Drafting a Future

WASHINGTON POST   |  September 17, 2008 by Jacqueline Trescott

During his getting-acquainted tour of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, the institution’s new secretary, was stopped in his tracks by a group of researchers poring over pages of “endangered” languages.

Clough sat there in the reading room of the National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, one of the many outposts of the Smithsonian empire, and heard how experts at the institution have been collecting languages since before the Smithsonian was the Smithsonian.

This group handed him some cards. He undid the white ribbon and found slips with words from the Poosepatuck Nation. Clough recalled he was a little flabbergasted when Robert Leopold told him these were 19th-century copies of a set that Thomas Jefferson had written on a trip to Long Island in 1791. And Clough (pronounced “cluff”) said he was even more impressed when he visited a laboratory and saw that 8,000 pages of Cherokee had been digitized and shared with North Carolina tribe members who wanted to teach their children the language.

Then there was the visit with the keepers of the worms, conducting a DNA project of 5.8 million specimens, in which Clough saw how materials stored for decades now play into the hot topic of biodiversity.

This stop was one of many during his almost three months at the helm that showed what makes the Smithsonian unique–it has all this stuffand invigorated his own thinking about how to connect the institution’s past and its holdings to what is needed in the future.

“My job is to put my arms around all of this” and define the 21st-century Smithsonian, said Clough, sitting in his shirt sleeves in a conference room, talking about those whirlwind first weeks.

Clough, 66, a tall, slender son of the South, is a civil engineer who loves soil, earthquakes and all kinds of infrastructure. He relaxes at the theater, playing golf and hunting quail. He’s had to move fast to learn what the vast enterprise of the Smithsonian means to the visitors, the curators, the local community and the major bankrollers, as well as Congress, approver of 70 percent of the institution’s nearly $1 billion budget.

The stakes are high for a man who has had 39 successful years at educational institutions. And the stakes are perhaps higher for the Smithsonian, which has recently suffered from administrative mismanagement, congressional outrage and low staff morale.

Making Repairs

For more than 160 years, the Smithsonian had been a quiet powerhouse in Washington’s cultural life and the larger museum world. But three years ago Congress started complaining about secrecy at the Smithsonian, including a contract to start a television programming network–an arrangement that raised questions about access to the museum’s materials. Then there were the ballooning salaries of executives. Lawrence M. Small, a banker who was appointed the 11th secretary in 2000, resigned in 2007 after investigations found he was using Smithsonian money for home repairs and luxuries. Further questions about unauthorized expenses and outside income led to more resignations. External reports criticized Smithsonian management and the upkeep of its visitor-heavy buildings. Last year, when Congress was pushing for a shake-up of the Smithsonian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the museum “an endangered institution.”

As a result of the scandals, the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which includes the chief justice of the United States, began reforms of its governance.

The Smithsonian has deep bench strength, with a staff of nearly 6,000, many of whom are internationally recognized scientists and curators with one-of-a-kind specialties. An interim secretary worked to restore confidence as the board searched for a new leader. In March the regents selected Clough, a museum outsider but a man with strong science credentials, experience in leading complex institutions and a proven record for raising huge sums of money.

Clough accepted a $490,000 annual salary, with no housing allowance, compared with the $551,186, and a home, that he received as president at Georgia Tech–and far less than the former secretary’s $916,000.

He promised the regents five years, noting that most members of his family had worked into their 70s. Married for 46 years, Wayne and Anne Clough have chosen to live in the city. (Their two adult children, Eliza and Matthew, live in Atlanta.) The Clough home in Southwest is walking distance from the Mall, making it unlikely he’ll need the car and driver that Small came under fire for using.

At the top of Clough’s priority list? Finding out what Congress wanted in the new leadership.

“The first month the focus was on Hill visits,” said Clough, who tallied 19 courtesy calls and visited some offices twice. “I found a positive feeling about the Smithsonian, and they said we needed to do a better job of polishing the image, and want assurances that it is in good hands.” He also got warnings that federal money is scarce, and Clough has pledged to bring in more research money and tackle the $2.5 billion needed for repairs.

One legislator who has kept a sharp eye on the Smithsonian is Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who said he was impressed by the new secretary in their brief meetings. However, Grassley said, “I told him regardless of the sincerity of his efforts to improve its reputation, there is a culture that exists that has to be overcome, the culture of secrecy.”

And Clough has begun to unveil his own visions for the Smithsonian. He wants the entire institution to be engaged in what he calls “the great issues of the day” and wants the Smithsonian to show people “how things tie together.” He walked into a soil exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History and felt at home as a engineer, but said that “the question comes to me: What goes on with soil, what goes on and how does it relate to sustainability?”

Clough talks broadly about “vanishing boundaries,” in world terms and how to continue pushing the Smithsonian out of those buildings on the Mall, to educate not just millions of visitors but also those who stay home.

And morale? Clough wants the staff to be a partner in this transition. Roger Sant, chairman of the Board of Regents, heard some fence-mending at one town-hall-style meeting. “He said he was very proud of their work, and proud to be a part of it,” Sant said. “There is a growing sense of pride that we are back on track.”

Clough concedes this is all tricky: “There is always a tension in creative institutions, and the tension exists because things change so fast. There is relevance in what we do, and we should not fear, for example, digitization. The curator wants to hold things tight. But with digitization and public access, instead of one person you have 6 million with this information. But there is always a role for the expert and the curator. We want the Smithsonian to be far ahead of the changes.”

He wants to get people as excited about the Smithsonian as he is right now.

Making Waves?

His friends from his 14 years at Georgia Tech say don’t believe his self-described cover of an introverted engineer.

“Wayne Clough can speak to any number of groups–parents, students, donors, legislators, football boosters. He always speaks directly to them, never above their head, or below their station,” said William J. Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition. He’s also chair of Tech’s alumni association and a member of the capital campaign steering committee, and has spent hours with Clough on the golf course and around the conference table.

Gary Schuster, the acting president at Tech, said people like working with Clough even if they disagree with him. He remembers Clough’s approach to changing a bioengineering curriculum: “He said, ‘You have the wrong plan. You have got to think about the future. You have got to be bolder.’ ” Clough suggested an interdisciplinary method, which became the hallmark of a number of curriculum revisions, Shuster said.

To further prepare the engineering students for a changing world, Clough wanted more applicants who demonstrated cross-disciplinary strengths: instrumentalists, team athletes and singers. This is the kind of planning that got him included in “The World Is Flat,” the best-selling look at globalization by Thomas L. Friedman. “He is producing not just more engineers but more of the right kind of engineers,” wrote Friedman. Clough joked that the tactic created the need for more space for chamber ensembles and glee clubs at, of all places, a ranked engineering school.

Amid Clough’s successes there was also controversy. His critics say he was on the wrong side of a First Amendment case while president at Tech.

Two female students, both activists with the College Republicans group, complained to campus authorities that their speech was restricted and they were the subjects of racial slurs, death threats and rape threats because of their views. “We were targeted simply because our ideas did not conform to the Institute’s strictly enforced orthodoxy,” Orit Sklar said in an e-mail.

Ruth Malhotra met with Clough in November 2005 and recalled in an e-mail that he “Clough repeatedly expressed frustration with my activities, . . . defended Georgia Tech’s policies and programming, asked me to go to mediation with other organizations and warned me against future expressive activity.” Her activity included displaying quotes from “The Vagina Monologues,” a well-known play that was performed on campus, as a way of protesting the show. She was ordered to take them down.

The students won their 2006 lawsuit, which forced the university to make major changes in its speech policies.

Anne D. Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonpartisan group that monitors academic freedom issues on college campuses, said: “The case raised some fundamental issues about the state of intellectual diversity. It did look like the president was looking the other way.”

Anu Parvatiyar, the president emerita of the student body, said the majority of students didn’t agree with the lawsuit. “Not many students felt oppressed or didn’t feel their views weren’t being heard,” she said.

Clough declined to talk about the lawsuit.

Making Strides

Two areas Clough focused on at Georgia Tech were retention of freshmen and recruitment of African American students.

John “Chip” Akridge, a Washington developer and Georgia Tech alumnus, met Clough when he became the college’s president and found a common goal: building the undergraduate experience. “The school came from an old tradition: ‘Freshmen, look at the man on your left, the man on your right. Only one will be here at the end of the year.’ It was draconian and hard to get rid of,” said Akridge. “So Wayne instituted a monitoring system that identified those who were in trouble very early. With the faculty, it took persuasion, finesse and long talks behind closed doors.”

Parvatiyar was a beneficiary of those improvements. Among Clough’s accomplishments, she cited helping students with family income of less than $30,000 earn their degree debt-free, giving students input into what courses were taught and improving distribution of football tickets. “It is extremely rare for the president to be revered by students,” said Parvatiyar, who earns her biomedical engineering degree in December.

Clough thought the campus needed more diversity and reached out to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose district includes Tech. “Over the years he developed a program where he brought talented black undergraduate students on the campus to get them interested in the graduate sciences,” said Lewis. Tech now has one of the best records in graduating African American engineers.

Clough’s time at the university also demonstrated how he works with a municipality, not just an institution.

When the school expanded its campus, it moved across an interstate into an old Atlanta neighborhood that was on the decline. “It was rather a bold move to cross that great divide of the interstate,” said Susan Mendheim, president of the Midtown Alliance, a neighborhood group. “From Day One he included the community in the planning process. This was such a welcomed and unusual concept.”

After a big football victory, the students carried a metal goal post to the large front yard of the president’s house, about a mile away. They started cutting it up, and the towering, white-haired man with a close-clipped beard got them some hacksaws and ordered pizzas and Cokes.

Football could be a headache for any president, win or lose. In 2007, Clough fired Chan Gailey, now the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, days before the Yellow Jackets headed to a bowl game.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote at the time that the school’s officials wanted someone who “energized and excited” the fans–not just someone who had a winning record for six seasons.

Making His Way

Clough grew up in Douglas, Ga., a small town of tobacco farms where his parents, Bessie and Daniel, had an ice and coal plant. Clough lived there until the seventh grade, loving the outdoors, always the child to build the fort or dam. The family moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., where he met his wife-to-be during high school, and he returned to Georgia–to Georgia Tech–as an out-of-state student. Shortly after graduation, he worked as a surveyor on the flood walls around Morgan City, La. (They stood up to Hurricane Gustav.) He later earned his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.

The classroom became his home. He rose through the ranks of higher education, teaching at Duke and Stanford, then teaching and moving into administration at Virginia Tech and as provost at the University of Washington. He became president of Georgia Tech in 1994. He left with a record of raising $1.5 billion in two capital campaigns. He had been thinking about how to finish up his career when the Smithsonian recruiters came hunting.

While touring the Smithsonian, Clough has shown that same personal approach that people back in Georgia admired: very hands-on. At the airplane restoration facility in Suitland, he walked into an area where the workers were wearing masks and sanding. “He got right in there and climbed over barriers,” said Gen. John Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum. “And he shook hands with mechanics who had grease all over them.”

The presence of an engineer at the Smithsonian’s helm is perhaps fitting; at the top of almost everyone’s list of the institution’s problems are its crumbling buildings. In all, there are 18 museums and one on the drawing board, a huge zoo and nine research centers. And the Smithsonian has dozens of other buildings that are not open to the public.

Estimates have put the repairs needed at the Smithsonian buildings at $2.5 billion. Still, Clough said, “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been led to believe.” At Georgia Tech he helped raise millions from private sources and debt financing. “The campus looks brand new with green space, more transportation. It was all done under his watch,” said Hubert Harris, the chairman of the school’s board.

In his conference room in the Castle building, there’s a view of the Arts and Industries Building, a national landmark shuttered for four years. “That is inexcusable,” he said, describing an afternoon when he sat outside and watched people reading the sign that tells what’s inside and going up the steps to find the door locked. “I think it is a shame. And it is up to us to get it opened.” With so many organizational challenges in front of him, Clough has taken care to institute one personal change, closeting the ties with the garish gold color of Tech–no more Yellow Jackets buzzing around. On a recent morning, his tie was a colorful design with a flock of birds–more the Smithsonian way.


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