Skorton begins new gig at Smithsonian

BY BEN MARKS | JULY 08, 2015 5:00 AM

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Former University of Iowa President David Skorton started a new job last week as the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Skorton was the president of the UI from 2003 till 2006, when he left to become the president of Cornell University, a position he held until June.

“Becoming a part of the Smithsonian is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an institution that is at the heart of the country’s cultural, artistic, historical, and scientific life,” Skorton said in a Smithsonian news release.

As secretary, Skorton oversees 19 museums and galleries, 20 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, around 6,500 employees and 6,300 volunteers, and an annual budget of $1.3 billion.

“I think David is the ideal choice to take over the Smithsonian,” said Barry Butler, the University of Iowa executive vice president and provost. “He has all the characteristics of a great leader and a person who appreciates the mission of the Smithsonian and our country.”

Skorton began his career at the UI in 1980 and was soon appointed as an assistant professor in internal medicine by François Abboud, the current UI associate vice president for Research.

Within five years, Abboud made him the director of the Division of General Internal Medicine in part, he said, because of Skorton’s intelligence, drive, and personality.

“I made him director of that because he was so charismatic and had exceptional leadership qualities,” Abboud said. “And I wanted him to be a role model for young residents. This was quite a challenging appointment, and he did the job very well for four years.”

Eventually, in 1992, then-UI President Hunter Rawlings chose Skorton to be the vice president for Research, and 10 years later, he became the UI president.

Interestingly, much like his eventual successor, Rawlings, too, left the UI to become the president of Cornell.

In 2013, former Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough announced he would retire in October 2014.
In September of that year, the Smithsonian formed a nine-member secretary-search committee, led by board head John McCarter.

“As a successful president of two universities, David has led complex organizations,” McCarter said in a press release. “He is an accomplished research scientist and a strong advocate for the arts and humanities, which make him an extraordinary fit for the Smithsonian.

Described by many as a Renaissance man, Skorton did have a very broad range of interests, from research and science to music and the arts.

An avid jazz fan, Skorton cohosted a weekly local radio jazz program and was talented on the saxophone and flute.

“He was always playing in gatherings of students,” Abboud said.

After hearing the news of Skorton’s new job, Abboud said, he was pleased and had no doubts Skorton would be a good fit for the Smithsonian.

“He would do well at anything he gets involved in, because he does it with passion and values are really high in terms of appreciation of social needs and humanities,” Abboud said. “I’m sure he’s doing a very good job at broadening the mission of the Smithsonian and looking now at its global rather than the more national impact.”

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