On His First Day on the Job, Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton Discusses the Past and the Future

The new Smithsonian leader says he wants to emphasize the arts and humanities at a time when they are being deemphasized nationally

David J. Skorton
Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton and his wife, Robin Davisson, greet Marie Dieng at the Institution's staff picnic on the National Mall. Skorton begins his tenure as the 13th Secretary on July 1. John Gibbons/Smithsonian

Former Cornell University President David J. Skorton had barely begun his first day on the job as the Smithsonian’s 13th Secretary when he spoke on the phone about his predecessor, his plans for the future, and what he hopes his legacy will be at the Institution.

Asked to look into a crystal ball and reflect on what he hoped his legacy would be, Skorton said it was premature. “I have been here for two hours and 41 minutes,” he said. “So far, except for a little mistake I made when signing into my email, I’ve done a heck of a job!”

Skorton, in addition to being a cardiologist and having held joint appointments in Cornell’s departments of medicine and pediatrics and in biomedical engineering, is also a musician, a life member on the Council on Foreign Relations, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, according to his Cornell profile.

Previously, he was president for three years at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor for 26 years. And his official biography notes that he has been an advocate for the arts and humanities, which is something he hopes to continue in his new role:

This question comes from the editor of Smithsonian magazine, Michael Caruso, who would like me to ask you this: How do you plan to spark innovation at the Smithsonian?

Innovation comes from the ideas of individual people, so I think in any organization, if you’re interested in innovating, you have to support and allow people to try out new ideas and take risks. The person who is best qualified to decide what new idea might make sense is someone who is an expert in the content of whatever problem is being considered. For example, when my predecessor Wayne Clough was Secretary, he thought it was important to—as he put it—democratize the Institution, to allow more people to enjoy and learn from the collections without necessarily having to come to the [National] Mall. His way to innovate was to put some of the collections, as much as possible, in digital form, so that anyone with an internet connection could enjoy and learn from the collection.

I’m going to spend the first portion of my time as Secretary walking around, learning things, listening to the people who actually have the expertise within the Institution—you might say the rank and file, the leaders of individual units—and find out what they think is necessary or desirable to better fulfill the mission of James Smithson’s original concept of the increase and diffusion of knowledge, and to see if I can be supportive of those ideas. So I want to focus on the individual with the idea.

Innovation in general, in big organizations, does not come top down. It comes bottom-up, and that’s what I’m going to emphasize.

What does Cornell University have in common with the Smithsonian? How is it different?

Many, many more similarities than dissimilarities.

Both are large organizations. Both are very decentralized organizations. The Smithsonian has 19 museums or similar units, and a Zoo, and nine research centers. Cornell has 14 colleges and schools. This decentralization implies that the leaders of those units and the professionals working in those units have a great deal of autonomy, and yet, they have to work together if we are going to achieve goals that are bigger than individual aspirations.

If I was here 20 years as Secretary, I would not know more than a few percent of what actually is happening at the Smithsonian. It was very, very true at Cornell as well. At both institutions, it’s important to respect the decentralization and the autonomy, while realizing that certain common goals can only be achieved if everyone pulls together. That may sound like a platitude, but those are the big similarities.

Another similarity is that both institutions fulfill something like Smithson’s vision of the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Both institutions increase scholarly activities, and those activities include big helpings of science, but also many things other than science: arts, the humanities, the social sciences And the diffusion part has to do with both institutions opening that knowledge up to the public, whether it is the unbelievable museums, or the Smithsonian libraries, or whether it’s the Cornell University library system.

In terms of dissimilarities, Cornell is a bigger organization. About $4 billion a year budget and 17,000 employees. But both organizations are very large.

The other dissimilarity is that Cornell, of course, offers formal degrees to undergraduate, graduate and professional students. The Smithsonian has MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) now. The Smithsonian actually offers a joint Ph.D. degree with Cornell University. It’s interesting that I was among the last to realize that the last year of my presidency. And in May, I was able to confer the first Ph.D. on a student at Cornell who got a Ph.D. in a joint Smithsonian-Cornell University graduate Ph.D. program.

I’m going to be focusing on moving the Smithsonian from an already iconic position even further forward. I do think partnerships of a variety of types are part of the Smithsonian’s history. They’ll be part of its future as well.

That ties in with this next question. Secretary Clough left his greatest legacy, arguably, with the push to digitize the Smithsonian’s collections. What do you hope will be your greatest legacy at the Smithsonian?

I’m going to talk first about Wayne Clough’s legacy. I think Wayne Clough began to move the Smithsonian more rapidly and more fully into the 21st century. Digitizing the collection is certainly an example of that; it’s not the only thing that he did. He also oversaw the beginning of the first comprehensive, national philanthropic campaign to support all the things that the Smithsonian could possibly do with more support.

He oversaw the development of a preliminary master plan for the south campus, so beginning to look forward to the eventual evolution of the campus to better serve the public. He began the process of considering a partnership with the London Legacy Development Corp. for what would be, if it comes to fruition, the first permanent footprint for the Smithsonian outside of the United States. Wayne himself was, and is, an innovator and helped the Smithsonian leadership see possibilities and realize them. I think he has a very, very distinguished and admirable legacy.

What my legacy will be—you’ll have to ask somebody 10 years after I finish. I hope to emphasize the arts. I think the arts are very, very important, as well as the social sciences, and the humanities. That doesn’t mean deemphasizing science, but I do want to put some emphasis on the arts.

I also want to put emphasis on innovation through the mechanism of supporting individual experts who have ideas within the organization itself.

Can you elaborate a little bit more on that emphasis on the arts that you just described?

I’m a lifelong scientist, a physician and a biomedical engineering researcher. I believe that the sciences are the stuff of which a lot of our innovation and changes in the national economy, and the local economy in the greater Washington area, are based.

Having said that, I think that to understand not only what it really means to be human, but to understand the complex problems that the world is facing right now, requires a full use of all of the techniques of understanding that we have at our disposal as humans. Those techniques of understanding include visual and performing arts, social sciences, understanding culture—whether it’s the American culture, or other cultures. I want to be sure that at a time where everything from local school districts to the federal government are investing less and less in the arts and humanities, I want to be sure that we emphasize that at the Smithsonian for one reason, and that is: It’s important and through one mechanism, the unbelievably talented people who work in the museums, and behind the scenes at the museums and archives, who really understand these fields and are well-recognized experts in them.

I want to make sure that we stay the course with emphasizing the arts and humanities at a time where, to some extent, they are being deemphasized nationally.

There seems to be more emphasis on STEM of late, than the humanities.

It’s not really a race or competition between arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). I think that all are important. I’d be the last person to not emphasize how important STEM is for the college student or the young person, elementary school student, earlier, later, coming to the Smithsonian. Of course they and their families are going to be thinking about vocations. About their futures. Everyone in the country, as everywhere in the world, is thinking about national economies and local and regional economies. So STEM is hugely important.

But the values that we bring to our lives—understanding, as I mentioned, the world and ourselves—really requires an appreciation of the arts and humanities. It’s not a matter of slowing down an emphasis on the STEM or playing catch-up. It’s a matter of just making sure that we keep our eye on the ball of all of the things that are required to understand what’s happening around us. That’s what I will try to support. This has been going on at the Smithsonian for a long time. It’s not a new idea that I’m bringing. I’m just going to hope to be an effective cheerleader and supporter of these already terrific efforts.

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