Smithsonian Termed 'Endangered'; Board's Structure Questioned

Smithsonian Deputy Secretary Sheila P. Burke, left, and acting Secretary Cristián Samper with regent Patricia Stonesifer yesterday.
Smithsonian Deputy Secretary Sheila P. Burke, left, and acting Secretary Cristián Samper with regent Patricia Stonesifer yesterday. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 12, 2007

Members of a Senate oversight committee yesterday recommended a shake-up of the Smithsonian Institution, starting with its governing board, whose members were depicted as out of touch with the management of the 160-year-old museum complex.

Calling the Smithsonian "an endangered institution," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned whether the Board of Regents, which includes Vice President Cheney and Chief Justice John Roberts, is able to oversee the management of the sprawling collection of 18 museums, the National Zoo and a $1.1 billion budget.

"The time has come to examine whether there is a structure that will better serve this institution," said Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which summoned Smithsonian leaders to testify about what she called "serious issues" at the museum complex.

What worked in 1846, the year the Smithsonian was founded, isn't working well in 2007, Feinstein said during the hearing, called in the wake of the resignation of the institution's chief executive, Lawrence M. Small, last month. His departure came amid investigations into spending that an inspector general's report noted "might be considered lavish and extravagant." The regents retroactively approved some of those expenditures. Ranking Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah said Small had "lost track of the public perception of his assignment."

Testimony from the Government Accountability Office revealed that a backlog in maintenance had grown to $2.5 billion while the institution had ignored suggestions on how to fund repairs, and included criticism from the Smithsonian inspector general, who said the regents had been deliberately kept out of the loop about growing problems.

Feinstein obliquely raised questions about the work habits and spending of the Board of Regents, information that has not been released publicly by the institution, saying they had spent $20,000 for a dinner in September 2004, and met only 1 1/2 hours in January.

Roger Sant, a regent and chairman of the executive committee, said that the quarterly meeting in question had lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. "Nonetheless, your point is well taken," he said.

The catered dinner was held to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, according to Smithsonian records, with 130 guests, including members of Congress and donors. But Feinstein charged that it reflected a worrisome attitude.

"It's kind of 'we just do as we do,' and I think it's a problem . . . to have a dinner for regents that amounts to $20,000 following a board meeting," she said.

She also questioned whether the board is large enough and professional enough to oversee such a vast operation, which houses an estimated 137 million objects.

The 17-member board consists of the chief justice of the United States, the vice president, six members of Congress and nine other members. Cheney, said Bennett, had never attended a meeting, but Sant countered that Roberts had attended every full meeting and the executive committee sessions.

"But given their day jobs, I wonder if they can dedicate the time, attention and expertise that are so greatly needed at the Smithsonian at this time," Feinstein said. "Comparable museums, like the Met, for example, have five public officials that serve ex officio, but that is in addition to a robust board of 40 that include experts in museum management, fundraising and the law."

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