During his six-year tenure, the Annenberg estate became known as the ‘Camp David of the West’
Wednesday, December 16, 2015 — Geoffrey Cowan, the president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, announced today that after six years as the organization’s founding president he will be leaving the historic, high-level retreat center that he helped to transform into the “Camp David of the West.”
The former dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism said he will step down in June 2016 and return full time to USC where he is a University Professor, holds the Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership, and directs the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.
“It has been an incredible honor to serve as the inaugural president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, to work with a great group of colleagues and friends, and to help the trustees build an institution that is designed and destined to make ours a better world,” Cowan wrote in a letter to those involved with the trust. “Based on the quality of individuals who have already been mentioned as possible candidates, I am confident that the board will have some excellent choices to consider in its search for a new president. From a personal standpoint, I am looking forward to a productive transition, starting with the board’s work in recruiting a leader who will continue to build this great enterprise.”
Cowan became president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in July 2010. Under his leadership, the former winter estate of ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, Calif., became known as the “Camp David of the West” with President Barack Obama visiting on several occasions, including two historic meetings, one with President Xi Jinping of China in 2013 and the second with King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2014.
“On behalf of the Annenberg family and foundation, I want to underline how much we appreciate the wonderful job that Geoffrey Cowan has done as president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, and the way in which his leadership has helped to make it a world-renowned entity that fulfills the founders’ dreams – and more,” said Wallis Annenberg, president of The Annenberg Foundation and a member of the Sunnylands Board of Trustees.
The Annenbergs were known for the gracious hospitality they provided at Sunnylands to seven U.S. presidents, including President Ronald Reagan, who spent every New Year’s Eve at the estate. Over four decades, they welcomed other heads of state, along with British royalty and leading figures from business, education, the arts and entertainment.
They bequeathed their 200-acre estate to a nonprofit operating trust to make it available to the President and Secretary of State to “advance world peace and facilitate international agreement.” Members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the bipartisan leadership of Congress and the Cabinet also may convene at Sunnylands to address important issues facing those institutions. During Cowan’s tenure, Sunnylands has welcomed many of these leaders, including Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor, Speaker of the House John Boehner, Secretaries of State John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz, Secretary of Defense William Perry, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, First Lady Laura Bush and Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Additionally, The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands organizes meetings and retreats where leaders in the fields of law, education, philanthropy, the arts, culture, science and medicine are invited to work toward breakthroughs on some of the world’s most pressing problems.
The Annenbergs also wanted Sunnylands to be available to the public so that future generations could learn of its history, art, and architecture. Toward that end, the trustees created the spectacular Sunnylands Center & Gardens on land adjacent to the estate which opened in 2012 and now welcomes more than 80,000 visitors annually. The Center offers exhibitions culled from the Annenbergs’ world-class art collections and archives. Interactive kiosks, information panels and an orientation film inform the public of the Annenbergs’ service to their country and their philanthropy in areas such as education, the arts and civic engagement. Six books on different aspects of the Annenbergs’ lives and collections have been produced during Cowan’s tenure. Outside the Center, guests are greeted by a nine-acre desert garden that is often used to demonstrate environmental sustainability practices.
Sunnylands also has collaborated with a number of local schools and organizations – including the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Palm Springs Art Museum, Modernism Week, and Desert Arc, a nonprofit helping people with disabilities in the Coachella Valley – to present programs aligned with its mission to promote education and the arts.
“There have been multiple components responsible for the rise and full flight of this breathtaking tribute to Ambassador and Mrs. Annenberg,” said Rancho Mirage Mayor Dana Hobart. “Among those factors has been Geoff Cowan’s sensitive vision of the potential for this great Annenberg gift to the City of Rancho Mirage and, indeed, the world.”
Rancho Mirage has become internationally recognized as a result of the growing visibility of Sunnylands under Cowan’s leadership, Hobart added. “Most cities of our size strive to become renowned in some manner and very few develop a national, much less a worldwide name or identification. And this is what the Annenbergs and Geoff Cowan and the people who have been responsible for the huge success of Sunnylands have brought to the City of Rancho Mirage.”
Earlier in his career, Cowan served the nation as director of the Voice of America, the government’s international broadcasting service. During his tenure, VOA aired nearly 900 hours of programming in 52 languages to a weekly audience of about 100 million. From 1979-84, Cowan was a member of the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting where he played a key role in the development of National Public Radio.
A best-selling author, Cowan’s new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, (W.W. Norton & Company) will be published in January 2016. The book details Theodore Roosevelt’s bid to reclaim the White House in the election of 1912, a free-wheeling campaign that led to the birth of direct primary elections to select presidential nominees.
He is also the author of See No Evil: The Backstage Battle Over Sex and Violence on Television (Simon & Schuster, 1980), and the best-selling The People v. Clarence Darrow: The Bribery Trial of America’s Greatest Lawyer (Times Books, 1993).
Cowan co-wrote the prize winning play, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, which enjoyed a five-week run in New York City and was presented at 25 venues around the country as well as in two tours in China. He won a prime time Emmy Award as the executive producer of Mark Twain and Me.
A Los Angeles resident, Cowan served as chairman of the commission that wrote the city’s ethics and campaign finance law – cited as a model for the nation – for which he was named “Man of the Year” by the Council of Government Ethics Leaders in 1989. He also chaired the California Bipartisan Commission on Internet Political Practices. He is married to Aileen Adams and has two children, Gabriel Cowan and Mandy Wolf, and two grandchildren.
Russell Reynolds Associates has been retained to assist the Sunnylands Board of Trustees with the search for the next president. For inquiries or nominations, please contact Mirah Horowitz or Laurie Nash by writing firstname.lastname@example.org.