Between the Lines as JFK Library Foundation Head Resigns

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By Fcb981 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

December 3, 2015; Boston Globe

Let’s see if you can connect the dots.

The structures of presidential libraries can be something of a bear. Many have two separate leaders over two institutions: the library itself and the foundation that supports the library. Their funding mechanisms are entirely different (federal and private, respectively). On top of that, you have political operatives involved. When the structure works, it is because everybody is trying very hard to make it so. But at the JFK library, things have reportedly been pretty darn miserable for a while.

In her two years at the helm of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, Heather P. Campion was nothing if not embattled. During her tenure, more than a third of the staff of the foundation resigned or were terminated. Some observers claimed that this was the natural result of advocating for necessary change as the institution forayed out bravely into the 21st century, but others said Campion’s style was abrasive and divisive. In a tough blow, Thomas Putnam, the library’s longtime and well-respected director resigned suddenly in September, with National Archives and Records Administration officials declining to refill the position due to the institution’s instability. He is still listed as director on the website, and in fact appears to have simply moved to a federal position related to the presidential libraries.

Campion left to take on a consulting role with the Harvard Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School—ironically, to focus on women’s leadership. Her departure comes immediately on the heels of an operations review commissioned by the foundation board.

An interim leadership team will lead the institution as a search is instituted to replace Campion and (now that the coast is clear) Putnam as well. “We’re going to let the dust settle and begin the search,” board chairman Kenneth P. Feinberg said in a telephone interview. Campion informed him of her intentions “about five days ago,” Feinberg said, adding, “We accepted her resignation today.”

Was she pressured to leave?

I’m not going to get into that, internal board deliberations and considerations, but she decided it was in her best interest to resign.

Campion, by the by, was a close friend of Caroline Kennedy, honorary president of the board, who released a statement along with her husband and Foundation board member, Ed Schlossberg, which read, “Heather has worked with her team tirelessly to implement the board’s new agenda and has launched a range of new initiatives. We are saddened by her departure but are committed to moving forward on the successful course that the foundation and the library has set.”

The tensions in the institution have been palpable, much leaked to the press and worsening over time. Now that the decks are cleared, one hopes the two institutions have a renewed understanding of the personalities and political skillsets that are needed to steer the ship properly.—Ruth McCambridge