Mike Van Dusen is ending his fifteen-year tenure as the Wilson Center’s chief operating officer, and we his colleagues cannot let the occasion pass without celebrating not just the quantity of those years, but their quality.
Mike came to the Center a respected foreign policy specialist for his work over three decades in Congress, including as staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That he capped his career at an institution memorializing the nation’s twenty-eighth president has been especially fitting because, as a Princeton man with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, he exemplifies the Wilsonian ideal of public service.
Mike was enlisted by his mentor, Lee Hamilton, to assume his position at a time when the Center faced major challenges of governance and funding. From the beginning, Mike worked to restore the fundamentals of the institution through a dramatic expansion of its programs and its public role, and by helping to solidify its funding base. He was committed to bringing a vibrant Center to the attention of a world far beyond the borders of Washington.
Mike led the staff by the example of his character and by a work ethic that had him at his desk before most of us were even awake. The tone of civility and sense of purpose Mike brought to the Center, in extraordinary partnership with Lee, created an ideal work environment. Though the Center's staff was one he largely inherited, we quickly became his staff. The respect and loyalty that flowed to him were but a reflection of the respect and loyalty he extended to all of us in so many ways, large and small. Perhaps nothing better epitomized the bond between Mike and the staff than his pivotal role in winning Haleh Esfandiari’s release from prison in Iran.
Mike’s promotion of a sense of “community” at the Center naturally extended to our residential scholars, whose international composition he viewed as a way of bringing the world to Washington to enrich our public policy debates. Mike was the Center’s “Mr. Chips,” regularly engaging scholars (and staff) over lunch in the dining room and attending virtually all the “work-in-progress” sessions at which scholars present their research findings. An annual highlight has been the scholars’ reception generously hosted by Mike and Ann Van Dusen at their home.
As Mike steps down after playing a central role managing the successful transition from Lee Hamilton to Jane Harman, he leaves a Center well positioned to flourish in a new era of possibilities and challenges.
The occasion we mark today is thankfully not a “farewell,” for Mike will retain a link to the Center as a senior advisor. He is merely slowing down, he says, not retiring. And for that we can be thankful. In this new advisory capacity building and more fully engaging the Center’s global alumni network, he will continue his life of public service. Because that is who he is – an exemplary “doer.”