David J. Skorton is Named the Smithsonian’s 13th Secretary

The president of Cornell University is chosen to head up the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, 9 research organizations and the Zoo

Dr. David J. Skorton
Dr. David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, is named as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Courtesy of Cornell University

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, a cardiologist and a jazz musician, was named the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution today. He will succeed current secretary G. Wayne Clough, who will retire at the end of this year.

Skorton, a specialist in congenital heart disease, will be the first medical doctor to lead the Smithsonian. He will take over as secretary in July 2015.

He is an "extraordinary fit for the Smithsonian," said John McCarter, former president of Chicago's Field Museum and the chairman of the nine-member secretarial search committee appointed by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. The Smithsonian said an acting secretary will be named to run the Institution during the six months between Clough's departure and Skorton's arrival.

The appointment was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an institution that is at the heart of the country's cultural, artistic, historical and scientific life," said Skorton, who is 64. He called for fresh thinking and new alliances to serve society through science, technology, humanities and the arts to develop the next generation of thought leaders.

In an article published in Scientific American in January, he encouraged the scientific community to learn to communicate more effectively and to engage in conversations with the public. "When we can't make headway against misinformation campaigns based on bogus science or political agendas, clearly something more than the robustness of our data is at play," he wrote. Scientists, he wrote, must step off the "surer, safer path" of publishing only in scientific journals and speaking only at specialty gatherings and "skip the jargon and tell your stories in language that the public can understand."

Skorton grew up in Los Angeles and recalls being immersed in Latin music and jazz. He plays the saxophone and flute and worked as a professional jazz and R&B musician in Chicago. He hosted a weekly radio program in Iowa City called "As Night Falls—Latin Jazz." He is married to Robin L. Davisson, who is the Andrew Dickson White Professor of Molecular Physiology at Cornell.

He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a medical degree at Northwestern University. After completing his medical residency and a fellowship in cardiology at UCLA in 1979, be became a pioneer in applying computer analysis and processing techniques to cardiac imaging. He has written two major texts and holds positions at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

In a statement, the Institution noted that Skorton had led an effort that raised more than $5 billion for Cornell. He also completed the first billion-dollar campaign at the University of Iowa, where he served as president from 2003 to 2006 and as a member of its faculty for 26 years. He is a member and past chair of the Business-Higher Education Forum, an independent, nonprofit organization of industry CEOs, leaders of colleges and universities and foundation executives. He is also a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Skorton has long promoted partnerships between academic organizations and industry. During his tenure at Cornell, the university partnered with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to win an international competition to develop a new type of graduate school that would combine technical skills with entrepreneurial experience. The school, Cornell NYC Tech, is in development on Roosevelt Island in New York City. 

UPDATE 3:45 p.m.: Smithsonian.com spoke briefly with Skorton about his appointment, his musical upbringing and his plans for getting to know the museums and getting behind the scenes and exploring all of the events and happenings.

Can you tell me what you’re most passionate about as you take on this job?

Number one, the fact that this is a fabulous interface with the public. On the mall, and across the country, and in the towns that have the affiliate museums, and around the world based on the Internet, it’s a way for them to almost palpably get their arms around these exhibits and this knowledge that’s here. And as a lifelong educator and physician, that interface of explaining things, learning things is really, really important to me. That’s one.

Number two, from a life in medicine, I’ve learned that the first thing a physician has to do—and I was a diagnostician, I’d like to think that I still am—is to be quiet and listen. Be quiet and observe. Be quiet and try to make sense of what I see. And this is a place that allows you to do that.

I’m very passionate about trying to express that chance to do any sort of education, and you guys do a lot of it. Maybe more widespread than any entity I’ve ever worked with.

So as "Number 13," you follow in the footsteps of only 12 other men. Besides Clough, there was the inimitable S. Dillon Ripley, Samuel Langley, and the first, Joseph Henry, who served for 32 years. How does that feel?

It feels intimidating and humbling. It’s a big honor. But I have, in other employment opportunities, followed distinguished leaders, and I’ve learned three lessons from doing that. One is not to be too proud of myself—that I got the opportunity—until I exploit it.

Number two is to go back—and I do this with a voracious appetite—and see what they wrote and thought through their writings and try to see the current world through some of the challenges that they were perceiving. It’s amazing how often similar themes come up again and again. The technology may be different, the times may be different, but their views and passions of leading the Smithsonian may have a lot to teach me.

And the third is the more immediate. I know Wayne Clough through the community of college presidents. He was a distinguished leader at Georgia Tech and other schools, and I had a chance to lead two schools. I want to delve deeply into not only what he’s done, but what his motivations were to do it, what his goals were. How did he achieve, and what has he not been able to achieve that he thinks ought to be achieved? What can I do to continue on paths that are obviously robust paths toward the future? What is he thinking now, after six or so years of leading this complex institution? I need to listen before I talk and learn a lot from him, and I’m very hungry to do that. Next time I come back here, I’m looking forward to having some alone time with him, and getting out my notebook.

So I understand you grew up immersed in Latin music. The Smithsonian is home to so many collections, from the Stradivari to the entire musical archive of the Moses Asch, as well as the performing arts—from the Smithsonian’s Jazz Masterworks Orchestra to the Folklife Festival on the Mall. What are you most hoping to enjoy in your new job?

Well first, let me tell you about that background real quick. So my dad was born in Western Russia, what is now Belarus, and came to the U.S. with a family in 1919 during the influenza pandemic. The ship ended up going to Cuba, and he lived in Cuba for a couple years, in Havana. When I was a kid, I was born in Milwaukee, but the family moved to Los Angeles when I was 9. I was born in St. Joseph's Hospital in Milwaukee.

In L.A., even though my dad was a Russian immigrant and we owned a family shoe store, we had a certain Latin music flavor in our home because of his time in Havana. Afro-Cuban music is one of the great influences of Latin jazz. I was surrounded at home by some of this. My dad spoke fluent Spanish; when you’re that age, you can soak up languages pretty easily. L.A. had a very diverse population then, and does now, and our clientele in the shoe store included a broad range of folks.

Later on, years later, I used to think about my dad, who passed away about 35 years ago now, and that sort of music. So when I had the opportunity to be a part of a team that did a jazz radio show at a public radio station at the University of Iowa, my specialty, my niche, was Latin jazz. And the show was called “As Night Falls.” I still have the collection.

OK, so fast forward to where we are now. Every day that I’ve looked at what the Smithsonian has collected and studied and shared, I’m more excited to find things that talk to me. I didn’t know about the jazz orchestra until very recently. I didn’t know about the record label. All of those things are very exciting to me. Last night we had a dinner, and today we had the press conference right in front of a Gibson Les Paul guitar. I cannot wait to learn more about what’s in the collection. And maybe even more importantly to me, personally, to hear excellent musicians make music with those instruments, and to go listen to the jazz orchestra. So I can’t wait to sit in the back, maybe unnoticed, and listen to that. And then later, meet the musicians and talk shop.

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