Of Matters Small and Great

Lee White, May 2007

On March 26, 2007, Roger W. Sant, chair of the executive committee of the Smithsonian Institution's board of regents announced that Secretary Lawrence M. Small had resigned. Thus ended the controversy filled, seven-year reign of the 11th secretary of the institution. But now the question is, who will succeed Small as the secretary of the Smithsonian? Will it be a scientist? An anthropologist? Why not a historian?

Cristián Samper, a biologist, and the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, has been appointed acting secretary while the regents conduct a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. The regents' search committee, chaired by Alan G. Spoon, is being organized and the search process has begun. The new secretary, whoever it is, will, of course, have to work hard to dispel the fogs of controversy that had enveloped Small's stint at the Smithsonian.

Lawrence Small had survived a number of scandals and questionable business practices throughout his rocky tenure as secretary. In January 2004, Small pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation (of the Endangered Species Act, the Convention on Intentional Trade in Endangered Species, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) when it was revealed that he had purchased artifacts containing feathers of birds protected under the laws. Small was sentenced to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service.

In March 2006, the Smithsonian announced that it had entered into a 30-year, semi-exclusive contract with Showtime to create a digital on-demand television channel. Members of Congress and other stakeholders, including the National Coalition for History, raised issues concerning the contract's potential effects on public access to and use of the Smithsonian's collections, its confidential nature, and the process by which the Smithsonian negotiated the agreement.

Recently the conservative commentator and Fox News personality Oliver North engaged in a highly publicized spat with the Smithsonian Institution over filming part of a documentary at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The film's producers had requested the opportunity to film North speaking at the museum in front of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

The exclusive deal between the Smithsonian and Showtime Networks, Inc., allows the joint venture to vet any requests for filming at Smithsonian facilities that go beyond "incidental usage." The Smithsonian initially denied North's request, which provoked an angry public response by North. Apparently all of the ensuing bad publicity caused a reconsideration and the Smithsonian Institution announced in February that North would be allowed to film at the Udvar-Hazy Center after all. However, in March the Smithsonian reversed itself again, and sought to limit the use of the material that North would film and he was denied access to the facility, generating even more bad publicity.

The final blow was delivered by a series of articles published in March 2007 in the Washington Post exposing questionable expenses incurred by the Smithsonian secretary. Most damaging to Small was an allegation made to the Post by the former Smithsonian inspector general, Debra S. Ritt. She alleged that Small tried to steer her audit of Smithsonian financial dealings away from his own compensation, and the controversial Smithsonian Business Ventures operation, toward construction programs. The Post detailed lavish expenditures such as a $13,000 conference table, two $2,000 chairs, and $31,000 for upholstery during renovations of Small's office at the Smithsonian. Small also received over $1 million in reimbursement over a six-year period for use of his home for Smithsonian-related activities.

On Capitol Hill, the response to the revelations in the Washington Post articles prompted outrage and swift action. On March 22, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved an amendment to its budget resolution freezing the proposed $17 million increase in federal funding that the Smithsonian was slated to receive in fiscal year 2008. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the amendment, which ties the release of the funds to a series of operational changes at the Smithsonian. The key restriction was a requirement that no employee of the Smithsonian be compensated at a rate more than the $400,000 salary paid to the president of the United States. Small's annual compensation as secretary was over $900,000, or a half-million dollars more than the president makes.

The Smithsonian's board of regents then announced the appointment of an independent review committee to reevaluate the Smithsonian inspector general's audit of Secretary Small's compensation and expenses. Small was also called to testify in both the House and the Senate in April. Small chose resignation over facing the continuing firestorm over his leadership.

Almost immediately, speculation began as to whom, and what type, of person should be selected to succeed Small. Nine of the eleven secretaries of the Smithsonian had been scientists—physicist, naturalist, paleontologist, psychologist, archeologist, and two astrophysicists and ornithologists. The two nonscientists were I. Michael Heyman, a law professor and chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Small. But Small had been the first nonacademic to head the Smithsonian.

A Washington Post article on March 28, 2007, entitled "No Shortage of Names for Smithsonian Successor," mentioned a paleontologist, an anthropologist, two physicists, a botanist, an astronomer, and a biologist as possible candidates. Certainly these suggestions resonate with the Smithsonian's role as a premier research institution.

However, the Smithsonian is also a repository of history and culture. Among the institution's stellar attarctions are museums dedicated to American history, American Indian history, and a soon-to-be-built museum of African American history. Even the most visited museum in the world, the National Air and Space Museum, holds national treasures of aviation and space history.

The question that arises then is: Why not a historian to serve as the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian? We can certainly wonder whether the controversial deal with Showtime Television that restricts access to the Institution's holdings would have been consummated had a historian been at the helm of the Smithsonian. And, we can further speculate that the culture war fought over the exhibits surrounding the Enola Gay might have been better managed if a historian had been in charge. Surely, there is no dearth of qualified historians who possess both the academic and management background for the position. One would hope that the search committee will not now engage in a knee-jerk reaction and return to the "safe" choice of a natural scientist. In addition to its research function, the Smithsonian also has a charge to educate. Bringing someone with a historian's perspective to the Smithsonian would be a wise choice given the politically charged climate that has engulfed the organization in its recent past.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.