- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the closed meetings of the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents. Less than a month after the Smithsonian's founding, the New York Herald made note of the regents' decision to close their meeting:
According to a story on Sept. 9, 1846:
"Before they organized, we congratulated ourselves that facilities would be afforded to those connected to the press to note the proceedings; but in this we were disappointed. There were merely chairs provided for the regents. Vice President Dallas politely informed us that there was a division of opinion as to whether it was proper for those not connected with the board to remain, and we accordingly withdrew until the question should be determined.
"Mr. Seaton, with the kind heartedness for which he is distinguished, took an interest in our behalf. However, the door was shut, and none of the public admitted. General Scott and Senator Bagby and other public men were in the passage, but Mr. McPeak, the janitor, was not at liberty to invite them to enter."
The Washington Star was more strident in its Jan. 18, 1855, "Washington News and Gossip" column:
"The imprudence of the Board of Regents, to call it by no harsher name, rendered it, in the opinion of the public at large, the imperative duty of Congress to relieve themselves of just responsibility for, at least, the main objectionable feature of the system under which the regents have seen fit to conduct their trust. Without bonds or the slightest legal responsibility imposed upon them, they have been entrusted by Congress with the duty of managing a great trust fund 'for the diffusion of knowledge among men.' They have deliberately elected to manage it with the pall of secrecy thrown around them, as it were, for the very intent and purpose of disguising from the knowledge of the public their acts as the public's agents. We make no charges whatever against what they have done in secrecy, though all who will take the trouble of inquiring will understand that the belief is very general here that the Board of Regents have done things and permitted others to do things, for whose acts, under such circumstances, they are justly responsible, which it would be most inconvenient to have made public. We refer to their various steps going gradually to turn the institution into a sort of close corporation. Otherwise, where is the necessity for the management of a public trust fund in secrecy?"
Pam Hensen, director of the Smithsonian's Institutional History Division, says: "None of this is especially new. This was a debate in 1855."
The regents' closed-door policy had its defenders in 1855.
In its Jan. 27, 1855, issue, Scientific American noted in an article: "The New York Tribune has lately been somewhat violent in its attacks upon the above named (Smithsonian) institution, but while it is right with regard to one view of the question, it is essentially wrong in another. It finds fault with the regents of the Institute because they held a secret session and excluded reporters. This may be right and it may be wrong. They are a public board, to be sure, but no more than the Senate, which sometimes finds it necessary to exclude spectators."


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