Energy researchers at East-West Center quit, calling for new leadership

Energy researchers at East-West Center quit, calling for new leadership

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A world-famous energy expert and his team have resigned from the East-West Center, saying the institution needs new leadership as it faces millions in potential federal budget cuts.

Fereidun Fesharaki headed the energy research team of four people at the East-West Center, that's located on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus but is a nonprofit with its own board and budget separate from the university.

He and his three colleagues stepped down on New Year's Eve, saying they have no confidence in current leadership.

"The center has lost the ability to distinguish itself by paring down the research to almost nothing.  And we worry how will the center survive," Fesharaki, 66, said in an interview Friday morning. He has worked at the center for nearly 35 years.

He said his team's departure leaves fewer than 10 researchers at the East-West Center out of a staff of 180 people.

"Something's wrong when a research institution has this few researchers," Fesharaki said.

Fesharaki claimed few of its remaining programs are standouts.

"Student program, everybody has. I work in Asia-Pacific.  Everybody does.  I improve relations between Asia and the US.  Everybody does.  Every small university in the US does.  What is it that you have that is different?" Fesharaki asked. "The energy research that we did, (was) world-wide famous.  People knew it was different.  The work that was done on population at the East-West Center before?  World-wide famous.  Everybody knew.  Many, many distinguishing features.  All gone.  And all gone because of benign neglect."

He said Charles Morrison, who's been president of the center for 16 years, needs to be replaced.

"Sixteen years is too long for anybody to be in charge of anything.  And there is need for new blood, new thinking in the difficult new environment," Fesharaki said.

Center spokeswoman Karen Knudsen said Morrison was unavailable for an interview Friday but said, "The East-West Center is shifting to a business model which is looking to build support from non-appropriated sources while emphasizing leadership training, relevant issues, and preparation for emerging challenges for the United States and the region. The Center is shifting away from the model of larger in-house research groups and more toward networked research, educational and exchange activities drawing from the best expertise available in the region and the world."

Morrison has said the center shrank its in-house research staff and instead is sharing scholars with other institutions.

"It's also worth noting that our research staff level is enhanced by a number of visiting fellows at any given time as well as our collaboration with research institutions and partners in the US and region," Knudsen said.

The late Senator Dan Inouye, who died in December of 2012, fought Republican efforts to cut millions in federal funding for the center in recent years. Fesharaki said the center got complacent during the Inouye era.

"East-West Center felt no need to distinguish itself because the funds will come," Fesharaki said. "The Inouye years were squandered and nothing was built as a base."

Knudsen said the center has been steadily increasing the percentage of its budget that comes from outside, non-Congressional funding in recent years.  Outside grants from private foundations and contracts total 47 percent of the center's approximately $32 million operating budget, she said.  Appropriations from the federal government make up the rest of the budget, which came to about $16.7 million in 2012, a decrease of more than $4 million from the year before.

It's unclear how much the center will receive from Congress this year, since the government is operating on a continuing resolution and the final budget has not been passed.  Earlier in the spring, the U.S. Senate approved $16.7 million for the center, an increase from President Barack Obama's $10.8 million budget proposal.  Republicans in the U.S. House have tried to sharply reduce or eliminate the center's federal funding in recent years.

Fesharaki said he's been donating his approximately $60,000 to $70,000 annual salary for his half-time East West Center job to a center leadership program in recent years.  He heads a private energy consulting company called FACTS Global Energy with ten offices and hundreds of clients around the world, in the Middle East, United States, Asia and Latin America. The other three staffers, a senior fellow, project specialist and secretary, were also half-time employees, Knudsen said.  Two of their contracts expired at the end of the year, Knudsen said.

"Brick by brick, the components of success and repute have been dismantled," Fesharaki and his three colleagues wrote in a departure email to colleagues Dec. 31. "The substance is gone and replaced by process, poor leadership and excessive micro management."

He complained East-West Center managers won't allow researchers to control research money they bring in.

"The principal investigator needs to be in charge.  At the East-West Center, the principal investigator is not in charge.  So you bring the funds, your reputation is at stake, but the result of what you do, you have no control over it," Fesharaki said.

He also said there is little or no interaction between board and the staff.

Knudsen responded that board members regularly attend the centers events, seminars and receptions.  "They host coffee hours for staff before the open session of their board meetings," Knudsen said.

Fesharaki said when he tried to speak to board members about his complaints, he was rebuffed and told to speak to Morrison about his concerns.

Fesharaki also said there is no peer review of the center.

"An international advisory panel which used to evaluate this center has been abolished by the president years ago," Fesharaki said. "There is no independent organization which looks to see how the panel has done.  We want independent review.  We want a look at the direction, a look at the programs and some questions."

Fesharaki also said the salaries of top management must be made public, since more than half of the center's roughly $32 million budget has come from Congressional appropriations, which is "public money."

Two-year-old nonprofit tax returns list Morrison's annual salary of $234,000, with a discretionary spending fund, housing allowance and membership at the Pacific Club included but not detailed on the forms.

Knudsen said she didn't know the details of Morrison's contract, saying that's something between him and the all-volunteer board that oversees the center.  She said he had approximately three years remaining on his contract.

Knudsen said she did not know if Morrison had a "golden parachute" that paid him any salary through the end of his contract if he's terminated before it expired, as Fesharaki claimed.

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