Help wanted

The Baltimore Sun

There are openings in the two top spots at the Smithsonian Institution. Pay is good, in the low to middle six figures. The prestige of running the nation's premium museum system is hard to match.

Replacements for former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small and his deputy, Sheila P. Burke, who also served as CEO, won't get the sweet deals - unlimited vacation, lucrative service on outside boards, no oversight - that resulted in the scandal that forced their resignations.

Still, the jobs shouldn't be so hard to fill that restoring the Smithsonian management to full strength takes up to a year, as the institution's Board of Regents told a Senate committee last week. A major restructuring, including that of the board itself, is necessary - but it must be done quickly. The $1 billion, mostly taxpayer-financed cultural treasure, with 18 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo, shouldn't be kept on autopilot any longer than necessary.

Mr. Small's lavish expense-account spending prompted an investigation that exposed a governing structure at the Smithsonian that was easy to exploit. Under its antiquated rules, the Board of Regents is chaired by the chief justice of the United States, with the vice president of the United States as vice chairman, three senators, three House members and a contingent of corporate leaders, scholars and other museum directors, few of whom have the time required to perform an adequate oversight role.

An independent review committee that investigated Mr. Small's tenure recommended that the board be reconstituted to include more members with expertise in the arts, sciences and museum management, and to invest them and the congressional members with fiduciary responsibility to make sure they are paying attention. The chief justice and vice president would be reduced to honorary, non-voting roles.

Certainly someone needs to start minding the store. The review committee's report revealed that Mr. Small bullied the regents who were supposed to be his employers and spoon-fed them only the information he wanted them to have. He even set his own salary, which reached nearly $1 million a year despite his failure to increase the level of private donations, as the regents expected when they hired him.

He also made the rules that allowed him and Ms. Burke to spend so much of their time away from the Smithsonian, collecting millions in compensation from for-profit entities, including Chubb insurance, for which both serve on the board of directors even though Chubb holds the Smithsonian's policies.

New rules have been proposed to do away with this web of conflicts and abuse of tax money. They should be applied immediately, and not after Ms. Burke's resignation takes effect in September, as proposed. Long-distance management by someone so tainted isn't worth the cost.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad