The director of the John F. Kennedy Library has resigned, the most prominent in a long line of recent departures from the iconic institution, triggering a new round of rancor among longtime library figures.
Thomas J. Putnam, a federal employee who joined the library in 1999 and became its fifth director in 2007, notified colleagues on Tuesday morning that, under his current plan, he would stay on only until Thanksgiving. He called his departure a personal decision.
The library has seen a mass exodus of employees — more than one-third of the staff has left voluntarily or been terminated — over the past year and a half, since Heather Campion became chief executive of the foundation that works in tandem with federal archives officials to run the library. During that time, the library has seen a plunge in morale, according to many people familiar with the library’s workings.
Putnam’s announcement ignited criticism Tuesday from former longtime library executives who previously had refrained from publicly criticizing the new leadership, including a suggestion that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg bore some responsibility for the turmoil.
Tom McNaught, who preceded Campion as head of the foundation, called Putnam “absolutely the most remarkable leader of any presidential library,” and laid the reasons for his departure squarely at the feet of the foundation’s highest echelons.
“Heather Campion and the board have made his position untenable,” McNaught said Tuesday.
Previous foundation leaders, McNaught said, “always put John F. Kennedy first.”
“This new administration seems to believe that they’re the more important representations of the Kennedy Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation, which is unfortunate.”
Kenneth R. Feinberg, who chairs the foundation board, responded to McNaught’s strong critique by saying, “Tom McNaught served as Heather Campion’s predecessor, and he served with distinction and loyalty, and he says what he says. I’m not going to say a bad word about Tom McNaught.”
Critics say Campion’s leadership style has led to many of the departures.
Friction between her and Putnam is well known among both library and foundation employees.
Defending Campion and the foundation leadership Tuesday was Carol Fulp, president and chief executive of The Partnership Inc.
“I just believe that in any institution change is inevitable,” Fulp said. “And the board has indicated it’s really important for us A) to reach out to the next generation and B) to reach out beyond our borders of Boston as well. We have leadership that is following that strategy. Yes there is change, but we’re confident that the library will stabilize.”
Campion’s defenders in August said that the unrest and departures were the natural result of an ambitious effort to overhaul the way the library operates.
They describe an ambitious strategic plan that Campion was hired to implement, including a ramp-up to a celebration in 2017 of the centennial of Kennedy’s birth.
Through spokesmen, neither Putnam nor Campion agreed to an interview.
In his internal e-mail, Putnam gave no reason for his decision, but wrote, “I know this may come as a surprise to some of you, but I have made a personal decision to step down as director of the library.”
Feinberg said in an e-mailed statement, “There is exciting momentum at the Kennedy Library as we continue to modernize the institution and expand programs to educate people across the world about President Kennedy’s timeless vision and ideals. Tom’s stewardship has laid the foundation for this progress, and he has made a lasting impact that we will build upon in the years to come.”
In an e-mailed statement, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero praised Putnam’s service, saying, “During his tenure, the library has increased the size of its collections, built a 30,000-square-foot addition, launched the nation’s first digital presidential archives, strengthened its public forum series, redesigned the permanent galleries in its museum, collaborated on international exhibits in Japan and Ireland, and experienced an unprecedented increase in its core revenue streams and retained earnings.”
In August, Campion and Putnam released a joint statement saying, “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.”
Tuesday’s announcement by Putnam marked the public disintegration of that union.
But behind the scenes, a former director of both the library and the foundation had already sounded off on what he said had become a culture of “cruelty and incompetence” under the new regime.
In an e-mail to Feinberg in August, former JFK aide Charles U. Daly, who had previously led both the foundation and library, had already registered his displeasure with the turmoil.
Daly, who had been appointed to an advisory council to the board, took the unusual step of directly criticizing Kennedy Schlossberg, JFK’s daughter and the current US ambassador to Japan.
“Ed Schlossberg and Caroline Kennedy have been and are the keys to the continuing development of a modern, ever-changing institution that can continue to be a beacon of hope and history. Reluctantly, I believe they and you as the foundation’s board chairman made a serious error hiring and then continuing to tolerate and shield the present director,” Daly wrote.
Daly, a decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War, also compared the current state of affairs to Kennedy’s ill-fated 1961 attempt to support a revolution against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
“I have come to the sad and bitter conclusion that we are stuck in the swamp of our own little Bay of Pigs without a CEO capable of leading us out of a situation that has already caused lasting damage,” Daly wrote.
But Fulp was more optimistic. She recalled attending a recent New Frontier Network dinner, celebrating the networking organization focused on civic engagement and public service.
“The energy that was in the room — I’m just so impressed by the number of young professionals who want to engage at the library,” she said. “Our strategic plan encourages us to focus on that next generation of leaders who were not alive when President Kennedy was in office.”
Correction: An earlier version of a photo caption that accompanied this story online misstated the location of a photograph of Heather Campion. Campion was pictured in the President’s Room.