Clough Promises to Build Trust

Posted March 21, 2008 at 5:21pm

Lawmakers and Smithsonian officials are betting that a proven university fundraiser will be able to close the money gap at the Smithsonian Institution, the venerable research and museum complex whose budget is mostly funded by Congress.

G. Wayne Clough will take over as head of the Smithsonian Institution in July, leaving after a 14-year tenure as president of Georgia Tech.

When he makes the switch, the 66-year-old will get a crash course in dealing with a Congress that not only acts as the trustee of the whole organization, but also is heavily invested in the financial dealings of the institution.

In an interview last week, Clough said he intends to work closely with Members after a year of spending controversies and budget woes. He follows Secretary Lawrence Small, who resigned last year amid allegations that he misused funds to pay for extravagant trips and expenses.

“Clearly what we want to do with Congress is build strong lines of communication. We don’t want to surprise Congress,” he said, adding that he hopes to confer with Members on everything from fundraisers to a new strategic plan.

“We want to be able to show Congress when they make an investment in the Smithsonian of a dollar,” he said, “that dollar has a good chance of being matched.”

Ensuring that funding balance will perhaps be one of Clough’s biggest challenges — particularly for the upkeep of the 19 buildings that hold the government’s prized collections. Lawmakers want the institution to foot some of its $2.5 billion deferred maintenance bill, despite a long history of Congress paying for such necessities.

And Clough has the experience: He helped raise $1.5 billion in two capital campaigns at Georgia Tech.

But raising money for leaking roofs and crumbling walls is a challenge, he said. Most donors want to put their money and name on an exhibit, not on walls and ceilings.

“That’s a tough nut to crack,” he said. “I haven’t met anybody who wants to put their name on a sewer. That just doesn’t happen.”

But he has some ideas. Since the Smithsonian has had success in raising money for programs and exhibits, Clough said he may try to tie maintenance to a certain exhibit.

For example, if donors wanted to fund an exhibit, they may also pay to fix up the room where it would appear. Or they could make a 10 percent to 15 percent donation to the Smithsonian’s endowment, on top of the specific project they wish to fund.

“I’m from South Georgia, and we have a saying: There are different ways to skin the cat,” he said. “We have to really look and be creative in the way we present ideas to people, but the big thing is to listen to them.”

Of course, Clough will have to initiate all these ideas in tandem with Congress.

Technically, the Smithsonian is not a federal agency and doesn’t belong in any branch of government. But it’s also tied intrinsically to Congress, which created the institution as a trust in 1846 after British scientist James Smithson bequeathed his fortune to the United States for an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

The United States became the “trustee” — responsible for maintaining the mission of the institution for the benefit of the American people. Not only does Congress put six of its own Members on the Board of Regents, but it also appoints all nine of the citizen seats.

It also funds 70 percent of the Smithsonian’s annual $1 billion budget.

It hasn’t always been that way — the Smithsonian was originally able to keep itself afloat with Smithson’s money. But before long, the Smithsonian took on more government collections and opened more museums and research centers — which meant more funding from Congress. About 161 years after it was created, the Smithsonian’s collections now contain more than 136 million objects.

The recent scandal involving Small, however, forced Congress to re-examine its relationship with the museum. Members began questioning the structure and the finances of the institution.

Now the Smithsonian is in the middle of the biggest restructuring in its history.

Among dozens of other changes, the Board of Regents — and hence Members of Congress — will be more involved in day-to-day operations. Salaries also will be aligned so they are similar to other organizations.

Acting Secretary Cristián Samper has begun this process and hopes to have the transition mostly completed by the time Clough takes over. But still to be decided is how the institution and Congress will fund the multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog.

Samper, who also was considered for the top spot, has been hesitant to promise that the Smithsonian can raise private funds for that backlog (“The jury is still out on that,” he said.)

And while Clough also emphasizes the difficulty, he also has experience in raising capital funds and heading a large public university.

“If you look at Georgia Tech and what he’s been able to do with the university … he brings many of the talents we’re looking for,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a regent who sat on the search committee that chose Clough. “We brought a proven leader to the table.”

But Clough will be dealing with a different dynamic. The Smithsonian’s fundraising often feels the heavy hand of Congress.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Rules and Administration Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the institution, is pushing Smithsonian officials to raise money specifically for maintenance repairs by tying Congressional funds to private funds.

In the fiscal 2008 omnibus, Feinstein included a provision that matched every $30 million the Smithsonian raised for maintenance with $15 million from Congress, for up to $45 million of Congressional funding.

“She wanted to get something started that would challenge the Smithsonian,” Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman said. “In this current budget climate, it is unrealistic to anticipate that suddenly Congress would dramatically increase the budget.”

But while Clough is aware of the fundraising challenges, he said he came to the Smithsonian for its atmosphere of creativity and learning. For Clough, the Smithsonian’s financial difficulties are a challenge that needs to be overcome in order to focus on the broader future of the Smithsonian’s museums and research centers.

“The things that we face from this past year were trials and tribulations,” he said. “We need to deal with them and move on.”