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JFK Library Foundation chief ends her rocky run

Heather Campion.
Heather Campion.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/file 2014)

The chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation resigned Wednesday, completing a stormy tenure that saw heavy staff departures from the Dorchester institution and prompted questions about its mission.

Heather P. Campion, who took over as chief executive of the nonprofit that bankrolls much of the library’s operations in March 2014, left after the recent completion of an operations review commissioned by the foundation board.

She will take on a consulting role at the Harvard University Institute of Politics, with a focus on women’s leadership, foundation officials said.

Campion’s tenure was marked by unrest among both new and longtime staff members, many of whom either resigned or were terminated. At least 15 people, more than a third of the employees whose positions were funded by the foundation, had either resigned or been terminated during her tenure. Campion’s advocates said the departures were the inevitable result of her pushing much needed change at the library.

Thomas J. Putnam, the library’s director and a federal employee, abruptly announced his resignation in September, and National Archives and Records Administration officials decided not to immediately recruit a permanent replacement because of instability at the institution. An acting director was appointed in Putnam’s place.

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Putnam has accepted another position with the National Archives, according to people who had spoken with him.

Foundation officials said Wednesday that the board of directors would “appoint an interim leadership team while it conducts a national search for [Campion’s] replacement.” National Archives officials said they would soon start recruiting a permanent successor for Putnam.

“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.”

Asked whether Campion had come under pressure to resign, he replied, “I’m not going to get into that, internal board deliberations and considerations, but she decided it was in her best interest to resign.”

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Museum visitor Edmilson Da Cruz was silhouetted in front of a World War II era photograph of John F. Kennedy in an exhibit titled "Young Jack" at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum last month.
Museum visitor Edmilson Da Cruz was silhouetted in front of a World War II era photograph of John F. Kennedy in an exhibit titled "Young Jack" at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum last month.(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Campion’s advocates have maintained that her marching orders, implementing a strategic plan approved by the board, required sometimes painful changes at the foundation. During her tenure, the foundation hosted its first international symposium in Tokyo, launched a partnership with Massport, and embarked on several new digital ventures.

“As a board member that believes in our vision and the change it implies, I’m sad to see her go,” said Micho Spring, president of Weber Shandwick New England, a leading public relations firm. “She accomplished much and we need someone with her energy and executive experience to accomplish our goals.”

According to a press release, Campion wrote in a letter to the board: “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to lead the JFK Library Foundation at such an important time, and look forward to the continued progress and success of this very special institution.”

Campion did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The foundation augments the operations of the library itself, which is staffed by federal employees. While tensions within similar arrangements at other presidential libraries are not uncommon, the tumult on Columbia Point had reached a fevered pitch in recent months.

Formerly a senior executive at Northeast Bancorp and Citizens Financial Group, Campion took the reins at the foundation last year from Tom McNaught, who had climbed the ranks since starting at the organization in 1996. She is personally close to Caroline Kennedy, the late president’s only daughter and US ambassador to Japan.

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In a statement Wednesday, Kennedy and her husband, board member Ed Schlossberg, said, “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.”

In an August e-mail to foundation and library staff, Feinberg and Schlossberg said: “We have absolute confidence in the strategic direction and leadership of the library and the foundation.”

But Campion’s detractors began to grow in number. Several board members said they had not been aware of the extent of the disquietude until recent months.

Feinberg said in August that relations between the library and the foundation had gone “off the rails.”

JFK Library.
JFK Library.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

In September, foundation officials commissioned outside consultants to review the management of the foundation and the library. One of those reports was delivered recently to some board members, people familiar with the process said. It has not been made public.

At a going-away event for Putnam last month, Charles U. Daly, who had worked for Kennedy and was a former chief of both the library and the foundation, veered from praising Putnam to criticizing the climate at what he called “this once happy building.”

“I have never — as in never — seen more moral courage than that found inside themselves by some persons in this room and by their colleagues of the recent past; courage that enabled them to risk incomes and health in order to champion a unique legacy during these ugly days at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum,” Daly said, according to a written copy of his remarks. “They are the true profiles in courage.”

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Several people who attended said they were taken aback by the bluntness of Daly’s remarks.

Former employees described a difficult working environment under Campion, including one session last year with an outside management consultant that devolved into some workers “sobbing” in front of co-workers.

Campion’s allies said the efforts to jump-start the institution — from a hidebound vestige of the 20th century into a modern, interactive entity that could appeal to generations who were born long after Kennedy’s presidency — required a higher-energy approach.

The foundation board ratified a strategic plan last year intended to ensure that JFK’s legacy would endure for new generations. All of the president’s papers were marked to be digitized and made available online, an international road show was planned to bring documents and exhibits to foreign capitals, and more interactive exhibits were prioritized.

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


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect quote from Micho Spring, president of Weber Shandwick New England.