CEOs are different

April 01, 2007

When a leading member of America's corporate elite is asked to bring his hobnobbing talents to the service of a financially needy national museum, perhaps no one should be surprised that his champagne lifestyle comes, too.

What was galling about Lawrence M. Small's lavish spending to maintain himself and his wife in the manner to which they had grown accustomed was that he presented the tab - for first-class travel, limousine service, $1.5 million in home upkeep and improvements, and $160,000 for redecorating his office - to the Smithsonian Institution as though these were legitimate business expenses. This at a time when museum roofs are leaking and lights are off to save money.

Yet despite months of controversy, it took a Senate vote to freeze the Smithsonian's budget to finally prompt Mr. Small's resignation this week. Also culpable in this scandal was the museum's board of directors, which provided no oversight and approved some of Mr. Small's expenses after the fact.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican leading the charge for reform of the Smithsonian's leadership, wants to work with the board to modernize a governance structure more than 100 years old. The board should grab the chance to enliven its membership. A panel that includes the vice president, the chief justice of the United States, three senators, three House members and a contingent of corporate leaders, scholars and other museum directors is too otherwise occupied to run a $1 billion-a-year institution.

In fact, it was the board's desire to get some high-powered help with running the massive complex - boasting 18 individual museums, nine research facilities and the National Zoo, all then a bit down at the heel - that prompted the hiring of Mr. Small in 2000 with a mandate to boost private donations.

He proved up to the task, raising more than $1 billion during his tenure. But he repeatedly clashed with the Smithsonian's staff, and offended researchers by approving a contract that gave the cable network Showtime prime access to Smithsonian resources.

Mr. Small's expense account proved his undoing, though. Charges, such as one for four days at a deluxe Hawaiian hotel at $724 per night, revealed a profound disconnect between his world view and that of the taxpayers footing the bills.

A return to the more typical scientist or scholar as secretary seems in order. Academics may lack Mr. Small's fundraising flair, but a professional approach to the Smithsonian's national mission is more important.

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