center President Charles E. Morrison is planning to leave his post in August 2016, at the end of his current contract.
Morrison’s decision, which he announced at an EWC Board of Governors meeting earlier this month, comes as the center undergoes a new strategic planning process and considers sweeping changes in its governance and funding structures.
Located on 21 acres at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, the East-West Center is a research and education institution aimed at strengthening relationships between the United States and countries in Asia and the Pacific. It offers multiple leadership development programs and journalism fellowships, and publishes policy studies and reports on economic and political issues.
It also organizes seminars and events, and plays host to high-profile speakers like Secretary of State John Kerry. In 2013, the center boasted more than 57,000 alumni and 750 partner organizations.
“The EWC now stands at one of these critical points where it needs to look ahead to consider its course forward,” Morrison said in a speech last September. “It has been a decade since we have last engaged in strategic planning for our institution, and our world is changing rapidly.”
“Clearly as we go forward our dependence on federal funding is going to have to drop off and our private sector funding is going to have to increase.” — Board Chair R. Brian Tsujimura
Morrison did not give the board a reason for his departure, Board Chair R. Brian Tsujimura said.
“He’s done a lot,” Tsujimura said of Morrison. “The center is headed in what will be a new direction and I think he acknowledges, as does the Board of Governors, that we are going to have to undergo some changes.”
Morrison will be a part of implementing those changes, Tsujimura said.
Morrison, who is also a founding member of the U.S. Asia Pacific Council and the U.S. National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation, has been the subject of both praise and recent public criticism for his leadership of the organization.
His planned departure is voluntary and came as a surprise, board members said.
“He has been a wonderful president,” board Vice Chair Richard Turbin said. “We are going to miss him very, very much and he is going to stay on as an important member of the East-West Center family.”
Morrison, who holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, joined the EWC as president in 1998.
He launched important new leadership programs, Turbin said, and Morrison established himself as a highly respected academic and diplomat in Asia. He also played an integral role in bringing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference to Hawaii in 2011.
Morrison was not available for comment Thursday, according to a spokesperson for the center.
His tenure has not been without controversy.
EWC’s four-person energy research team resigned at the end of 2013, criticizing a perceived lack of transparency in the organization and calling for Morrison’s resignation.
“We are convinced there is a need for leadership change and fresh blood to energize the Center,” the letter from energy expert Fereidun Fesharaki and his staff stated. After Morrison’s 16 year tenure as president “the EWC is more vulnerable and more in danger than ever,” the letter stated.
“The years of Senator (Daniel) Inouye’s guaranteed funding was squandered and a firm basis for success of the institution post-Inouye has not been built,” the letter stated.
“We are going to miss him very, very much and he is going to stay on as an important member of the East-West Center family.” — Board Vice Chair Richard Turbin, speaking of Morrison
On Thursday, Turbin called the complaints “baseless.”
Instead, Turbin said, Morrison should be remembered as a strong leader who launched important new programs, guided the organization through years of threatened federal funding and excelled at bringing in new grants.
“Charles has been doing a stellar job in a very difficult funding environment,” Tsujimara said.
Under Morrison, the center made significant progress toward decreasing its reliance on federal funding.
The board expects to spend at least six to nine months looking for his replacement. At the same time, it will be searching for a new development director.
Both positions will be key as the EWC grapples with how to put itself on a long-term path to financial sustainability.
Founded in 1960 by Congress, the East-West Center has relied predominantly on federal funding for its operations. That funding has been reduced in recent years — and may be cut entirely in the future.
“Clearly as we go forward our dependence on federal funding is going to have to drop off and our private sector funding is going to have to increase,” Tsujimura said.
One way the current board wants to do that is by increasing the number of elected board members from five to 20.
Doubling the size of the board would require legislative approval, Tsujimura said, but would allow for active members of the East-West Center Foundation (which currently acts as the fundraising arm for the EWC) to play a bigger role in the organization.
Tsujimura said he also wants the EWC to focus on strengthening relationships with program alumni, some of whom are now aging and may be in a position to create endowments for the organization.
The organization has also been having preliminary conversations with University of Hawaii President David Lassner about working together to bring more foreign students into the UH system.
The center used private donor funding last year to hire an outside firm to help it embark on a new strategic planning process.
Tsujimara said he’s not sure the document prepared for the board will be made public, and that it provided more of “a glimpse” of where the organization might go as “opposed to a roadmap.”
Once the board conducts its search for a new president and development director, the organization will be headed into “a new cycle of re-examining,” Tsujimura said.