Cornell president named new head of Smithsonian

03.11.14 | Bob Price

A heart doctor and Ivy League university president who also plays the saxophone and flute was named the next leader of the Smithsonian Institution on Monday, combining his love of the arts and sciences at the world's largest museum and research complex.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents selected Cornell University President Dr. David Skorton after a six-month search to replace Secretary Wayne Clough, who plans to retire at the end of the year. Skorton is set to start in July 2015 and board members are looking at options for filling the post in the interim.

The 64-year-old Skorton will be the first physician to lead the organization and its 13th secretary since 1846. For much of its history, the Smithsonian has been led by scientists. It is made up of 19 museums based primarily on the National Mall, the National Zoo and nine research facilities around the world.

Skorton called the move a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help integrate the arts and sciences.

"A life in medicine has taught me that we will not solve our thorniest problems or meet our toughest challenges as a society through science alone," he said. "With its unique convening power, I believe the Smithsonian should and will be even more a hub of global dialogue at the intersection of arts and humanities and sciences and culture."

Skorton said he has visited the Smithsonian museums since he was a child but didn't realize until more recently how much scientific research and research in the humanities was done behind the scenes.

His own research has focused on congenital heart disease, cardiac imaging and image processing, and Skorton has led Cornell since 2006. He previously served as president of the University of Iowa for three years, where he was a faculty member for 26.

Skorton said he started life planning to be a musician, still travels with his flute and has played in jazz concerts with Billy Joel and Wynton Marsalis at Cornell. But he joked he was never asked to join them on tour.

"As fate would have it, because of my lack of courage and lack of sufficient skills to make it as a professional musician ... I went into the sciences," he said.

At the Smithsonian, Skorton will be paid a salary of $795,000 - far more than the current secretary. The board set the salary based on comparisons with public universities, nonprofits, museums and cultural organizations, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. Clough's current salary is $542,000.

The Smithsonian includes several of the world's most popular museums that draw millions of visitors each year, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History. All offer free admission. The complex also is building a new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in late 2015 or early 2016.