A Legendary Think Tank Shows Its Age

As guests dined on tea-smoked quail at a party in Washington last month, Lieutenant General Douglas E. Lute, President Barack Obama's coordinator for Afghanistan policy, stood to offer praise for a new report. "All of us, and certainly those of us in the Administration, should take this glossy little book home and look at it carefully," Lute said of the study, which advocates negotiating with the Taliban. It was published by the Century Foundation, the New York-based policy institute and host of the dinner.

The Mar. 22 event was a bright moment for a once-prominent think tank that has lost money and prestige in recent years. The foundation, where economist John Kenneth Galbraith and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer once served as trustees, has been eclipsed by more aggressive peers and has put its Upper East Side townhouse on the market for $30 million. It's looking to replace its president, Richard C. Leone, who's retiring after 22 years.

Net assets fell 39 percent, to $38 million, last June from $61.7 million in June 2000, according to tax filings. At the same time, Century pared annual spending by 35 percent, to $3.8 million. While the board has weighed winding down the foundation, it instead decided to dip into the endowment. "We would have basically had to stop all of our activities" if the endowment hadn't been tapped, says Alan Brinkley, 61, chairman of Century's board and a professor of history at Columbia University in New York.

Since its founding by bargain-basement retail pioneer Edward A. Filene in 1919, Century has been a fount of "progressive, well-reasoned, well-researched ideas," as late board Chairman Theodore Sorensen, an adviser to President John F. Kennedy, put it. For many years, the foundation's views on issues such as U.S. debt and labor relations were conveyed to powerful figures including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to historian James Allen Smith.

Century wasn't "producing much" by 1989, says Leone, 70, who took over that year. Under Leone, Century at first continued to be a place that published books, "and that was pretty much it," says Brinkley. More recently, the foundation has supported fewer long publications, sponsored more events, and developed more content for its website. A former president of the New York Mercantile Exchange, Leone also handled Century's investments. He mostly eschewed fundraising. "That wasn't part of the job description when I took it, and that wasn't part of what the board does," says Leone. He regrets only "the way the country has moved," not anything about his tenure, he says.

Century wasn't included in a ranking of the top 50 U.S. think tanks compiled last year by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you look at their agenda, they're all over the map, and not with a lot of depth" says James G. McGann, the program's director. David Callahan, co-founder of Demos, an advocacy group in New York that has contributed to Century, says the foundation's endowment troubles struck at the same time other institutions were scaling up. "If two mansions get built on either side of you," he says, "you're no longer the biggest house on the block."

"Would I like for the Century Foundation to be more influential and blah blah blah?" says Bradley Abelow, president of broker-dealer MF Global (MF) and a member of Century's finance committee. "Sure. Would I like to be 6 foot 5 and blond? Maybe. I'd like everything I do to be more impactful and be more successful."

Century considered merging with the Washington-based Center for American Progress as far back as 2006, according to John Podesta, a chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who started the policy organization in 2003. The board didn't issue a final rejection until last October. "The possibility of the merger, and the long, long, long drawn-out discussion of it, shielded the board from seeing the urgency of making difficult, painful decisions," says former trustee Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who says she left Century's board about a year ago.

Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at policy institute New America Foundation, served as master of ceremonies for Century's Washington dinner on Afghanistan. He calls the event a sign that Century "could be rewiring itself." Leone says that Century wasn't meant to live forever. "I don't think there's anybody on the board who thinks in 100 years it's very important that this be here."

The bottom line: The Century Foundation is looking for a new president and spending its endowment as it tries to restore its past prestige.

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