Interview with G. Wayne Clough

Smithsonian Institution's 12th Secretary discusses his new role, his distinguished career in education and his favorite artifact

(Cheryl Carlin)
smithsonian.com

On March 15, Smithsonian regents tapped G. Wayne Clough, a civil engineer and the president of Georgia Tech for 14 years, to be the Institution's 12th Secretary.

How does it feel to sit in a chair that so few have occupied? And you'll be sitting in a Castle.
I'll probably be running rather than sitting. It's exciting; it's an honor; and it's humbling. When I think about all those great people who have held this position, I realize what a responsibility I have on my hands. It all came home to me when I was in the Castle building's conference room and on the walls all around me were the portraits of the former secretaries. It felt like all their eyes were boring into me, demanding to know, is this guy going to live up to this thing?

Tell me a bit about your childhood. What are your influences?
I grew up in an idyllic small town in South Georgia named Douglas. My parents, Bessie and Daniel Clough, didn't have a lot of money. They both worked —they ran the ice and coal plant—so I was a latch-key kid. That allowed me to roam fairly far and wide in the woods and the swamps. A railroad ran right through the center of town and I would often jump on a train and ride it for a while. Douglas had a movie house that always showed a double feature on Saturday. I fell in love with movies as a boy, and to this day my wife and I love to go to movies. When electricity came to South Georgia, the ice and coal plant went out of business, and we moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I met my wife there in middle school.

Did your family ever get to Washington and visit the Smithsonian?
No, we didn't do a lot of vacations. My parents worked hard all their lives and saved their money, because they wanted to send their kids to college. They even spaced us out four years apart so they'd have enough money to pay tuition for each of us.

What's your favorite artifact?
With my background in the geosciences, I tend to be a gem and mineral guy, so I find the Hope Diamond fascinating. I was pleased to learn in reading about James Smithson that he had a similar love for minerals. But it's so difficult to pick just one thing, when there is so much to choose from. My wife, Anne, and I had a tour of the Treasures of American History at the Air and Space museum, and spent some time in the National Portrait Gallery. The building for the Portrait Gallery, the Reynolds Center, is remarkable. What a spectacular renovation!

You've written stories about your pets.
Anne and I have had pets all of our lives—six dogs and six cats. They have shaped our lives with each other and with our children, Eliza and Matthew. Each pet was special, and we dearly loved all of them. So I wrote a memoir about all of our pets for my wife—stories of how their lives were woven into our lives.

What's your research specialization at the moment?
These days I do a lot of policy work related to research and developing ideas for research, more than research itself. My background is geo-engineering, or geo-science, an inherently interdisciplinary field because you deal with what nature gives you. You do your best to mathematically quantify it all and characterize it by chemistry, or biology, or some other principles of science. So I'm accustomed to a world where things are not always defined precisely by a specific discipline. At Georgia Tech I've worked to get our institution engaged in what I call the great issues of the day. The great issues of the day typically are interdisciplinary. Take sustainability, for example. How are we going to continue to grow an economy in this world in a way that is sustainable so future generations can live on this planet in some semblance of what we have today? Another example is energy. Energy demand will grow by 50 percent by the year 2030, and there is nothing stopping it. The economies of China and India are continuing to roar. Clearly we're going to need every source of energy we've got, including carbon-based fuels—petroleum-based fuels as well as coal. We've got to figure out ways to use these fuels as energy sources that don't damage the planet. We've got to cut down on the greenhouse gases, and we've got to capture the carbon we produce. We have to do all those things, and that's an interdisciplinary problem.

And is that something you'll carry with you to the Smithsonian?
I hope. I will look for ways at the Smithsonian for us to be engaged in these great issues. That also translates into education. How do you educate young people so that they'll carry out these activities? How can young people compete in a world where they're going to be taking jobs ten years from now that don't exist today, using technology that doesn't exist today?

As president of Georgia Tech, you're credited with a paradigm shift, focusing on creative pursuits such as music, poetry and team sports. In fact, Georgia Tech experienced a 50 percent increase in engineering students who also played musical instruments. Do you envision such a paradigm shift for the Smithsonian Institution?
I think that the Smithsonian has huge assets and resources that can be used in different ways that can be shaped to address issues in a way not possible if everyone stays confined in one space. It's not a question of changing what those assets are; it's a question of looking at them in a different way.

Your new office overlooks the shuttered Arts and Industries building, and that building needs more than $170 million to renovate. Will the Smithsonian's infrastructure be a priority?
Yes, of course, and yet at the same time I do think, based on my experience as a civil engineer, that the press reports of the Smithsonian's infrastructure issues are overstated. There is no question the need is large; there is no question it is a problem; and there is no question, again speaking as a civil engineer, that it will take a good deal of time. One should not be overwhelmed by it. You need to develop a carefully reasoned plan and work it out with your stakeholders. You need to talk about how you'll address this problem issue by issue by issue, so that in three to four years you have tackled those problems you said you were going to tackle. The Arts and Industries building is a spectacularly beautiful building. I don't know quite what the ultimate outcome of the building will be for its use, but I think you'd have to think very carefully about what you would do with that building because it holds such a central position on the Mall.

The first day A&I building opened in 1881, it leaked.
I was a student at Georgia Tech, and when I first came back as president, they took me to an old building. With a horrified look, they pointed up at the roof and said, "Can you believe a technological university has a building that leaks right there?" I said, "It leaked right there when I was a student 35 years ago." So these problems are hard to solve sometimes. But I think the important thing is that, while we recognize the individual issues, challenges, and opportunities of each of the units, we also need to look at the integrating factors, the things they have in common, the things that bind them together. For example, I think that educational outreach is a binding theme for all of the entities at the Smithsonian. How can we use that theme to create some exciting new opportunities for the Smithsonian to reach into, for example K-12, or even to collaborate with universities and provide scholarship? So we really want to emphasize, I think, the scholarship, the knowledge creation, and the educational opportunities that are here at the Smithsonian.

The Washington Post says you face "daunting challenges." What will you do in your first 100 days?
Listen. Listening is a big part of it. I need to meet with people, to get out and talk to as many Smithsonian employees and stakeholders as possible. It certainly seems clear to me at this point that each of the entities within the Smithsonian is unique, and has a unique set of opportunities and a unique set of issues. So we need to clarify what the problems and opportunities are, but at the same time make early progress on those issues that are ripe to be solved.

The Institution's moniker is the "Nation's Attic," which implies a dusty storage space, or an homage to things past. What is your vision of the Institution's relevance in the 21st century?
There is no way this is an attic. This is an Institution with an amazing future. It's an Institution that has a huge amount of scholarship and knowledge discovery going on and excitement associated with it. I don't see an attic in any way coming close to describing this great Institution. So this is the last time you'll hear me use that phrase.

They say the job of Secretary is to "herd cats."
I do believe the Smithsonian is fortunate to have in place many dedicated and passionate employees who know their business, and it's not necessarily my job to come in and tell them how to run their business. What I want to do is to work with them to shape a common agenda for the Smithsonian for the future, and then I will rely on them to do their job within that agenda. I will expect them to operate at the highest level of business ethics. Those are the kinds of common things that I will ask everybody to do. But I do believe in providing expectations and delegating responsibility to people, and then having a process of accountability for meeting those expectations. It's too big of an institution for one person to "run it." It needs to operate well, based on having great people who know what they are doing and who are constantly creating new ideas that challenge anyone who sits in the position of secretary. The greatest Ph.D. students that I had were the ones that came to me with ideas that I had not thought of, and that makes it fun.

Georgia Tech grew during your tenure with campuses in France, Ireland, Singapore and Shanghai. Do you have any thoughts on expanding the Smithsonian's global influence?
Clearly the Smithsonian, with its collections and its research, has a great opportunity to have a positive impact on how the world sees our country. We already have Smithsonian operations in other countries, and the Panama station is a good example. The question is do we want to do more and if so how? Obviously money is in short supply. We have a lot of issues that face us internally that probably should receive first priority, but I do believe we should explore what our role should be internationally.

What will you miss most about Georgia Tech?
Obviously all the people—the friends and the wonderful folks who have worked so hard to make Georgia Tech a better place—particularly the students. It's just fantastic for a person of my generation to be around these talented young people. I hear so many negative things about the world and about our country from a lot of people, but when I am around these young people, I find nothing negative there. There is huge potential. I believe in hope, and I think these young people capture it for all of us, so I'm going to miss them.

We all read your joke in the press about a Smithsonian football team. We're wondering if we'll ever get a chance to trounce Georgia Tech's Yellow Jackets. What do you think?
Probably not in my lifetime, but it would be fun to try. Maybe we could all get out on the Mall for tryouts and see who's any good.

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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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