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Smithsonian: Drafting a Future

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/16/AR200809160 3637.html?hpid=moreheadlines Drafting a Future By Jacqueline Trescott Washington
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 18, 2008

      Drafting a Future

      By Jacqueline Trescott
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Wednesday, September 17, 2008; C01

      During his getting-acquainted tour of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, the
      institution's new secretary, was stopped in his tracks by a group of
      researchers poring over pages of "endangered" languages.

      Clough sat there in the reading room of the National Anthropological
      Archives in Suitland, one of the many outposts of the Smithsonian empire,
      and heard how experts at the institution have been collecting languages
      since before the Smithsonian was the Smithsonian.

      This group handed him some cards. He undid the white ribbon and found slips
      with words from the Poosepatuck Nation. Clough recalled he was a little
      flabbergasted when Robert Leopold told him these were 19th-century copies
      of a set that Thomas Jefferson had written on a trip to Long Island in
      1791. And Clough (pronounced "cluff") said he was even more impressed when
      he visited a laboratory and saw that 8,000 pages of Cherokee had been
      digitized and shared with North Carolina tribe members who wanted to teach
      their children the language.

      Then there was the visit with the keepers of the worms, conducting a DNA
      project of 5.8 million specimens, in which Clough saw how materials stored
      for decades now play into the hot topic of biodiversity.

      This stop was one of many during his almost three months at the helm that
      showed what makes the Smithsonian unique -- it has all this stuff-- and
      invigorated his own thinking about how to connect the institution's past
      and its holdings to what is needed in the future.

      "My job is to put my arms around all of this" and define the 21st-century
      Smithsonian, said Clough, sitting in his shirt sleeves in a conference
      room, talking about those whirlwind first weeks.

      Clough, 66, a tall, slender son of the South, is a civil engineer who loves
      soil, earthquakes and all kinds of infrastructure. He relaxes at the
      theater, playing golf and hunting quail. He's had to move fast to learn
      what the vast enterprise of the Smithsonian means to the visitors, the
      curators, the local community and the major bankrollers, as well as
      Congress, approver of 70 percent of the institution's nearly $1 billion

      The stakes are high for a man who has had 39 successful years at
      educational institutions. And the stakes are perhaps higher for the
      Smithsonian, which has recently suffered from administrative mismanagement,
      congressional outrage and low staff morale.
      Making Repairs

      For more than 160 years, the Smithsonian had been a quiet powerhouse in
      Washington's cultural life and the larger museum world. But three years ago
      Congress started complaining about secrecy at the Smithsonian, including a
      contract to start a television programming network -- an arrangement that
      raised questions about access to the museum's materials. Then there were
      the ballooning salaries of executives. Lawrence M. Small, a banker who was
      appointed the 11th secretary in 2000, resigned in 2007 after investigations
      found he was using Smithsonian money for home repairs and luxuries. Further
      questions about unauthorized expenses and outside income led to more
      resignations. External reports criticized Smithsonian management and the
      upkeep of its visitor-heavy buildings. Last year, when Congress was pushing
      for a shake-up of the Smithsonian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called
      the museum "an endangered institution."

      As a result of the scandals, the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which
      includes the chief justice of the United States, began reforms of its

      The Smithsonian has deep bench strength, with a staff of nearly 6,000, many
      of whom are internationally recognized scientists and curators with
      one-of-a-kind specialties. An interim secretary worked to restore
      confidence as the board searched for a new leader. In March the regents
      selected Clough, a museum outsider but a man with strong science
      credentials, experience in leading complex institutions and a proven record
      for raising huge sums of money.

      Clough accepted a $490,000 annual salary, with no housing allowance,
      compared with the $551,186, and a home, that he received as president at
      Georgia Tech -- and far less than the former secretary's $916,000.

      He promised the regents five years, noting that most members of his family
      had worked into their 70s. Married for 46 years, Wayne and Anne Clough have
      chosen to live in the city. (Their two adult children, Eliza and Matthew,
      live in Atlanta.) The Clough home in Southwest is walking distance from the
      Mall, making it unlikely he'll need the car and driver that Small came
      under fire for using.

      At the top of Clough's priority list? Finding out what Congress wanted in
      the new leadership.

      "The first month the focus was on Hill visits," said Clough, who tallied 19
      courtesy calls and visited some offices twice. "I found a positive feeling
      about the Smithsonian, and they said we needed to do a better job of
      polishing the image, and want assurances that it is in good hands." He also
      got warnings that federal money is scarce, and Clough has pledged to bring
      in more research money and tackle the $2.5 billion needed for repairs.

      One legislator who has kept a sharp eye on the Smithsonian is Sen. Charles
      E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who said he was impressed by the new secretary in
      their brief meetings. However, Grassley said, "I told him regardless of the
      sincerity of his efforts to improve its reputation, there is a culture that
      exists that has to be overcome, the culture of secrecy."

      And Clough has begun to unveil his own visions for the Smithsonian. He
      wants the entire institution to be engaged in what he calls "the great
      issues of the day" and wants the Smithsonian to show people "how things tie
      together." He walked into a soil exhibit at the National Museum of Natural
      History and felt at home as a engineer, but said that "the question comes
      to me: What goes on with soil, what goes on and how does it relate to

      Clough talks broadly about "vanishing boundaries," in world terms and how
      to continue pushing the Smithsonian out of those buildings on the Mall, to
      educate not just millions of visitors but also those who stay home.

      And morale? Clough wants the staff to be a partner in this transition.
      Roger Sant, chairman of the Board of Regents, heard some fence-mending at
      one town-hall-style meeting. "He said he was very proud of their work, and
      proud to be a part of it," Sant said. "There is a growing sense of pride
      that we are back on track."

      Clough concedes this is all tricky: "There is always a tension in creative
      institutions, and the tension exists because things change so fast. There
      is relevance in what we do, and we should not fear, for example,
      digitization. The curator wants to hold things tight. But with digitization
      and public access, instead of one person you have 6 million with this
      information. But there is always a role for the expert and the curator. We
      want the Smithsonian to be far ahead of the changes."

      He wants to get people as excited about the Smithsonian as he is right now.

      Making Waves?

      His friends from his 14 years at Georgia Tech say don't believe his
      self-described cover of an introverted engineer.

      "Wayne Clough can speak to any number of groups -- parents, students,
      donors, legislators, football boosters. He always speaks directly to them,
      never above their head, or below their station," said William J. Todd,
      president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition. He's also chair of Tech's alumni
      association and a member of the capital campaign steering committee, and
      has spent hours with Clough on the golf course and around the conference

      Gary Schuster, the acting president at Tech, said people like working with
      Clough even if they disagree with him. He remembers Clough's approach to
      changing a bioengineering curriculum: "He said, 'You have the wrong plan.
      You have got to think about the future. You have got to be bolder.' "
      Clough suggested an interdisciplinary method, which became the hallmark of
      a number of curriculum revisions, Shuster said.

      To further prepare the engineering students for a changing world, Clough
      wanted more applicants who demonstrated cross-disciplinary strengths:
      instrumentalists, team athletes and singers. This is the kind of planning
      that got him included in "The World Is Flat," the best-selling look at
      globalization by Thomas L. Friedman. "He is producing not just more
      engineers but more of the right kind of engineers," wrote Friedman. Clough
      joked that the tactic created the need for more space for chamber ensembles
      and glee clubs at, of all places, a ranked engineering school.

      Amid Clough's successes there was also controversy. His critics say he was
      on the wrong side of a First Amendment case while president at Tech.

      Two female students, both activists with the College Republicans group,
      complained to campus authorities that their speech was restricted and they
      were the subjects of racial slurs, death threats and rape threats because
      of their views. "We were targeted simply because our ideas did not conform
      to the Institute's strictly enforced orthodoxy," Orit Sklar said in an

      Ruth Malhotra met with Clough in November 2005 and recalled in an e-mail
      that he "Clough repeatedly expressed frustration with my activities, . . .
      defended Georgia Tech's policies and programming, asked me to go to
      mediation with other organizations and warned me against future expressive
      activity." Her activity included displaying quotes from "The Vagina
      Monologues," a well-known play that was performed on campus, as a way of
      protesting the show. She was ordered to take them down.

      The students won their 2006 lawsuit, which forced the university to make
      major changes in its speech policies.

      Anne D. Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni,
      a nonpartisan group that monitors academic freedom issues on college
      campuses, said: "The case raised some fundamental issues about the state of
      intellectual diversity. It did look like the president was looking the
      other way."

      Anu Parvatiyar, the president emerita of the student body, said the
      majority of students didn't agree with the lawsuit. "Not many students felt
      oppressed or didn't feel their views weren't being heard," she said.

      Clough declined to talk about the lawsuit.
      Making Strides

      Two areas Clough focused on at Georgia Tech were retention of freshmen and
      recruitment of African American students.

      John "Chip" Akridge, a Washington developer and Georgia Tech alumnus, met
      Clough when he became the college's president and found a common goal:
      building the undergraduate experience. "The school came from an old
      tradition: 'Freshmen, look at the man on your left, the man on your right.
      Only one will be here at the end of the year.' It was draconian and hard to
      get rid of," said Akridge. "So Wayne instituted a monitoring system that
      identified those who were in trouble very early. With the faculty, it took
      persuasion, finesse and long talks behind closed doors."

      Parvatiyar was a beneficiary of those improvements. Among Clough's
      accomplishments, she cited helping students with family income of less than
      $30,000 earn their degree debt-free, giving students input into what
      courses were taught and improving distribution of football tickets. "It is
      extremely rare for the president to be revered by students," said
      Parvatiyar, who earns her biomedical engineering degree in December.

      Clough thought the campus needed more diversity and reached out to Rep.
      John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose district includes Tech. "Over the years he
      developed a program where he brought talented black undergraduate students
      on the campus to get them interested in the graduate sciences," said Lewis.
      Tech now has one of the best records in graduating African American

      Clough's time at the university also demonstrated how he works with a
      municipality, not just an institution.

      When the school expanded its campus, it moved across an interstate into an
      old Atlanta neighborhood that was on the decline. "It was rather a bold
      move to cross that great divide of the interstate," said Susan Mendheim,
      president of the Midtown Alliance, a neighborhood group. "From Day One he
      included the community in the planning process. This was such a welcomed
      and unusual concept."

      After a big football victory, the students carried a metal goal post to the
      large front yard of the president's house, about a mile away. They started
      cutting it up, and the towering, white-haired man with a close-clipped
      beard got them some hacksaws and ordered pizzas and Cokes.

      Football could be a headache for any president, win or lose. In 2007,
      Clough fired Chan Gailey, now the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City
      Chiefs, days before the Yellow Jackets headed to a bowl game.

      The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote at the time that the school's
      officials wanted someone who "energized and excited" the fans -- not just
      someone who had a winning record for six seasons.
      Making His Way

      Clough grew up in Douglas, Ga., a small town of tobacco farms where his
      parents, Bessie and Daniel, had an ice and coal plant. Clough lived there
      until the seventh grade, loving the outdoors, always the child to build the
      fort or dam. The family moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., where he met his
      wife-to-be during high school, and he returned to Georgia -- to Georgia
      Tech -- as an out-of-state student. Shortly after graduation, he worked as
      a surveyor on the flood walls around Morgan City, La. (They stood up to
      Hurricane Gustav.) He later earned his PhD at the University of California
      at Berkeley.

      The classroom became his home. He rose through the ranks of higher
      education, teaching at Duke and Stanford, then teaching and moving into
      administration at Virginia Tech and as provost at the University of
      Washington. He became president of Georgia Tech in 1994. He left with a
      record of raising $1.5 billion in two capital campaigns. He had been
      thinking about how to finish up his career when the Smithsonian recruiters
      came hunting.

      While touring the Smithsonian, Clough has shown that same personal approach
      that people back in Georgia admired: very hands-on. At the airplane
      restoration facility in Suitland, he walked into an area where the workers
      were wearing masks and sanding. "He got right in there and climbed over
      barriers," said Gen. John Dailey, director of the National Air and Space
      Museum. "And he shook hands with mechanics who had grease all over them."

      The presence of an engineer at the Smithsonian's helm is perhaps fitting;
      at the top of almost everyone's list of the institution's problems are its
      crumbling buildings. In all, there are 18 museums and one on the drawing
      board, a huge zoo and nine research centers. And the Smithsonian has dozens
      of other buildings that are not open to the public.

      Estimates have put the repairs needed at the Smithsonian buildings at $2.5
      billion. Still, Clough said, "It wasn't nearly as bad as I had been led to
      believe." At Georgia Tech he helped raise millions from private sources and
      debt financing. "The campus looks brand new with green space, more
      transportation. It was all done under his watch," said Hubert Harris, the
      chairman of the school's board.

      In his conference room in the Castle building, there's a view of the Arts
      and Industries Building, a national landmark shuttered for four years.
      "That is inexcusable," he said, describing an afternoon when he sat outside
      and watched people reading the sign that tells what's inside and going up
      the steps to find the door locked. "I think it is a shame. And it is up to
      us to get it opened." With so many organizational challenges in front of
      him, Clough has taken care to institute one personal change, closeting the
      ties with the garish gold color of Tech -- no more Yellow Jackets buzzing
      around. On a recent morning, his tie was a colorful design with a flock of
      birds -- more the Smithsonian way.
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