For the first time, a physician will take the helm at the Smithsonian Institution, a partially U.S. government-funded organization consisting of 19 museums, a zoo, and nine research centers. David Skorton, president of Cornell University since July 2006, will become the 13th secretary of the 168-year-old Smithsonian, the institution's Board of Regents announced today. In July 2015, he will replace the retiring G. Wayne Clough, an engineer who previously was the president of Georgia Institute of Technology.
Trained as a cardiologist, Skorton specialized in treating children and adults with congenital heart disorders and helped develop computer-assisted 3D imaging of the heart and its arteries. He also spent more than 20 years as a university president, first from 2003 to 2006 at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor for 26 years, and now at Cornell.
Shortly after Skorton came to Cornell, it had to weather the financial crisis of a seriously depleted endowment because of the recession. “He really carried Cornell through a tough patch,” says William Bemis III, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell. Skorton raised $5 billion during his tenure. He is also is credited with winning a stiff competition to build a tech campus in New York City. Cornell has now started building Cornell NYC Tech, a graduate school that blends technology training, on-the-job experience, and entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. Colleagues think that Cornell has served as a good training ground for the secretary-elect. Cornell is quite diversified, with state and private colleges, a medical school more than 200 miles from the main campus, and another campus in Qatar. He’s shown “he’s had the kind of ability to manage an entity with that kind of international and geographical spread,” says Smithsonian Regent Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
"David's ability to herd the cats at a place like Cornell, which is very balkanized, stands him in good stead at the Smithsonian," adds Warren Allmon, a paleontologist at Cornell. "He's got the skill set for juggling all the chain saws while they are running."
Skorton was hesitant to say what he plans to do once he moves to Washington, D.C., with his wife, Robin Davisson, a molecular physiologist at Cornell. He approves of the Smithsonian’s strategic plan, developed by Clough, emphasizing that it’s a dynamic plan. And he says he wants to make the rest of the world know more about the people behind the exhibits. He wants “more recognition and more chances for scientists to become part of the public discourse,” he says.
Even though Smithsonian regents chair John McCarter Jr. called Skorton “an individual steeped in science,” at the press conference Skorton emphasized that arts and humanities are high priorities for him and that he hopes to meld them more with science. “A life in medicine has taught me that we will not … meet our toughest challenges as a society through science alone.”