Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Let's Get Small

(Dated ‘70s reference – sorry…).

So Lawrence Small resigned last week as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, as noted here by the New York Times. Also, a Times editorial today on Small notes the following…

…No one disputes that (the Smithsonian) is an unwieldy institution — an amorphous amalgam of arts and sciences, research and entertainment. Because it receives most of its money from taxpayers, the Smithsonian needs a leader who can be an advocate to the public and to Congress. Mr. Small has been ineffective in both roles.

The Smithsonian needs a leader who understands and can balance the needs of its many separate museums and entities. As Mr. Small leaves, a new report says the Smithsonian’s eight art museums are drastically underfinanced in comparison with its history and science museums.
As noted here, Small was appointed in September 1999 by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, which, as today’s Times editorial notes, is overweighted with honorary positions (including Dick Cheney and Supreme Court Chief Justice Hangin’ Judge J.R.), breaking a 150-year tradition of hiring a scientist or someone rooted in academia (Small came from Fannie Mae, which has its own set of issues to be sure).

What really was huge in the Small case, though (sorry: -), were the expenses he incurred on the job, as well as his exorbitant compensation, as noted here, including these items…

According to a spokesperson of Smithsonian, Small had a taxable income of $915,768 this year. According to news reports, he allegedly drew $885,000 and an alleged additional $2 million in expenses in 2006. The expenses are said to include $160,000 for office renovations, $273,000 for housekeeping and $12,000 to maintain his swimming pool. He is also reported to have chartered a plane to take him to San Antonio, costing $14,509, which, if true would not have had authorization.
And it’s not as if Small hadn’t run into trouble before. He pleaded guilty to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 2005 (as noted here, halfway down the right column – not sure how much blame lies with Small versus the agent who sold him and his wife the artifacts, though).

Also, Small entered into a 30-year (!) agreement with the Showtime cable TV network without seeking Congressional approval, as noted here. There’s a lot to this story I’ll admit, and I know that fundraising in general is a thankless task, which probably made Small go for this deal when he shouldn’t have, but at the very least, he should have let Congress know what was going on first.

In addition to making the excellent observation that the Smithsonian Board of Regents should not automatically assume that a person from the corporate world would be better to serve as secretary than someone established in a non-profit setting, today’s Times editorial provides two other recommendations for hiring Small’s successor.

I would add a fourth recommendation, given Small’s actions; in addition to approval from the Board of Regents, the Smithsonian’s next Secretary should be confirmed by an up-and-down vote of the U.S. House of Representatives. It will drag out the process longer, but it would not leave the care of this precious national resource in the hands of someone appointed exclusively by the Board of Regents, a mix of both earnest individuals and political hacks taking up space.


profmarcus said...

unfortunately, i'm old enough to remember one of steve martin's earliest and funniest routines... < sigh >

doomsy said...

So am I...< double sigh >