In 1968, IREX was established as the International Research & Exchanges Board by leading US universities to administer exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
According to IREX's founding documents, a centralized organization was needed "to reflect disparate interests, be capable of centralizing diverse functions and administer them efficiently,...enjoy confidence of the profession and the participating institutions, act with authority on both sides of the Atlantic, solicit and attract sufficient funds, be immune to political pressures from all sides, [and] fulfill the sensitive role of clearinghouse for information." The immediate goal of IREX was to administer exchange programs with the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. But while the founding proposal cites an "immediate mandate" focusing on that region, it also makes clear that "there is no disposition to limit [IREX’s] jurisdiction geographically."
Below is a brief timeline charting IREX's history.
• President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev formally agree to scholar exchanges, setting the stage for IREX’s predecessor, the Inter-University Council on Travel Grants.
• IREX is established to consolidate management and development of exchanges. Support is provided by the Ford Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the US Department of State. Initial countries include the USSR, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Poland and East Germany are added over the next seven years.
• The Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia; IREX remains apolitical and maintains exchanges.
• The USSR invades Afghanistan and the US-Soviet exchange agreement is not renewed. IREX continues programs without a formal agreement.
• Aleksandr Yakovlev, a 1959 exchange participant, is the first exchange alumnus to be appointed to the Soviet Politburo.
• IREX expands regional program activities to include China, Japan, and Mongolia.
• Overseas alumni of IREX exchange programs play prominent roles in the struggle to reform social structures.
• IREX opens its first field office in Moscow
• IREX links Soviet partners to the American BITNET system, which connects approximately 2,500 computers.
• IREX initiates the Modems for Democracy program, providing free Internet and e-mail access in Russia and Ukraine.
• IREX presence reaches 16 field offices, and an alumni network of over 3,000 foreign scholars.
• IREX begins the USAID-funded Institutional Partnerships Project (IPP), connecting US universities and NGOs with counterparts in Russia and Ukraine, helping them improve their teaching and training programs
• IREX begins administration of the USAID-funded independent media support program ProMedia.
• IREX begins administration of USIA’s Internet Access and Training Program (IATP), initially assisting exchange alumni in five countries, later expanding to work with broad populations in 11 nations.
• IREX hosts a training program for senior managers of state-owned enterprises in Shanghai, China.
• IREX publishes the first annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI), for Europe and Eurasia. The first MSI for the Middle East and North Africa follows three years later
• IREX holds a conference in Moscow on the freedom and regulation of the Internet in Russia, bringing together leading US and Russian policymakers.
• IREX assumes administration of the US State Department's FREEDOM Support Act Undergraduate (UGrad) program
• IREX begins administration of the US-Business Internships for Young Middle Eastern Women, its first program in the region. Within five years, Middle East programs comprise more than 10% of IREX’s portfolio
• IREX Europe is founded IREX assumes administration of the US State Department's Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship program
• IREX begins collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in planning the rollout of a Global Libraries IT project in Romania and Ukraine.
• IREX releases the first Media Sustainability Index for Africa.
• IREX teacher exchange programs expand to Latin America and Africa
• Ambassador W. Robert Pearson becomes IREX's fourth president
• IREX opens its first full office in Africa, in Kigali, Rwanda