Think tanks may be known as the ideas industry, but they are equally described as the government in exile, or the revolving door to government.
The latter designation has been more apt for think-tank scholars with political aspirations than for think-tank presidents, whose long tenures go unrivaled.
That is, until now.
In the past 18 months, many of the leaders associated with institutions such as the Rand Corp., the Center for New American Security, the Asia Society, the Urban Institute and several other think tanks have stepped down or announced plans to do so.
Even Edwin Feulner — a founding trustee when the Heritage Foundation opened its doors in 1973 and president since 1977 — will be exiting.
Although Heritage has not announced a successor, it says a process for Feulner, 70, to step down is likely to be announced later this year. David Addington, who served as vice-presidential chief of staff to Richard B. Cheney, was recently added to the think tank’s two-person executive team, a sign that some say makes him a primary internal candidate for the position.
In a very different set of circumstances, Edward H. Crane, who founded the Cato Institute in 1977 with billionaire Charles Koch and has been its only president, may see the end of his tenure, though Crane says he has “at least a few good years” left. Should the Koch brothers win a lawsuit they filed for control of Cato, Crane likely will either be relieved of his duties or forced to resign.
A new, often more diverse leadership is arriving in a rapidly changing think-tank environment. The policy field is more crowded, the flow of information is faster and the fundraising is tougher.
“It appears some think tanks are making choices based on politics and power rather than what is best for the institution,” said James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
In some instances, formal transition processes carried on for six months or more, while other institutions seemingly changed overnight.
When James A. Thomson of the Rand Corp. and C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute of International Economics announced they were stepping down, each think tank hired an executive search firm. Ultimately, both selected successors from their own ranks, signaling to some that their boards were mostly interested in maintaining the status quo.
Michael D. Rich took over as president and chief executive at Rand in November. The Peterson Institute selected Adam S. Posen, its deputy director, to take over as president in 2013.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) took a different route. Last October, at the progressive think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, co-founder and former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta abruptly announced he would step down. It was also quickly announced that Neera Tanden, then the chief operating officer, would take over.
Tanden is part of a wave of women leaders who are assuming posts traditionally held by men. Others include Janice Nittoli at the Century Foundation, Sarah Rosen Wartell at the Urban Institute and Felicia Wong at the Roosevelt Institute.
“Becoming the first woman president at CAP was really important to me,” Tanden said.
“But the number of women — and men — who have come up to me and congratulated me and said it’s inspiring to see a woman and, at that, a woman of color in this position, has inspired me even more,” she said.
Whatever leadership an organization ends up with, the question is whether those in charge can manage the changing think-tank world.
Arthur Brooks, who was just ahead of this recent influx of new leaders when he became president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 2009 after Christopher Demuth’s tenure of more than 20 years, said communications will be the biggest challenge for new leadership.
“We all have to think more creatively about our audiences,” he said. “It’s not good enough to have a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach: Build it and they will come. They won’t come, because there’s too much noise in public policy today.”
AEI has invested millions of dollars and hired dozens of people, he said, to identify who it sees as its key audiences on Capitol Hill, in the media, business, academia and communities nationwide. The effort, he said, is aimed at “finding the most creative ways to get our research and ideas to these leaders so they are armed in the competition for better policy.”
“It is incredibly exhilarating and fun, and a new way of doing business for our scholars and staff,” Brooks said.
That new approach, combined with fewer financial resources and more competition from new organizations occupying space traditionally held by think tanks, could be contributing to the wave of retirements, McGann said.
“Tight economic times, costly technological requirements and challenges by organizations that look and act like think tanks are testing what the establishment think tanks do,” he said.
It all may be too much for some presidents.
“It’s not just because they are at the age of retirement” that some leaders are leaving, he said.
Being new, however, is no guarantee for success.
“New blood, new ideas may transform things,” McGann said, “but it’s easy to make missteps.”
In a recent article in National Affairs, Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, suggested that think tanks have become too political rather than focusing on policy research.
Troy says that the biggest challenge now for organizations is the confluence of that increased competition, donor expectations and the compulsion to respond to politics and the 24-hour news cycle.
New leaders don’t have the same relationships with donors as their deep-rooted predecessors, nor the leverage to resist donor requests, so the quick political score becomes the easiest thing to produce.
“Donors want to get something for their money,” said Troy, adding, “That’s not always a bad thing; it all depends on what the donors’ expectations are.”
Some new leaders aren’t thinking of themselves as traditional think tankers any way.
“I’m not the scholar in chief,” said Nittoli, who was associate vice president and managing director for the Rockefeller Foundation before taking on her new role at the Century Foundation last fall.
“I see my role as making sure everybody else can do their job to the best of their ability,” she said.
“I won’t be invisible,” Nittoli said. “But I shouldn’t be the first thing you see here, either.”
Allen McDuffee hosts Think Tanked, a Washington Post blog. To read more, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/think-tanked.