Smithsonian’s New Secretary: ‘Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity’

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Visitors look at the Apollo 11 command module inside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

– Written with Mark Silva and updated March 11 at 12:35 pm EDT

David Skorton, president of Cornell University and a cardiologist, will serve as the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the board announced today.

This  will be the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian. The appointment was announced today at “The Castle” on the National Mall by John McCarter, chairman of the Board of Regents and chair of the search committee.

“Becoming a part of the Smithsonian is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an institution that is at the heart of the country’s cultural, artistic, historical and scientific life,” Skorton said in an issued statement.

Skorton, 64, has led Cornell since July 2006 and will take charge of the Smithsonian in July 2015. He had been president of the University of Iowa and a member of that faculty for 26 years.

“I’m not ready to retire,” Skorton said in an interview, calling the new post “hugely prestigious.’

He admires the “comprehensive aspect to the Smithsonian bringing together arts, sciences, and education, and the public interface,” he said. “Public service and accessibility have been the keynotes of my career.”

His favorite?

The Freer Sackler, because of his interest in Asian culture — though if he were leading a tour of Washington he would take children to see the Natural History, African Art, Air and Space and American Indian museums.

On what physicians bring to politics, finance and fields outside medicine: “Every day physicians confront conditions of uncertainty. You are trained to listen, look, and observe before acting. You know what a real emergency is, so you learn to prioritize.”

He also has read the entire Sherlock Holmes series because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician, he said, and Holmes was also medically trained, which is why he was such an astute detective.

“David Skorton has demonstrated keen vision and skilled leadership as the president of two great American universities,”  Chief Justice John Roberts, Smithsonian chancellor, said in a statement issued by the organization. “His character, experience and talents are an ideal match for the Smithsonian’s broad and dynamic range of interests, endeavors and aspirations. I look forward to working with David to increase the impact of an incomparable American institution across the spectrum of arts, sciences, education, and culture.”

“As a successful president of two universities, David has led complex organizations,” McCarter said in that statement. “He is an accomplished research scientist and a strong advocate for the arts and humanities, which make him an extraordinary fit for the Smithsonian. I am confident David is the right leader for our future, as we stress continuity and aspire to further expand the Smithsonian’s presence nationally, internationally and in Washington, D.C.”

The institution notes: “ Under Skorton’s leadership, Cornell has partnered with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to win an international competition to develop a new type of graduate school, Cornell NYC Tech, under development on Roosevelt Island in New York City. The graduate school, currently operating in space donated by Google Inc. in Manhattan, combines deep technical knowledge with real-world experience and an entrepreneurial culture.”

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