Cornell president named new head of Smithsonian

Dr. David Skorton, 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy Cornell University Photography.

Dr. David Skorton, 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy Cornell University Photography.

WASHINGTON (AP) – A heart doctor and Ivy League university president who also plays the saxophone and flute was named the next leader of the Smithsonian Institution on Monday, combining his love of the arts and sciences at the world’s largest museum and research complex.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents selected Cornell University President Dr. David Skorton after a six-month search to replace Secretary Wayne Clough, who plans to retire at the end of the year. Skorton is set to start in July 2015 and board members are looking at options for filling the post in the interim.

The 64-year-old Skorton will be the first physician to lead the organization and its 13th secretary since 1846. For much of its history, the Smithsonian has been led by scientists. It is made up of 19 museums based primarily on the National Mall, the National Zoo and nine research facilities around the world.

Skorton called the move a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help integrate the arts and sciences.

“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. “With its unique convening power, I believe the Smithsonian should and will be even more a hub of global dialogue at the intersection of arts and humanities and sciences and culture.”

Skorton said he has visited the Smithsonian museums since he was a child but didn’t realize until more recently how much scientific research and research in the humanities was done behind the scenes.

His own research has focused on congenital heart disease, cardiac imaging and image processing, and Skorton has led Cornell since 2006. He previously served as president of the University of Iowa for three years, where he was a faculty member for 26.

Skorton said he started life planning to be a musician, still travels with his flute and has played in jazz concerts with Billy Joel and Wynton Marsalis at Cornell. But he joked he was never asked to join them on tour.

“As fate would have it, because of my lack of courage and lack of sufficient skills to make it as a professional musician … I went into the sciences,” he said.

At the Smithsonian, Skorton will be paid a salary of $795,000 – far more than the current secretary. The board set the salary based on comparisons with public universities, nonprofits, museums and cultural organizations, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. Clough’s current salary is $542,000.

The Smithsonian includes several of the world’s most popular museums that draw millions of visitors each year, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History. All offer free admission. The complex also is building a new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in late 2015 or early 2016.

John McCarter Jr., the new chairman of the Smithsonian board and former director of the Field Museum in Chicago, led the search. He said the board narrowed a diverse field of 200 candidates to about 20 highly qualified applicants. Some of the finalists were women, he said.

“Ultimately we just decided that David was the outstanding candidate,” he said, noting the board was seeking someone with vision, proven leadership, intellectual prowess and a passion for public service.

The complexity of the position is “extraordinary,” McCarter said, in terms of managing an institution that must maintain public support for funding from Congress while also raising large sums of money to fund programs. It’s a large institution with 6,000 employees, about 30 million visitors and research sites spread around the world.

Smithsonian officials highlighted Skorton’s support for industry-university partnerships and his fundraising skills, noting that he has raised more than $5 billion during his time at Cornell and completed a billion-dollar campaign at University of Iowa, a first in the state.

“David Skorton has demonstrated keen vision and skilled leadership as the president of two great American universities,” Supreme Court Chief Justice and Smithsonian Chancellor John Roberts said in a statement. “His character, experience and talents are an ideal match for the Smithsonian’s broad and dynamic range of interests, endeavors and aspirations.”

Clough, who was previously president of the Georgia Institute of Technology for 14 years, had strong support from the Smithsonian board, and several members have said they wished he would stay longer. He joined the Smithsonian after years of controversy over his predecessor’s spending and management. Clough’s tenure has been marked by an initiative to digitize artifacts and broaden the Smithsonian’s reach online.

Clough also drew accusations of censorship in 2010 when he ordered a video installation – depicting ants crawling on a crucifix – to be pulled out of the first major exhibit on gay themes in art history. Conservative critics complained about the video, and it drew threats over the Smithsonian’s funding from Republican leaders in Congress.

Skorton brings “the right combination” of skills and experiences to the Smithsonian, Clough said.

“He has a great empathy for people and students and particularly those who have less advantages than others,” Clough said. “I think you need that when you take this job. It really is about the American people.”


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Dr. David Skorton, 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy Cornell University Photography.

Dr. David Skorton, 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy Cornell University Photography.