c.2014 New York Times News Service
The Smithsonian Institution announced Monday that it had chosen David J. Skorton, a doctor and university president with a reputation as an energetic fundraiser and forceful advocate of the arts and humanities, as its new leader.
Skorton, a practicing cardiologist who heads Cornell University, said he plans to assume the job of secretary of the Smithsonian, overseeing its 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research centers, on July 1, 2015. The current secretary, G. Wayne Clough, another former university president who has led the institution since 2008, plans to step down at the end of this year.
Calling the job of secretary “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Skorton, 64, said he hoped to “shine a light more clearly on people behind the scenes” at the Smithsonian.
He deferred laying out any other agenda or priorities, saying his first task is to learn about the institution.
“I still have a full-time job elsewhere,” he said.
Before becoming Cornell president in 2006, Skorton was on the faculty at the University of Iowa for 26 years and spent three years as its president. He has combined clinical work and research, treating teenagers and young adults with congenital heart disease and applying computer techniques to analyze images of the human heart. He said he hoped to build on the Smithsonian’s efforts to use technology to spread information and educational opportunities.
He nonetheless made a point at a news conference of emphasizing his devotion to the arts and humanities.
“A life in medicine has taught me that we will not solve our thorniest problems or meet our toughest challenges as a society through science alone,” he said.
Skorton also was on the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which issued a report in 2011 that called for more support of the humanities.
Skorton was selected out of a starting field of 200 candidates by a unanimous vote of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, said John W. McCarter Jr., chairman of the board and the search committee.
In introducing Skorton at the news conference, Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and vice chairwoman of the board and the search committee, said his “track record of fundraising is phenomenal,” noting that he raised $5 billion while at Cornell.
Such skills can be useful at the Smithsonian, which has a paid staff of 6,400 and has 6,200 volunteers. Federal financing covers about 65 percent of the institution’s expenditures, primarily operations and upkeep. In January, it received an $805 million appropriation for the 2014 fiscal year, more than last year, but less than the roughly $815 million it got in 2012. Skorton will be taking over an institution whose image has improved in recent years. In 2007, internal audits revealed that Lawrence M. Small, then the secretary, had routinely used Smithsonian funds on chauffeured cars, private jets, catered meals and other expensive personal perks.
Over the past six years, Clough, who was formerly president of Georgia Tech, has appointed 10 new leaders for Smithsonian museums and initiated a large-scale private fundraising campaign.
A professor in the medicine and pediatrics departments at Weill Cornell Medical College, and in the biomedical engineering department at the college of engineering, Skorton said his start date was set at 2015 so he could stay at Cornell through its 150th anniversary.
He said he now mostly sees patients as a consultant, although he doubted that he would be able to continue doing that once he arrived in Washington.
“I can be a referral source,” he said.
Robert Harrison, chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, said in a statement: “In selecting David, the Smithsonian has acknowledged what we at Cornell already know — that David is that rare leader who can guide a great institution to even greater achievement. They could not have made a better choice.”
A Smithsonian spokeswoman said she did not yet know who would be running the institution in the period between Clough’s departure and Skorton’s arrival.
Skorton said his interest in Asian art had made him a frequent visitor to the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, but his first trip to a Smithsonian museum was as a child to the Museum of Natural History.
“I remember being awed, impressed and excited and slightly scared by some mammal or other,” he said. “It definitely left an impression on me.”