Smithsonian Board Not Worried About Endowment

A dwindling endowment and declining staff forced the Smithsonian Board of Regents to form a five-year strategic plan to sustain the historic institution.

Desperate for a new direction, the Smithsonian Board of Regents held their first public meeting on November 17 in the 162-year history of the board.

Secretary G Wayne Clough set the tone for the forum welcoming constituents, giving a brief overview of the Smithsonian history andencouraging the community to ask questions and voice their concerns.

Regents faced a 565-seat auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History which was nearly filled to capacity. The two-hour mid-day forum allotted 90 minutes for questions submitted by audience members and online viewers.

Board members were challenged instantaneously by anonymous comment cards that were filled out and submitted by attendees and viewers logged onto the pod-cast.

Board members were questioned about their decision to continue as members after previous Sec. Lawrence M. Small chosen by the board, resigned in March of 2007 due to reports of unethical practice and spending.

Chairman Roger W. Sant expressed that the board was in a difficult situation.

“We felt we had been a part of the problem,” Sant said. “We ought to be the ones to fix it. That’s why we’re all here.”

A plethora of questions continued as key questions were answered by the board regarding the institutions endowment, abandoned buildings, diversity among the board and the newly proposed strategic plan.

Clough responded to the abandonment of the second oldest building on the mall, the Arts and Industries building which has been closed for four years. Clough explained the difficulty with “structural infirmity” involving the rod iron trusts. The antique building has also suffered from corrosion due to a leaking roof.

“We need to have a rational plan for its use,” Clough said.

The board is currently in the process of conducting a “possibilities study” expected to be completed by January. Board members will then make suggestions to stakeholders about the use of the building.

When asked about the ethnic diversity of the Board members and their plans to diversify their board, Shirley Ann Jackson, chairwoman of the Governance and Nominating Committee, and an African American, responded, mentioning that part of the governance reform was to include “a specific criterion that relates to diversity and as we do look to uncover and recruit new regents we will keep this specific criteria in mind.”

Then the issue arose of the possibility of an admission fee for entrance to Smithsonian museums, suggested by an anonymous retired employee. The suggestion was quickly followed by boo’s from the audience.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., disagreed.

“As one member of the regents, I’m resistant to the idea,” Dodd said.

Congressman Sam Johnson also opposed admission, saying, “It’s your history, it belongs to you, and that’s why we don’t put a fee on it.”

A strategic planning committee met a week ago to begin forming a five-year plan for the Smithsonian Institution as the board strives to increase its fundraising base and declining workforce. Clough made it clear that the “process will be from the ground up not from the top down.”

The Smithsonian currently receives 65 percent of its $1 billion endowment from the federal government. The institution raised $135.6 million last year, but Clough said “they must be more self-reliant.”

Since June, the Smithsonian’s endowment has dropped 21 percent. But, Sant assured that the “investment committee at the Smithsonian is as good as any on the land.” The Board of Regents has set a one-year time line for the completion of their strategic plan.