- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

Controversy surrounding Secretary Lawrence M. Small's management of the Smithsonian Institution has cast a spotlight on the secrecy of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. The institution's 17-member governing board meets three times a year behind closed doors to set overall policy for the 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and research centers — or, as the Smithsonian describes itself, "the world's largest combined museum and research complex." Chief Justice William Rehnquist, also a regent and the institution's chancellor, oversees the meetings.
The board includes the U.S. vice president — Richard B. Cheney has missed the two meetings held since he took office — three members of the House of Representatives and three senators. The Smithsonian receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government: The $455 million appropriated by Congress for fiscal 2001 makes up 71 percent of the total budget, according to figures provided by the institution.
Storrs Olson, a scientist with the National Museum of Natural History, says the secrecy contributes to making the regents "not accountable."
"I've been working here for 30 years and never had much impression of what they're doing," Mr. Olson says.
Mr. Olson is among staff members at odds with Mr. Small, who was hired by the regents to take over as Smithsonian secretary in January 2000. Mr. Small, previously president and chief operating officer of mortgage market giant Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) and an employee for Citicorp/Citibank for 27 years, became the first businessman to head the Smithsonian in its 155-year history.
In addition to his business career, Mr. Small has served on many nonprofit and corporate boards, including those of the National Gallery, the National Building Museum, the Kennedy Center and Paramount Communications Inc., an entertainment and communications company.
Controversies erupting since he became secretary included a proposal — shelved in May under pressure from scientists, animal lovers and several members of Congress — to close an endangered-species research center the National Zoo operates on 3,200 acres at Front Royal, Va. (Mr. Small announced his decision to drop the plan a day before its consideration by regents.) The regents did approve his proposal to close the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, which researches the science and techniques of conserving museum objects.
Mr. Small has aggressively pursued funding for the Smithsonian from both Congress and private sources. He also expects museum directors to step up their fund raising.
Several top administrators have left during Mr. Small's tenure. The directors of the Zoo, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, have retired or announced plans to do so, although none publicly tied their departures to Mr. Small. Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History, however, said in June he was resigning because he disagreed with Mr. Small about the way research should be conducted at the museum.
Mr. Small's fund-raising successes have included $10 million in donations that brought two giant pandas from China to the National Zoo for 10 years and the quick creation of the exhibit "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" at the National Museum of American History.
Mr. Small has called the Smithsonian fusty and desperately in need of repairs and vitality to meet the challenges of a new millennium. His critics, he says, are resistant to change.
Staff members, concerned about the influence of big donors on exhibits and what they fear is the pursuit of blockbuster exhibits at the expense of the Smithsonian's research mission, have created a Web site to list their grievances. The Smithsonian has about 6,500 employees.
Paul Forman, a curator at the National Museum of American History, comments: "I would say that if there is any durable, consequential outcome of all the indignation inside and outside the institution — the immediate outcome must be the resignation of the secretary — it must be the opening up of the board of regents," he says.
However, defenders of the regents emphasize that the Smithsonian is not technically a government agency and worry that opening the meetings to the public would change the quality of debate among regents.
"It is policy that the meetings are closed, as has been the case since the founding of the institution," says John Huerta, Smithsonian general counsel.
Legally, the Smithsonian is a trust administered by the federal government and closing board meetings enables the regents to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the institution, as well as ensuring that the process of governing the institution remains apolitical, Mr. Huerta says. (The Smithsonian was established with money bequeathed by British scientist James Smithson for the "increased diffusion of knowledge among men.")
Barber B. Conable Jr., a citizen regent from New York and a former U.S. representative and former president of the World Bank Group, says regents would find that fulfilling their responsibilities would be harder with open meetings.
"I think it would be difficult to transact all our business if we had public meetings," Mr. Conable says.
"I haven't noticed that there has been a great deal of interest in public meetings," he adds.
Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican and board member, says the regents' discussions are not appropriate for public scrutiny.
"Like all boards of directors, we meet behind closed doors," he says
As a practical, matter, Mr. Johnson says, "there's not room for the public" where the regents meet. "It's a very small room."
The regents meet in Room 358, which is on the third floor of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or the Castle. The room measures 25 feet by 26 feet, according to Smithsonian representatives.
Citizen regent Alan G. Spoon, former president of the Washington Post Co. who is now a general partner in Polaris Venture Partners in Boston, says that compared with corporate boards, "This is less restrictive than those."
However, he says, if the meetings were opened to the public, "The character of the conversation would change."
Mr. Spoon just became a member of the regents' executive committee.
Wesley S. Williams Jr., a partner in the law firm of Covington & Burling in the District, is chairman of the executive committee.
"My personal view is that we are advantaged to have active dialogue on the part of the regents. In my experience, that active dialogue has resulted specifically as a function of the more freewheeling closed meeting where regents are not afraid to have false starts, to say things that they don't quite mean, to be informed as to what the facts are, then to recant and to have active dialogue," Mr. Williams says. "I think that really is a benefit that comes from a closed meeting."
Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican and board member, also points to the impracticality of fitting more people into the room where the regents meet.
"We could meet in an auditorium," but with outsiders watching, the meetings would become stilted and overly formal, Mr. Cochran says.
However, the public is not kept totally in the dark, he says. "We have minutes that are available, I'm sure," Mr. Cochran says.
But under current Smithsonian policy, formalized in a 1996 memo, records from the Board of Regents are closed to everyone but the regents themselves and members of the secretary's staff until those records are 15 years old.
"Minutes of organizations' meetings generally are not available," Mr. Williams says. "I mean, in other words, that would be an anomaly in terms of corporate practice."
Although the meetings and their formal records are off-limits to the public, "The Fourth Estate (press) is very completely briefed on the meetings at their conclusion," Mr. Williams says.
Mr. Forman, the curator, says greater access to the board would reveal serious problems.
Being "thoroughly insulated from information about the real life inside the institution, the regents are, however well-intentioned, terribly ignorant," he says. "After all, they meet only three times a year for a very short meeting."
Some regents apparently do not feel isolated from Smithsonian operations. Regent Cochran says that because he is also a member of the National Museum of American History board (the museums have advisory boards), he tries especially to keep up with issues regarding that museum. "We spend the time that is required to discharge the duties as regents. We are not executive officers. We're overseers," he says.
Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and a regent, tends to focus on science issues and in May visited the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says his press secretary, Margaret Camp.
But Mr. Conable says, "I think that the biggest problem we have is we meet only three times a year. We don't have a lot of opportunities to have direct control. We do review policies."
He adds the regents get a great deal of information from the secretary's office between meetings.
Mr. Olson, the scientist with the National Museum of Natural History, says that historically the regents have not been especially active. The situation was tolerated as long as there was not a great deal of opposition to the secretary's policies, he says.
"Now that we've got a problem, people are starting to look at this a little bit," he says.
Mr. Forman says the regents lack "any leadership in depth."
Until the controversy over Mr. Small's leadership, Mr. Forman says, "There is only one citizen regent, Wesley Williams, who has been carrying out the responsibility and the influence and decision-making power for the board. … He was the only one minding the store."
The regents, however, reject the claim that they are largely a rubber-stamp body that is out of touch with the Smithsonian.
Day-to-day control lies with the secretary, who is comparable to a corporation's chief executive officer, Mr. Williams says. "I'd say he enjoys my full support. … My perception is that he has, on balance, the full support of the board of regents."
Mr. Small was not available for comment.
The regents have given Mr. Small a raise since he started, from $330,000 to $480,000 annually. At Fannie Mae he received $4.2 million in salary and other compensation.
John R. Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, says that in his experience the regents are active and involved in setting Smithsonian policy.
After groundbreaking for the museum's new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport, the regents stopped the museum from hiring contractors for the project because funding was not yet in place, he says.
"We had that groundbreaking fully intending to proceed" but had to wait until funding was secured, he says.
Several regents say the board has become more active recently.
"We are getting more involved," Mr. Conable says. "The Smithsonian regents themselves felt more discussion was necessary."
Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat and regent, says that "There's a desire to be more hands-on."
Mr. Small "wants fuller participation from the regents. It will be a real challenge," Mr. Matsui says.
Mr. Williams insists that intense oversight is nothing new for the regents. "Congressman Matsui [who was appointed to the board in June 1999] has seen a shorter term of service and evolution, but I think viewed from a little longer perspective, I would say we're just continually stepping up the way we seem to have been doing the entire time I've been here."
Mr. Forman says that if the board is evolving, it should make provisions to hear more voices like his from within the institution.
While some Smithsonian staffers have recently been allowed into regents meetings, Mr. Forman says a more formal process of staff representation is necessary. He suggests turning to the Smithsonian's Congress of Scholars, an association of professional research staff members.
Representation by staffers would be comparable to representation of faculty members on university boards of trustees, he says.
However, the regents say the most serious problem facing the Smithsonian is bigger than the Board of Regents. It's money.
"I think the Smithsonian has severe financial problems at this time," Mr. Matsui says. "There's no question we have significant costs in terms of capital improvements."
Last month's report by the National Academy of Public Administration concluded that during the next 10 years the Smithsonian will require $1.5 billion adjusted for inflation in order to complete the major repair and renewal projects that are necessary.
The report was critical of the Smithsonian's relationship with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, describing it as "somewhat distant when compared to other organizations that depend on federal appropriations for significant support."
"The Smithsonian has been inattentive and extremely slow in providing information to congressional committees that directly impact the Smithsonian's budget requests," it says.
It adds: "The Academy study team came away from some of its interviews with the impression that the federal government is viewed as an intrusive presence by many Smithsonian employees and that the concepts of public purposes, public accountability, public interest, and public funding and their linkages are not well understood."
Mr. Forman says that while he has no doubt that the figures in the academy's report are accurate, "I think the secretary has used the alleged maintenance gap as a device to create a, in large measure, fictitious crisis to warrant his extreme measures."
Mr. Matsui says the funding problem precedes Mr. Small's tenure as secretary.
"Larry Small was brought in to try to find a way to deal with this shortfall," he says.
Given the secretary's business background, Mr. Matsui says he is not surprised at Smithsonian staffers' suspicions.
"The scientists and historians are somewhat threatened by this, and I can understand that. It's a legitimate concern," he says, adding that while Mr. Small has emphasized fund raising, he is also concerned with the institution's research and exhibition capabilities.
The Board of Regents holds its next meeting Sept. 17.


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