East-West chief welcomes challenges
Charles Morrison first arrived at the East-West Center in 1980, expecting to spend a year learning about Asian relations. Thirty years have passed and he's been president since 1998.
And he's still learning and passionate about building international relations. The former congressional staffer still shakes his head a little over how it all turned out.
While his path has been an interesting one, there have been problems and challenges. Morrison and the center survived a crisis in the 1990s when funding was cut in half. Even the job he held at the time would have been eliminated if he had not raised the money from other sources for it to continue.
As the center this year marks its 50th anniversary of being one of the first institutions of higher education in the United States to focus on Asia-Pacific issues, it is still wrestling with some identity issues.
Morrison acknowledges that many of those who do have an idea that the center exists believe it's "a think tank that works on Asia."
But he describes the focus as building relationships "across the Pacific around issues that matter for both sides." And both sides do matter, with Asia leading in population and economic growth and the United States a key global political leader.
Student programs still offer scholarship opportunities to help develop regional expertise. Morrison said the center currently has about 530 students who enjoy a close-knit community environment.
He said center students live together in dormitories, cook together, have weekly seminars and do community service.
The center's funding comes from the U.S. government, with additional support from private agencies, foundations, governments , corporations and individuals.
Morrison played a key role in laying the foundation for bringing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation annual meeting here in 2011.
With President Obama making the decision and Mayor Mufi Hannemann working to provide the logistical support needed along with the state, Honolulu will play host to the gathering of 21 heads of government from the Asia-Pacific region, who will discuss the economy, trade and investments.
Morrison said the important international meeting can place Hawai'i on the map as more than a tourist destination. "Hawai'i should be seen as a place where you can do business," he said.
The state's multicultural background and location that's between the other parties also make it an attractive meeting place in more than just a time zone. "It's kind of a neutral place," Morrison said.
Over the years, the center's mission has shifted to a mix of programs, research, education and seminars. In 2001, the center opened an office in Washington, D.C., to conduct research projects, study groups and bring in Asian views on policy issues, he said.
"It's a complex but fast-changing world," Morrison said.
Morrison finds some measure of success in the strong alumni support network, which includes 58,000 people who have come through some kind of program at the center.
"It is so hard to quantify what we do ... we don't sell widgets," he said.