In 1958, President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev formally agreed to scholar exchanges, setting the stage for IREX's predecessor organization, the Inter-University Council on Travel Grants (IUCTG). Originally located at Columbia University, IUTCG moved to Indiana University in 1960.
In 1968, IREX was established as the International Research & Exchanges Board by leading US universities with support from the Ford Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and the US Department of State.
According to IREX's founding documents, a centralized organization was needed to "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."
Headquarters: IREX's original headquarters were in New York City. In 1986, IREX relocated to Princeton, NJ and had a close working relationship with Princeton University. By relocating to Washington, DC in 1992, IREX's primarily academic identity began to transform into a more development-focused entity. It also put IREX in close proximity to major US government funders and other development organizations.
Field offices: IREX opened its first field office in Moscow in 1989.
Date of incorporation/nonprofit status: For nearly 30 years, IREX operated under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). IREX became independently incorporated in 1991 and received its 501(c)3 nonprofit status in 1995.
Collapse of the Soviet Union: The end of the Soviet Union opened up a wide range of new programming possibilities (such as organizational strengthening) and saw an accompanying surge in funding to support democratic reforms. IREX was well-placed to build on its deep regional expertise and contacts.
Technology programming: In 1990, IREX began technology programming as a means to connect academic institutions to each other and soon after to help individual exchange alumni collaborate upon returning to their closed societies. In 1996, IREX was awarded USIA's Internet Access and Training Program (IATP), which eventually established over 1,000 free Internet access sites across the former Soviet Union and grew technology into a key technical area for IREX.
Civil society strengthening/first USAID award: IREX's first USAID award was the Institutional Partnerships Program (IPP) in 1994, a $23+ million effort that fostered nearly two dozen partnerships between Ukrainian and Russian organizations (NGOs and universities) and their American peers. IREX's largest program award up to that date, it established civil society strengthening as a core area.
Media development: In 1994, IREX launched the Baltic Economics and Business Journalism Program, an exchange project funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. This paved the way for IREX's second USAID award in 1995, ProMedia ($4 million), which strengthened independent media outlets in Central and Eastern Europe. USAID awarded IREX $35 million for ProMedia II in 1999, which established media as an independent division and technical area.
Going global: While we had limited engagement with China, Mongolia, Japan, and Turkey, IREX senior management made the strategic decision to "go global" in 2003. This repositioned IREX from a regionally focused NGO to an organization based on technical expertise. IREX won its first large non-Eurasian project, the Business Internship Program for Young Middle Eastern Women, in 2003. The institution expanded rapidly into new countries and regions over the next decade.
- Kristin Lord: 2014–present
- W. Robert Pearson: 2008–2014
- Mark G. Pomar: 2000–2008
- Daniel C. Matuszewski: 1992–2000
- Allen Kassof: 1968–1992