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Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton to step down from top spot in June

David J. Skorton became secretary of the Smithsonian in July 2015. He announced his resignation Thursday after less than four years on the job. (Kate Patterson/for The Washington Post)

Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton, who took the institution’s largest fundraising campaign over the finish line, announced his resignation Thursday after only 3½ years on the job.

Skorton, 69, who is also a cardiologist, will become president of the Association of American Medical Colleges in June. His last day at the Smithsonian is June 15.

Although he described the job as a “dream experience,” Skorton said he missed working in health care. A former president of Cornell and Iowa universities, Skorton also served on the medical faculties there.

“The possibility of trying to contribute something to the national challenges of health care is important to me,” he said in an interview. “This means going back and combining two passions of mine — higher education and health care.”

Announced just days before the Christmas holiday, the move came as a surprise to many at the Smithsonian. Skorton still has a year and a half on his initial five-year agreement, and had signed on for a second, four-year term.

“It was not something I anticipated,” said David Rubenstein, chairman of the Smithsonian board of regents and co-founder of the Carlyle Group. “He’s done a very good job. He felt he had one more hurdle he wanted to tackle.” 

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, who credited Skorton with running a steady ship during a chaotic time. “I really enjoyed working with David. He challenged you all for the sake of wanting you to do better, to help shape our ideas.”

Skorton inherited the Smithsonian in a time of tumult: The institution had been hammered with budget cuts and mocked over an ill-fated plan to build a “bubble” structure atop the Hirshhorn Museum.

While Skorton’s predecessor, G. Wayne Clough, was criticized for censorship when he removed a work from “Hide/Seek,” a 2010 National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Skorton avoided major scandals. Clough’s predecessor, Lawrence Small, was forced to resign in 2007 after six years amid charges of excessive travel and personal expenses. The Smithsonian adopted safeguards to prevent future mismanagement.

Skorton’s signature accomplishment, said Steve Case, board vice chairman and former chief executive of AOL, was the 2017 Smithsonian Strategic Plan, which seeks to dramatically increase attendance through digital programs and community partnerships. 

“It’s reimagining what the Smithsonian is, and transforming it to be as relevant, as impactful as possible,” Case said. “That effort has been terrific over the last couple of years.”

Skorton, who earned $848,345 in 2017, entered the Smithsonian with a reputation as a prolific fundraiser. He led the institution to the completion of its first institution-wide fundraising campaign, raising $1.88 billion by 2017 and eclipsing the $1.5 billion goal set in 2011. He launched the almost $1 billion renovation of the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian’s most popular museum. That seven-year project includes more than $700 million in federal funds.

He also oversaw the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a $540 million building that is the institution’s newest museum. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, praised Skorton’s “fresh energy and vision” and said he was an eloquent ambassador for the institution.

“I don’t take individual credit for anything on that list,” Skorton said. “I’m proud of the partnerships.”

But many rank-and-file Smithsonian employees describe the secretary as aloof, remote and ineffective. According to several current and former mid-level staffers, Skorton recruited too many higher-education professionals who, like him, lack an understanding of museum culture. They say he is referred to as “the ghost” inside the Castle, a nod to his frequent absences.

Skorton’s short tenure has also been marked by the projects he turned down. He significantly scaled back a plan to open a stand-alone facility in a new cultural district in East London, a project that was announced before he took office. Instead, the Smithsonian agreed this year to partner with the Victoria and Albert Museum to present joint projects and exhibitions in its planned V&A East. 

Skorton also has resisted calls for new museums for American Latinos and women’s history, saying that an institution that has trouble maintaining its current facilities can’t afford to add new ones. He has supported the Smithsonian Latino Center, however, and last year introduced a similar project to spotlight women’s history. 

The Smithsonian Castle needs a major renovation

The secretary has brought diversity to the Smithsonian’s leadership. He hired Ellen Stofan and Anthea Hartig as the first female directors of the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History, respectively, and named Julissa Marenco as assistant secretary for communications and external affairs.

Stofan said Skorton will be remembered for his ambitious vision to change the Smithsonian’s relationship with the public.

“He really disliked the Smithsonian being called the nation’s attic,” she said. “His legacy will be taking the first steps to making the Smithsonian relevant to future generations, to move the Smithsonian to have a dialogue on a level that is higher than the discourse we see, and be part of a conversation to move the country forward in a positive way.”

Skorton’s is the second high-profile departure from the Smithsonian announced this month. Last week, Chief Operating Officer Albert Horvath tendered his resignation, effective Jan. 30. Horvath served as acting secretary for the first half of 2015, before Skorton’s arrival.

When Skorton was named to the role, supporters touted his diverse interests: Not only a doctor, he’s also a jazz flutist, a beekeeper, a taekwondo black belt and a Newfoundland dog enthusiast.

Rubenstein said the search for Skorton’s successor would begin soon and that the board would seek a similarly well-rounded leader. 

“We are looking for somebody of high intellectual quality, proven administrative capability and drive, with the ability to get along with people, to understand members of Congress and relate to donors,” Rubenstein said, adding that he expects to have a new secretary in place before Skorton leaves, to ease the transition. A new secretary will oversee celebrations of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary in 2021 and continue to implement the strategic plan. 

“There’s still work to be done there,” Rubenstein said. “The next secretary will have to take the baton and run the next laps.”