Reality check for new Smithsonian CEO

Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

There’s a new CEO at the Smithsonian Institution.

To the discredit of its governing board of regents, the Smithsonian has all too frequently been a topic for commentary.

Sometimes it was to discuss the managerial and accountability foibles of the past secretary of the Smithsonian, the highly compensated Larry Small.

Last year, for example, I indicated to The New York Times that the Regents had “turned a blind eye” to Small’s unacceptable practices because he was successful in raising lots of money.

Small’s interim successor, Cristian Samper, added his own categories of managerial faux pas, to put it mildly — the hiring of a new leader for the National Museum of the American Indian without involving most of the Museum’s advisory board, his misuse and disempowerment of the Smithsonian’s advisory committees, and the Smithsonian’s proclivity to spend money excessively and foolishly without much evidence of a second thought except for concerns about negative newspaper coverage.

Apparently, the same issues concerned some of the Regents who passed over Samper as a candidate for the job in favor of the president of Georgia Tech University, as noted by the excellent investigative reporters of the Washington Post, Jackie Trescott and Jim Grimaldi, who also have been monitoring and writing about the Smithsonian’s idiosyncratic shortcomings as teachable moments for nonprofit accountability. 

Interestingly, despite some Regents’ unease with his political and managerial missteps, Samper was the preferred choice of the chair of the board of regents, foundation executive Roger Sant.

Perhaps the next step, now that Small is gone and Samper has been leapfrogged, is to start replacing some of the board of regents members who turned a blind eye or, worse, approved the actions of the Smithsonian’s executive leadership these past few years.

Why in the world G. Wayne Clough would leave Georgia Tech to take the helm of the Smithsonian, given how much clean-up the job may require? 

Maybe Clough thinks it is easier to deal with Congress and the American public on Smithsonian controversies than to confront angry alumni about Tech’s performance in the Atlantic Coast Conference; Tech missed the NCAAs this year again.

He may want to rethink that position soon.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent of The Nonprofit Quarterly.  

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