Eminent Domain

The Institution’s Regents include the Vice President, the Chief Justice and other national leaders

The Smithsonian Castle
The Smithsonian Castle iStock / OlegAlbinsky

Just about everybody has a boss. At the Smithsonian Institution, where the chief executive officer is known as the Secretary, the ultimate authority has been vested by law in its Board of Regents since the Institution's establishment 160 years ago.

There's obvious uniqueness to the Smithsonian. It was established by Congress in 1846 as a trust for the American people in response to a large bequest from an obscure British scientist named James Smithson. The Smithsonian, to be located in Washington, D.C., was not to be a part of any branch of the federal government; rather, it was to be guided by an independent Board of Regents, or trustees, composed of the chief justice of the United States, the vice president of the United States, three members of the U.S. Senate, three members of the U.S. House of Representatives and six private citizens. (Today, the number of citizens has increased to nine, seven of whom must come from different states and two from the District of Columbia.) Then as now, the Regents' composition is designed to show that the Smithsonian has both private- and public-sector elements and is linked to all branches of the federal government.

The chief justice and the vice president serve by virtue of their office. The senators and members of the House are appointed by the leadership in both chambers of Congress and serve terms that match their elected terms. Citizen members of the Board of Regents, who can serve two six-year terms, are nominated by the Board and appointed by joint resolutions of Congress that are signed into law by the president of the United States. The Regents elect their own chairman, who is known as the Chancellor of the Institution. Throughout Smithsonian history, the Regents have traditionally elected the chief justice to this position. By law, the Regents are not paid for their service, though they may be reimbursed for expenses they incur coming to meetings.

The Regents exercise their authority in four meetings each year. Three are dedicated to the full range of matters relating to the overall operational management of the Smithsonian—budgets, terms and conditions of philanthropic gifts, appointments to advisory boards, exhibitions and education programs, investment of the Institution's endowment, acceptance of new collections, commercial business activities, and the like. The fourth meeting is devoted to long-range planning. Much of the Regents' work is carried out between these meetings by the Regents' committees, including its Executive Committee, its Finance and Investment Committee, its Audit and Review Committee, its Nominating Committee, and its Committee on Compensation and Human Resources. In addition, the Regents often establish committees to tackle special challenges. Any significant initiative taken by the Smithsonian requires the support of the Board of Regents.

Perhaps the single most important action the Regents take is the appointment of a Secretary to head up the management of the Smithsonian Institution. Secretaries don't serve forever (there have been 11 since 1846), but the Board of Regents is perpetual and, time and again, has proved itself invaluable for the Institution's long-term vitality.

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