Smithsonian Institution names Cornell president David J. Skorton as new leader


David Skorton speaks at a news conference at the Google offices on May 21, 2012. (Seth Wenig/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In the past year, the Smithsonian has struggled through a government shutdown, saw $41 million of its budget cut during sequestration and endured a public relations debacle over an ill-fated plan to build a “bubble” on the Mall atop the Hirshhorn Museum.

Into that mix comes David J. Skorton, the cardiologist and Cornell University president who was named Monday as secretary of the massive institution, a $1.3 billion collection of museums, research centers and a zoological park.

He has a record of noteworthy fundraising, having brought in more than $5 billion during his time at Cornell and $1 billion in a previous presidency at the University of Iowa. Cornell Tech, an applied sciences graduate school that he developed in partnership with New York City, is set to begin construction on Roosevelt Island this year.

Among the most closely watched tests of his leadership will be how Skorton, the first physician to lead the Smithsonian, navigates the inherent tensions between the institution’s artistic and scientific sides.

The thorniest national and international problems “cannot be solved by science alone,” Skorton said after Monday’s announcement. He called the Smithsonian uniquely positioned to be “a hub of global dialogue at the intersection of arts and humanities.”

Timeline: Secretaries of the Smithsonian

Skorton, 64, a cardiologist, will have to manage those ongoing and unwieldy parts of the job he’s stepping into in July 2015. “In this time of tight money, public-private partnerships are going to be an everyday endeavor of life,” Skorton said. “I’m imagining that it’s true here, too, but I need to learn more.”

These sorts of partnerships were appealing to the Smithsonian selection committee.

“He has demonstrated his commitment to technology and partnerships, and the ability to work collaboratively at Cornell,” said Steve Case, the AOL co-founder who serves as a Smithsonian regent and who sat on the nine-member search committee. “The Smithsonian needs to work collaboratively and to build partnerships,” he said, and “that willingness to embrace collaboration and innovation, combined with his strategic sense and fundraising track record, was important to me and many others.”

Initially surprised when he got a search-firm letter last year, Skorton said, “I knew from a quick look that there had never been a physician at the helm of Smithsonian.” And there’s almost certainly never been a jazz musician. “I thought, ‘Well, let’s see what they think of my past history and qualifications.’ ” Qualifications that not only included time spent performing in an R&B band in Chicago but also as a DJ for a Latin jazz program called “As Night Falls,” in Iowa.

“My opening line was, ‘As night falls over the River City and all of eastern Iowa, it’s time for jazz,’ ” Skorton recalled. s

“His character, experience and talents are an ideal match for the Smithsonian’s broad and dynamic range of interests, endeavors and aspirations,” said the Smithsonian’s chancellor, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in a statement.

In September, Secretary G. Wayne Clough, 72, unexpectedly announced that he would step down from the position this fall, initiating the six-month search for his successor.

Clough’s tenure has been marked by an institution-wide focus on innovation, a new branding campaign and digital outreach initiatives. The former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology has said that he considers the groundbreaking and continuing construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture to be the highlight of his tenure at the Smithsonian. That tenure also included the 2010 censorship controversy concerning the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition, which examined sexual difference in American portraiture.

Skorton’s selection marks a continuation of university leaders managing the massive organization. With research centers, art museums and a zoological park, the position is one of the most demanding and far-reaching nonprofit posts in the world.

“He’s been a very good president,” said Joseph A. Burns, a veteran astronomy and engineering professor who is dean of Cornell’s faculty. “He’s somebody who seems to reach out to large segments of the community and is well-respected, right down the line from the board of trustees through the faculty to the students and the staff. He seems to have satisfied all of his constituents.”

Still, his tenure at Cornell hasn’t been without challenges. At Ithaca, one of Skorton’s toughest problems has been reining in fraternity hazing. In February 2011, a sophomore died at a Cornell fraternity house in an episode said to have included “mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking.” A few months later, Skorton vowed to crack down on hazing. “We need to face the facts about the role of fraternities and sororities in hazing and high-risk drinking,” he wrote in the New York Times. “Pledging — and the humiliation and bullying that go with it — can no longer be the price of entry.”

But the problem persisted. In January 2013, the university withdrew recognition of a chapter of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity in response to a report of a hazing incident involving alcohol.

Clough called Skorton’s experience in academia an asset, and Smithsonian officials agreed. When he begins in 2015, Skorton’s salary will be $795,000, a figure comparable to his salary at Cornell, but nearly 50 percent higher than Clough’s $542,000 salary. Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said the salary increase is because of a change in the benchmark that the Smithsonian used for compensation. “The salary is commensurate with the size and scope of the Smithsonian and with the talent and résuméof Dr. Skorton,” she said in an e-mail.

While leadership at the Smithsonian sometimes involves tension between the sciences and the arts, Clough noted the difficulty of finding someone who can bridge both worlds.

“There’s no Leonardo da Vinci anymore,” Clough said. “You’re going to get one or the other to some extent. But there’s a convergence going on in the world. There’s a lot of synergy and overlap between arts and sciences and humanities and culture.”

At the news conference, Skorton was repeatedly cited as a champion of arts initiatives and part of the conversation about increasing funding for arts institutions. Writing in support of the National Endowment for the Humanities for The Washington Post in 2011, Skorton said: “Whatever your priority for the future of our country, the elimination — or even further deterioration — of the NEH will adversely impact those priorities. We cannot permit our federal investment in the humanities to disappear.”

Skorton said he does not yet have an overarching vision for the Smithsonian. “The only comment I would make is that I believe the American people and people around the world mainly see the museums, the galleries and National Zoo, and may not see the talented people standing behind these institutions.”

He said his first order of business was learning as much as he can from sitting leaders. After that, he said, his priority is moving to Washington.

Skorton still sees patients occasionally and hopes to keep an active medical license during his tenure. But he said he understands the demands and scope of the new job and that the Smithsonian will come first.

Although he said he may keep up some teaching, “you won’t see me very often seeing patients.”

Philip Kennicott and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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