New Smithsonian leader may have outsider’s edge in leading institution into the future


WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 10, 2014: Smithsonian names David Skorton, left, as its new director. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Last December, then-New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg transferred 12 acres of city-owned land on Roosevelt Island to Cornell Tech, a graduate-level offshoot of Cornell University. This enormously expensive land was the brass ring in a competition that pitted some of the nation’s top universities against one another in the hope of being chosen to create a new technology center in the heart of the nation’s cultural capital. Cornell University President David J. Skorton, whose appointment as the next secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was announced Monday, led his university’s bid for the project, promising an investment of billions of dollars over decades in what is billed as a futuristic reinvention of higher education.

Such success seems to prove many things: organizational ability, political savvy, fundraising prowess and institutional vision. If nothing else, Cornell Tech may attract to the larger Cornell orbit the entrepreneurial leaders who will write big checks to the university 10 or 20 years in the future. It is also part of Bloomberg’s mayoral legacy, and Bloomberg’s benediction is a boon sought by everyone in the fundraising world. He may no longer be mayor, but he is still a billionaire many times over.

At the news conference Monday, Smithsonian officials and Skorton took pains to address the issue of the humanities, which are struggling to find a place for themselves in the future represented by projects such as Cornell Tech. In today’s academic world, words like “vision” are essentially code for fundraising skills. Visionaries suggest ideas that appeal to the super-wealthy, who then make them come true. Often, as in the case of Cornell Tech, these ideas are part of a feedback loop that also involves money. New research and technology centers might do wonders for science, but they also have the potential to do wonders for the bottom line.

By all accounts, Skorton is well-liked at Cornell and was well-liked and respected in his previous job as president of the University of Iowa. For obvious reasons, he demurred when asked specific questions about what his priorities will be in July 2015, when he takes over from outgoing Secretary G. Wayne Clough, who is retiring this fall. But his tenure at Cornell suggests he was unafraid of staking out controversial positions on issues such as gun control and immigration reform, and he said many of the right things about the ballooning cost of a college education and its impact on the lives of students for decades after they graduate.

It’s easier to be courageous about these things in a university setting than it will be as secretary of the Smithsonian. But perhaps he will bring some of that civic-mindedness to a bully pulpit that has been mostly silent for years on anything remotely controversial.

It was also pointed at the news conference out that Skorton is a musician, proficient in jazz on the saxophone and flute. It’s a curious sign of the times that this seems so reassuring. What matters, however, is not whether he is a musician, but whether he believes music is essential in the same way that science and technology are essential. Even fine amateur musicians might share the broad cultural condescension to art and music when it comes to setting institutional priorities.

Skorton arrives at the Smithsonian an outsider. Again, it’s hard know whether this will be an advantage or not. As an outsider, it may be easier for him to clean house in the upper ranks of the Smithsonian’s leadership, which has proven consistently uninspired. His predecessor came to the Smithsonian from Georgia Tech, proved himself a diligent fundraiser, yet failed to stand up for institutional values when pressured by conservatives to censor a 2010 National Portrait Gallery exhibition that included gay and lesbian themes.

Cornell has a longer and more robust institutional history as a steward for the arts, sciences and humanities than Georgia Tech. That much, at least, is encouraging. But one won’t know Skorton’s values until they are tested in the fiery furnace of Washington congressional politics.

There’s little doubt that Skorton is more than capable of dealing with the Smithsonian’s economic and organizational needs — a decaying campus of buildings among them — and he arrives with no major red flags when it comes to personality or past accomplishment as a scholar. There’s also reason to hope that he will prove a more inspiring leader than the egregiously imperial Lawrence M. Small, who served from 2000 to 2007 and resigned after revelations of excessive and unauthorized expenses, and Clough, who inspired donors more than the Smithsonian’s scholars and staff. Skorton has about him a sense of being energetic and effective, which may reanimate the often-beleaguered organization.

The scholarship for which Skorton is most often cited was done in the 1980s and early 1990s, but he continues to practice medicine, which means he is connected to life-and-death issues and perhaps sympathetic to the large role mortality plays in the creation of culture. As one longtime Smithsonian scholar put it, as a cardiologist, Skorton “is trained to listen also to institutional heartbeats.”

Which means we have the luxury of hoping that he might be capable of confronting the even larger cultural challenges the Smithsonian faces: Can it stay true to an identity of serious scholarship and popular educational outreach at the same time? Can it take a leadership role in setting the nation’s cultural and scientific agenda, including on controversial issues such as climate change and the revision of our historical master narratives? And can it play a role in salvaging the humanities from their current slump?

The last of these is essential. The humanities suffer from a crisis of morale and a self-inflicted crisis of insularity and sometimes trivial scholarly agendas. But the larger problem is one of values. We are tending to a society ever more determined by analytics and market forces. We are spied on by our government, quantified by credit card companies, profiled by our social networks, parsed by polls and subject to endless batteries of standardized tests from our first to our last encounter with educational institutions. Very likely, perhaps within the years of Skorton’s tenure as secretary, every last keystroke and motion we make as employees will be subject to strict analytical scrutiny for efficiency.

Somewhere, in this world we are fashioning, there must be a place for forces of resistance, things that cannot be quantified, among them art, music, poetry and an immersion in history and literature. These things will never pay for themselves, and never make headlines like a new multibillion-dollar tech center.

Technology is the handmaiden of this transformation of American culture. It isn’t to be feared reflexively, but its dehumanizing forces must be understood and confronted. As one of the oldest and most respected American organizations to embrace both science and the humanities, the Smithsonian is perfectly positioned to play referee when these forces come into conflict.

There is hope that Skorton might understand this more deeply than the previous men — all men — who have held this post. But it will take much more than rhetoric and symbolic deference to the wonders of art. It will mean empowering the leaders of the Smithsonian’s museums and cultural institutions to think as ambitiously as anyone in the technology business. And it will require a mixture of courage, diplomacy and moral steadfastness not seen in the Castle for a very long time.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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