Former UI President David Skorton to lead Smithsonian

Skorton will be 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian starting July 2015

After spending more than a decade leading prominent academic institutions, former University of Iowa President David Skorton soon will be taking the reins of “one of our true national treasures.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents on Monday announced that Skorton, current president of Cornell University, will be its 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian starting July 2015. In that role, Skorton will lead the world’s largest museum and research complex – including its 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities.

In a statement, Skorton called the job change 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.”

He said he plans to work with the regents, Congress and leaders of the region’s art, science and cultural centers to emphasize the “critical importance of these disciplines.”

Skorton, 64, has been president of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., since July 2006. As a board-certified cardiologist, he also is a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College and in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the College of Engineering.

Before Cornell, from 2003 to 2006, Skorton was president of the University of Iowa, where he started his career in 1980 as an instructor. During his time in Iowa City, Skorton also served as an assistant professor, vice president for research, and vice president for external relations.

In an email sent Monday to his Cornell colleagues, Skorton said he’s honored to have the chance to help shape the Smithsonian’s cultural, artistic, historic, scientific and public engagement endeavors. But, Skorton said, his departure is not immediate.

“Although the transition is in the news today, our work on behalf of Cornell is not done,” he said. “I will continue all the duties and activities of my Cornell office through this and the next entire academic year.”

A nine-member search committee chose Skorton to fill the Smithsonian’s secretary role, which will be vacated by Wayne Clough at the end of 2014. Skorton, according to the committee’s leadership, won the job for his skills as a “well-rounded, accomplished leader.”

Skorton has called for “fresh thinking and new alliances to serve society through science, technology, humanities and the arts to develop the next generation of thought leaders,” according to Smithsonian officials.

Smithsonian Chancellor and Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. said Skorton stood out for his “keen vision and skilled leadership as the president of two great American universities.”

“His character, experience and talents are an ideal match for the Smithsonian’s broad and dynamic range of interests, endeavors and aspirations,” Roberts said in a statement.

Skoton is known for being a “strong proponent of industry-university partnerships,” according to the Smithsonian, and he proved to be an effective fundraiser, bringing in more than $5 billion during his tenure at Cornell and completing Iowa’s first billion-dollar campaign in the state.

Skorton has helped found medical clinics and societies, he’s published texts, articles and reviews, and he’s led or become a member of numerous institutes, associations, societies, boards and groups.

Smithsonian Board of Regents Chair John McCarter said Skorton has proved capable of leading complex organizations in his time at Iowa and Cornell.

“He is an accomplished research scientist and a strong advocate for the arts and humanities, which make him an extraordinary fit for the Smithsonian,” McCarter said. “I am confident David is the right leader for our future.”

The Smithsonian houses nearly 137 million objects, works of art and specimens, including more than 126 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History. More than 30 million visits to the museums and the National Zoo were tallied last year, and the websites saw more than 140 million unique visitors.The Smithsonian has about 6,500 employees and 6,300 volunteers, along with 185 affiliate museums in 43 states, Puerto Rico and Panama. Its total annual budget is $1.3 billion, including a federal appropriation of $805 million in the 2014 budget year.