WASHINGTON – The Smithsonian Institution is returning to its academic roots after becoming embroiled in financial scandals under the leadership of a businessman. The museum complex announced Saturday it has picked Georgia Tech President G. Wayne Clough as its new chief.
Clough, an engineer by training, will become the 12th secretary of the world's largest museum and research complex on July 1, assuming control of an institution that has been in turmoil in the past year.
Smithsonian board Chairman Roger Sant promised Clough would usher in a new era.
"When you see this man in action, as you will, you will understand why he is renowned for his integrity, vision and leadership," Sant said.
Clough, 66, has served as president of Georgia Tech since 1994. He is credited with transforming the Atlanta school into a top 10 public university, boosting spending on research and raising nearly $1.5 billion.
"I know the Smithsonian has challenges," Clough said at a news conference in Washington. "We will surmount those challenges fairly quickly and move on."
Alan Spoon, a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and chairman of the search committee, said Clough offers new perspective on how to link the sciences with arts and humanities. He also praised Clough's record of cultivating new leadership in organizations.
"Wayne has more than once navigated rough waters and taken his organizations through them," Spoon said.
During Clough's tenure at Georgia Tech, the school was put on probation by the NCAA for the first time in school history for using 17 academically ineligible athletes in four sports.
The Smithsonian, which includes the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum, has much in common with a university, Clough said, noting it has a similar budget and staff size to that of Georgia Tech.
"Fortunately," he said with a laugh, "the Smithsonian does not yet have a football or basketball team."
The first 10 secretaries to lead the institution had academic backgrounds, most of them in the sciences.
The 11th, businessman Lawrence Small, resigned a year ago amid an investigation into his spending. Several top officials followed him out the door.
The institution also has been criticized for its executive compensation and accused of questionable business practices. The Smithsonian's business unit struck a controversial deal with Showtime Networks Inc. to form a joint TV venture.
Later, museum scientists clashed with administrators over political concerns on a climate-change exhibit, and the Smithsonian backtracked on a donation from the oil industry to fund an upcoming Ocean Hall.
Asked about those cases, Clough told The Associated Press that the Smithsonian should not shy away from controversial subjects and ultimately must "speak the truth" and guard its academic freedom.
Cristian Samper, a biologist who was director of the National Museum of Natural History, has been serving as acting secretary. In the past year, Samper, 42, began reforming the Smithsonian's business practices and executive travel policies with the Board of Regents.
Smithsonian officials said Samper and Clough were the only two candidates on the short list considered by the board Friday. Sant said the board ultimately favored "experience over youth." He suggested Samper, who will resume as museum director after Clough becomes secretary, would make a good candidate for the top post in the future.
Museum curators and researchers had complained Small was too focused on money rather than the educational mission of the Smithsonian, which receives 70 percent of its $1.1 billion annual budget from Congress. Small was to earn $915,698 last year in total compensation — more than double what he earned during his first year as secretary in 2000.
An audit last year by the Smithsonian's inspector general found that Small charged the institution more than $1.1 million for using his home for official functions. The housing expenses included $2,535 to clean a chandelier and $12,000 for service on his backyard swimming pool.
Meanwhile, as executive compensation grew under Small, the Smithsonian carried a hefty $2.5 billion backlog on facilities maintenance.
Clough will be paid $490,000 with no additional compensation or housing allowance — a pay cut from his compensation at Georgia Tech. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, his total compensation was $551,186, including $133,125 in deferred compensation.
Clough called the Smithsonian "a treasure for our country" and "a great integrator of knowledge" from different subject areas. He said it's difficult for him to walk by the natural history museum without going inside to see the rocks, gems and minerals.
Mark Allen, senior vice provost for research at Georgia Tech, said faculty members did not know in advance that Clough would leave.
"What he's recognized for in Georgia Tech is helping transform us from a good, regional, engineering university to a university with international recognition," Allen said. "We were very lucky to have him for as long as we did."