Morrison lost his job, not his mission
The bad news is that Ed Morrison has left the building — in his case, the Weatherhead School of Management’s Peter B. Lewis Building — and in a manner that should embarrass his former bosses at Case Western Reserve University.The good news is that Morrison is not leaving Cleveland. In fact, he’s already set up shop in Midtown and plans to continue preaching the gospel of “open source” economic development that he believes can transform this region.
That will come as relief to the hundreds of business and civic entrepreneurs whom Morrison has encouraged since he returned home less than two years ago to take charge of the Center for Regional Economic Issues. Since early last week, when Morrison revealed that he had been fired by Weatherhead Dean Myron Roomkin, those supporters have filled cyberspace with vitriol for Case and odes to Morrison.“He’s the best thing that’s happened to Northeast Ohio in a long time,” says Herb Crowther, who credits Morrison with helping him pull together a network of partners who see biofuels technology as a business opportunity. “He brought together a group of people interested in the future of the region and in taking up activities that may or may not fit the mold. Collectively, Ed gave us a voice.”Voice matters. Morrison holds that “economic development takes place in the civic space.”
In that context, an economic development pro’s job is to bring people together to listen to one another. Help them find places of overlapping interest and complementary skill. Find the professional help — from say, a lawyer or a business consultant — to nurture an idea. Encourage innovation by removing barriers.
It’s a long way from the “industrial park mindset” that Morrison held when he left corporate life 20 years ago and started working with communities and regions on economic strategies. Working mostly in the sun belt, Morrison became convinced that networks could speed development and take it to scale faster than traditional approaches.
“The assumption of the top-down model is that the guys at the top are smarter than the guys at the bottom,” Morrison says. “Open source development is about open participation and leadership development.”
That’s the mindset Morrison brought to REI in 2003, taking over an institution that had been adrift since its brilliant director, Richard Shatten, fell ill with cancer, then died in February 2002. Shortly before he was approached by a headhunter about REI, Morrison attended Case President Edward Hundert’s inauguration, with its day-long symposium on breaking down the walls between universities and their communities. He thought his philosophy would fit perfectly with Hundert’s vision.
At REI, he cut the staff from six to two, but raised its profile by hosting Tuesday forums on dozens of issues and initiatives. Those forums threw open the doors to the Lewis building and became a magnet for entrepreneurs who’ve often felt left out of Cleveland’s corporate culture.
Too many folks here complain that they cannot move forward with an idea without the blessing of corporate or foundation leaders. Morrison told them to give themselves permission and create their own resources.
Morrison jokes that REI was running on the cookies served at those Tuesday gatherings. Problem is, the center was largely out of cash. The elites who had founded it in the 1980s as a regional think tank had backed away by the time of Shatten’s death. Business leaders were reshaping their organizations. The foundations were launching a new initiative on economic development. Without a dean through his first year at Weatherhead, the sometimes-abrasive Morrison had no champion to help with fund-raising. By the end, SBC Foundation was REI’s only outside donor.
Roomkin arrived last November and announced that every activity not related to teaching management was up for review. By the time he and Morrison finally met in March, Roomkin was busy shaking up a school that faces fiscal and enrollment challenges. They did not meet again until May, when Roomkin gave Morrison a set of written orders — including mandating prior approval of all outgoing communications — that in retrospect look like an invitation to leave.
Morrison wrote back that he would not comply. A week ago Monday, Roomkin handed him a letter: You’re out. As word seeped out, Roomkin initially weaseled, suggesting that Morrison had quit. He now says the future of REI is under review.
Morrison himself made a statement early on that he now regrets, blaming his ouster on Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joe Roman and other business leaders. “That was an initial slip of the tongue,” he says.
By week’s end, he had opened his own “think-and-do tank,” the Institute for Open Source Economic Development. He’s got clients in other states and all those local fans.
“What’s done is done,” Morrison says. “It wasn’t right, but the issue isn’t Ed Morrison or Dean Roomkin. It’s how do we move on these strategies. There’s no going back.”