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JFK Library sees exodus as new CEO, strategy draw complaints

Many new, longtime workers on staff depart

Heather Campion took over as the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s CEO in March 2014.
JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF
Heather Campion took over as the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s CEO in March 2014.

The partnership that runs the Kennedy Library has undergone a mass exodus of new and longtime employees since a change in leadership last year, just as the institution prepares for a marquee celebration of the late president’s 100th birthday.

Through a combination of voluntary departures and terminations, more than a third of the staff funded by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation has left over the past year and a half or plans to leave in the coming weeks, including several hired within that time. The result has been a plunge in morale, a deterioration in relations between the foundation and the federal archives staff — the two groups that oversee operations — and questions about the library’s mission.

The Globe spoke with more than a dozen people familiar with the library’s inner workings, including several current and former employees who did not permit their names to be used, saying they did not want to harm their careers. Several complained about the leadership style of the foundation’s CEO, Heather Campion, who took over in March 2014 from Tom McNaught, who had climbed the ranks since starting at the organization in 1996.

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About a dozen of the roughly 30 people who either work directly for the foundation or whose work for the archives is paid for by the foundation have left since Campion started, according to a Globe analysis and interviews with current and former staff members.

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Library executives say the “growing pains” — in the words of the board chairman — are the result of a new strategy designed to allow the library to reach a broader public with a more modern approach. Broadly speaking, the plan calls for ensuring that generations who weren’t alive during Kennedy’s presidency understand and appreciate his legacy.

“That requires to a certain extent new initiatives with new staff expertise,” said Kenneth Feinberg, the chairman of the foundation board, and a former chief of staff to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Still, Feinberg acknowledged that the heavy personnel losses were worrisome.

“It is of concern to the board,” he said in a telephone interview. “We have to be ever vigilant of staff relationships and we’re sensitive to that. And that is of concern to us, and we’ve got to do better at it.”

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Current and former employees and people affiliated with the institution also describe an internal struggle between the foundation, a private enterprise that handles the library’s programming and fund-raising, and the National Archives and Records Administration, the federal agency that has traditionally been responsible for the operations of the library itself.

Some said they were concerned the turmoil had already altered the institution’s mission, and could impinge on preparation for the centennial celebration, a major fund-raising event for the library.

“It’s an unprecedented, enormous amount of turnover,” said the person with knowledge of the organization.

Feinberg acknowledged problems between the two sides, saying, “I would say it is off the rails, based on the criticism I’ve heard, and we’ve got to do a better job of moving forward and getting it on the rails, and I think we can do that.”

“The critics are correct. We’ve got to do a better job of managing our relationship with the staff of the foundation and NARA,” said Feinberg, using the acronym for the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Federal government employees have quietly threatened to begin charging the foundation for use of the library space, which would represent a stark change from the traditional arrangement. Foundation executives, on the other hand, have threatened to stop subsidizing positions that fall under the federal bureaucracy, or to move them under the private-side aegis.

“The relationship was really great for a long time, and this is pretty unusual,” said one person familiar with the organization’s inner workings.

In a joint statement, Campion and Thomas J. Putnam, the library’s director who oversees its federal government operations, said, “We are working together to make President Kennedy’s Library the best that it can be. While at times we may not agree, we are united in our desire to make this the innovative and vibrant institution that JFK would have envisioned.”

(AP Photo/John F. Kennedy Library Foundation)
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, left, with Heather Campion, library foundation CEO Heather Campion. The two are personally close.

The foundation pays for several workers who report to archives officials, but the departures have come from both sides. Among them are the longtime director of the Profiles in Courage program, which is the library’s signature award, and a digital strategist who lasted less than a year.

Campion is personally close to Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the late president’s only daughter and US ambassador to Japan. A former member of the board, she was a senior executive at Northeast Bancorp and Citizens Financial Group, and worked in the Carter White House.

Several people who have worked at the foundation complained about Campion’s management style. A low point, according to three people familiar with the organization, came a few weeks ago, when a longtime employee in charge of marketing was terminated. Another departed worker was described as “a daily punching bag.”

Last year, about six months into Campion’s tenure, an outside management consultant came in to interview people about the change in leadership, resulting in a tear-filled group session during which several employees discussed difficult working conditions, according to three people directly familiar with the meeting.

“People were sobbing,” one said. Another added, “He functioned more as a therapist.”

Several board members, in recent interviews, supported Campion, saying much of the tension had resulted from her implementation of the strategic plan they approved. But several said they had not been alerted to the extent of the turnover.

“I’m not sure the board is particularly aware of that,” said Anne Finucane, vice chairman of Bank of America, who sits on the foundation board.

“Here’s what everyone’s aware of: Like every organization, public, private, nonprofit, NGO, government, publicly traded companies, strategies need to be contemporized and refined, and that often requires new skill sets and when you marry that with new leadership, you know, transitions can be difficult.”

The strategic plan ratified by the board last year was intended to ensure that Kennedy’s legacy endures for new generations.

All of Kennedy’s papers are marked to be digitized and available on the Web.

An international road show is planned, bringing documents and exhibits to foreign capitals. And the plan calls for more interactive exhibits, featuring technological upgrades like those already in use next door on Columbia Point, at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate.

“Those three initiatives translate into, in some respects, different staff, different expertise, different skills,” Feinberg said. “And that helps, in part, to explain, some of the turnover.”

Campion and foundation staff have also discussed a fund-raising goal of $100 million for the centennial celebration, which will mark Kennedy’s birthday in 2017. Feinberg, however, said that the board has not begun considering a target figure for the anniversary.

Feinberg also vowed to minimize the discomfort caused by the updated vision.

“To the extent that the strategic plan and the changes that we’re making have caused this to be less than optimal, the board is aware of it, and we’re taking steps to correct it,” he said.

In an e-mail to foundation and library staff sent Wednesday alerting them to the forthcoming Globe story, Feinberg and Edwin A. Schlossberg, Caroline Kennedy’s husband and a board member, wrote, “Implementation of that plan has caused some growing pains. Every healthy institution experiences problems and the ones that succeed are those that learn from the problems and go forward stronger and better able to succeed.”

The e-mail signaled Feinberg’s and Schlossberg’s support for Campion, and urged other board members to join them, saying, “We have absolute confidence in the strategic direction and leadership of the Library and the Foundation.”

Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.