By Ken Wills
HONOLULU (Reuters) - The East-West Center in Hawaii, a U.S. government-funded institute to promote better relations with Pacific and Asian nations, is hardly a center of harmony these days.
At yearend, the four-person energy research team resigned, protesting funding and job cuts and accusing the center's president of jeopardizing the viability of the 54-year-old institution, which receives about $16 million in federal funding and has been a respected forum for geopolitical research and discussion.
The resignations followed a steady paring of the center's research staff during the 16-year tenure of President Charles E. Morrison, reflecting what he says is a more cost-effective strategy. Opponents, meanwhile, say the cuts have weakened the institute's influence that in the past helped shape national debates on U.S.-China relations, U.S.-Asia trade policy and other economic and political issues.
"The institution used to have great programs. The program on population was famous worldwide, the program that I ran for many years was famous worldwide, and now they have all been shut down or greatly reduced," Fereidun Fesharaki, a senior fellow for 34 years and leader of the energy team, said in an interview on Thursday.
Team members submitted their resignations on Tuesday, saying Morrison had undermined the global reputation of the nonprofit institute.
"He (Morrison) decided to de-emphasize and nearly kill research and expand other areas," Fesharaki said. "What's wrong with this? This is a research institution with little or limited research."
In a telephone interview, Morrison defended the research staff cuts, saying the new business model reflects the need for more funding from non-government sources.
"We're moving away from the old model of a large research staff and moving more toward networked activities" with universities and other institutions that share scholars on an ad hoc basis, he said.
"We have expectations from our side, and he has his view about what he thought was wrong at the East-West Center," Morrison said of Fesharaki. "He's expressed those over the years. I've tried to listen to him, and we'll just leave it at that."
The latest departures come ahead of annual budget talks in Washington that have pitted congressional Republicans, who in recent years have sought to cut funding for the center, against Democrats, who have sought to keep funding near the latest year's sequestration-reduced level of slightly under $16 million.
The center, with research, residential and conference facilities on a 21-acre campus in Honolulu, was supported by Hawaii Senator Daniel K. Inouye in his role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. But the death of the longtime Democratic senator in December 2012 could put the center's funding at risk.
Fesharaki, who is also founder and chairman of the London-based FACTS Global Energy (FGE) consulting group, told Reuters the center was being managed with little oversight by a board of directors that has limited interaction with the staff.
He said the team decided to resign after attempts to raise their concerns with board members and the president were rebuffed.
"We believe that the Center is at a vulnerable stage and can only survive if critical decisions are made and a whole new approach is adopted. We are convinced there is a need for leadership change and fresh blood to energize the Center," the energy team wrote in an open letter to East-West Center staff. "As it stands, we just cannot see how the Center can survive."
Morrison said his approach offered a better business model as government funding becomes less certain.
"Our new mission really emphasizes leadership training and emerging issues for the U.S. and the region," he said. "It's a different funding environment, and we expect the senior staff to be aggressive in developing fully funded projects for the East-West Center."
Fesharaki, however, said staff had little incentive to seek private funding sources because department heads could not control how those funds were spent.
Despite the center's government support, it is registered in Hawaii as an independent nonprofit and is not required to report a breakdown of research and staffing levels. Besides research, the center also runs education programs, seminars and a Pacific Islands development program. It also operates a research and training center in Washington, among other activities, according to its website.
MORE RESEARCH, NOT LESS
Morrison said his approach has increased the center's research offerings.
"On-staff researchers have declined across the board at the East-West Center, and the result of that is that we do research (in partnership with outside groups) in areas we never did before - higher education, justice and human rights, governance," he said. "So we've expanded the amount of funding coming in for research with a much smaller staff."
But one outside public policy expert also questioned the direction the center has taken.
"The East-West Center is a huge opportunity not just for the U.S. but also Hawaii. Hawaii should be the American window in the center of the Pacific, and having this research institution with this long history, it ought to be in the center of these big issues, and I sense that it's not," said Lucian Pugliaresi, president of the Washington-based Energy Policy Research Foundation Inc.
"It should be on the map. It's become a very sleepy place in the last 10 years, and part of it is because it just doesn't have the kind of focus and governance it needs," he said. "The resignations are likely to trigger a debate about what we should do with this asset."
(Reporting by Ken Wills; Editing by Ciro Scotti and Douglas Royalty)