Cornell University President Dr. David Skorton will become the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian, the institution announced today. Skornton, a medical professor and cardiologist, will begin the post in June 2015, succeeding G. Wayne Clough, the controversial Smithsonian secretary who last year announced his retirement. Clough’s term will end at the close of this year.
Skorton will inherit a Smithsonian whose fundraising and attendance saw great gains under Clough, who also oversaw the ongoing initiative to digitize the institution’s holdings. But Clough’s tenure was also scarred by one of the Smithsonian’s greatest controversies—-the decision, made by Clough, to censor an artwork in the queer-themed exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” amid pressure from Christian groups.
Speaking to media today, Skorton praised his predecessor but also seemed to subtly address criticisms of Clough, an engineer and former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology. While science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are important, Skorton said, “we will not solve our toughest problems…through science alone.” Among his goals, Skorton said, is “working with the leaders of arts and culture in Washington to emphasize the importance of these disciplines to the public interest, touching the lives of Americans and beyond.”
A nine-member search committee recommended Skorton, who was elected to the secretary position yesterday by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. Shirley Ann Jackson, the board’s vice chair, praised Skorton’s leadership ability and fundraising prowess, as demonstrated by the billions he raised at Cornell (which remains saddled with more than $1 billion in debt). She, too, stressed that Skorton is a strong supporter of the arts. (Putting an even finer point on it, the Smithsonian’s Twitter feed pointed out that Skorton is a jazz musician who plays saxophone and flute.)
In the lead-up to Skorton’s appointment, the Smithsonian faces numerous important tasks: The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open next year, while funding pressures led the Smithsonian to announce recently that it had no plans to reopen the Arts and Industries Building following a long renovation. And following the collapse of plans to build an ambitious, seasonal “bubble” addition, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s director resigned last year, leaving that museum without a top leader for the time being.
Asked how he would change the Smithsonian, Skorton said he hadn’t developed specific plans. But he added, “I believe the American people and people around the world mainly see the museums, the galleries, and the National Zoo” but may not see “the people behind these institutions.”
“They can be thought leaders for the country,” Skorton said.
Skorton said that once he moves to D.C., he hopes to do some teaching and maintain his medical license, but that his cardiology practice would be limited. “I am good as a referral source if you want to find an active physician, though,” he said.
Photo courtesy the Smithsonian