Clough settles into new role at Smithsonian

We at the Technique recently had the opportunity to spend a few minutes interviewing our recently departed former Institute President, G. Wayne Clough, despite the extensive demands of his new position as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In the “Castle” of the Smithsonian, surrounded by famous hats (formerly belonging to Davy Crockett and Charles Lindbergh) and a model of the Wright Brothers’ plane, we discussed Clough’s new home and its similarities to Tech.

Technique: How are you enjoying Washington, D.C.?

Clough: Well, it’s been busy, almost like a whirlwind. I’ve been meeting so many people and reading so many things, and the Smithsonian is such a vast organization that you have to work hard to get your arms around it. But it’s been exciting to realize what an amazing place this is.

T: What do you do on a normal day here as Secretary of the Smithsonian, if there is a normal day?

C: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t think there is a normal day. The first part of my stay here has been trying to get to know all of the players and working the [Capitol] Hill, because we get a fair amount of federal money.

The idea was to try to meet all of the key players before they left for August recess, and I’ve met about 20 people from Congress—senators and representatives who are important to the Institution. Twenty meetings is a lot of meetings.

T: Are there any big similarities or differences between being Secretary of the Smithsonian and President of Tech?

C: There are similarities. The budget for the Smithsonian is the same size as Tech’s budget, so that’s not really different. And even though we have a lot of square footage and monumental museums, the actual square footage of the Smithsonian is almost the same as Tech’s.

Also, the Smithsonian is an institution filled with a lot of creative people, people who tend to work a fair amount of time because they love what they are doing. They’re committed and they are passionate about their work, so that’s similar. The faculty at Tech is that way, and the students are that way.

The difference is that the Smithsonian doesn’t have a football or basketball team. Nobody’s sitting around getting anxious about what’s going to happen in September… although Congress will be back at that time, so there’s a different sort of anxiousness.

T: Do you have any particular hopes for your time at the Smithsonian?

C: The Smithsonian has had some tough times. The last Secretary had some issues that became very publicized and were damaging to the Smithsonian, so there’s a lot of need to restore morale and to get people to stop thinking about the past and start thinking about the future. There’s a huge opportunity here for making the Smithsonian’s collections available to the people. Right now, you’d have to come here to see some of them, or, if you’re a scholar somewhere, we’d have to send out a specimen to you, which is tricky because they are one of a kind. So if we can do a lot more in digitizing these collections and creating access to them, it will open up a whole new world. They come in handy when you start looking at issues like climate change. For example, there had been a period in history about 50 million years ago when there was a huge climb in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and scientists can look through the fossil records and see what that did to species. With these incredible records that we have and these collections that nobody else has, we can start putting pieces together that nobody before has ever been able to do.

T: On a Tech note, do you have any thoughts on the new Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, about having your name attached to a building?

C: Well, that’s kind of humbling. I didn’t expect that, and I’m very grateful that anybody would do that. We worked on that project for a long time, and I always saw it as sort of the linchpin of what we were trying to do for the undergrads. We had put in a lot of programmatic elements, which paid off. The graduation rate went up and people can enjoy going to Tech now, as opposed to the opposite. But we really didn’t have the physical presence. We didn’t have a big learning center, which is really the pièce de résistance, if you will, of the physical part of saying that undergraduates are important and that undergraduate success is important. So I’m excited about it, and obviously very humbled that they named it after me.

T: Do you have any words of wisdom for people coming into Tech, since you started there as a Civil Engineer and had somewhat of a hard time, but later became President of the Institute and now Secretary of the Smithsonian?

C: Well, you know, not really. This is something that I didn’t plan on doing, as most of my life has been. Some people offer you things, and you decide. It’s a great challenge. At first, I wasn’t sure that I was the right person for this job, because when I first started, I thought, “I love museums, but I’m not an expert on them. Why don’t they go hire someone else?” But as I got into it, I realized that many of the issues and opportunities facing the Smithsonian are similar to those in the university, and that someone with a university background, particularly a public university background, would have a better chance at solving them. It’s been exciting.

T: So all in all, are you glad you came to the Smithsonian?

C: Yeah! You know, I had really enjoyed Tech, but I’d reached the point where it was time to do something different, and this is something different.