The governance of the Smithsonian, a trust instrumentality of the United States, is unique. After James Smithson’s (1765-1829) bequest was received in 1838, it was deemed a public trust that the nation had a responsibility to administer responsibly. Citizens and legislators wanted to ensure that this generous gift to the nation was honored and protected. When the Smithsonian Institution was created by the US Congress in 1846 as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” Congress vested responsibility for the administration of the Smithsonian in a Board of Regents or trustees. That board consisted of the chief justice of the United States, the vice president of the United States, the mayor of the city of Washington, three members of the US Senate, three members of the US House of Representatives, and six citizens.
The Board of Regents is entrusted with the governance of the Institution and overseeing its mission. Regents elect the Secretary, or chief executive officer, of the Smithsonian; set the Secretary’s compensation; and annually evaluate the Secretary’s and Institution’s performance. Regents also review and approve the Smithsonian’s ongoing and future strategic plans and priorities. Regents establish major policies for the Institution and oversee their implementation by the Secretary. The board also reviews and approves Smithsonian budgets and works with the Secretary and Congress to address the Institution’s financial and human resource needs. The board also oversees and assists the Smithsonian’s efforts to generate resources through private fundraising and revenue‐generating activities. The Regents oversee the Smithsonian’s legal and ethical compliance obligations, the integrity and reliability of financial reporting and audit processes, and management’s procedures for identifying and managing risks.
The chancellor, usually the chief justice of the United States, presides over Board of Regents meetings and official ceremonies of the Institution. The chancellor may appoint an Acting Secretary when there is a vacancy in the office or whenever the Secretary is unable to perform the duties of the office. The chair of the Board of Regents is the overall leader in guiding the board in its deliberations and the exercise of its oversight function. The chair sets the board’s agenda and oversees the activities of the board, and presides over Board of Regents meetings in the event of the chancellor’s absence. The board usually meets at least three times a year, with more regular meetings of the Executive Committee and specialized committees.
After President James K. Polk signed the legislation creating the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846, the first meeting of the Board of Regents was held from September 7–9, 1846, in the Patent Office Building, with Vice President George M. Dallas presiding. This first board began a search for a Secretary to serve as chief operating officer, and began to plan a building and programs for the new Institution. They met for ten more days in November and December, in the Vice President’s office in the US Capitol, selecting Joseph Henry, a physics professor at the College of New Jersey, as the first Smithsonian Secretary, and establishing committees and responsibilities. A list of the first regents can be found on the History of the Smithsonian Catalog. The minutes of these early meetings document the procedures they established for the operation of the board.
After organizing the Institution in the 1840s, the board encountered its first serious crisis in 1861, as the Civil War broke out and nine members left the board. Several members were expelled for their loyalty to the Confederacy, including Lucius Jeremiah Gartrell, representative from Georgia, and James Murray Mason, senator from Virginia. Departing Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge was also loyal to the Confederacy and was expelled from Congress that year. James Gabriel Berret, mayor of Washington, DC, and a regent ex officio, resigned in 1861, after he refused to take the loyalty oath. Several other regents also left: Stephen A. Douglas, senator from Illinois, died; Gideon Hawley, a citizen regent from New York since 1846 did not continue; and two members left the Congress: Representative Benjamin Stanton of Ohio and Representative William Hayden English of Indiana. Later, George E. Badger, a citizen regent from North Carolina, was expelled at a regents' meeting in February 1863 for "giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the Government." In January 1864, another regent, Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky, was accused of treason in the Senate but was not expelled from that chamber and remained on the Board of Regents until his death eight years later. The departing members were replaced with senators, representatives, and citizens from the northeast and midwest, changing the character of the board, and southerners did not reappear on the board until the late 1870s.
The composition of the Board of Regents has changed since the Institution was founded. The mayor of the city of Washington only served on the board until the 1870s. The original act provides for six citizen regents, but that number was expanded to nine in 1970. Not surprisingly, the composition of the board was, for most of its existence, white elite males, primarily from the northeast. The Board of Regents appointed its first African American member in 1972, when Leon A. Higginbotham was appointed a citizen member from Pennsylvania. Representative Corinne Claiborne Boggs of Louisiana was the first woman to be appointed a regent in 1977.
The interaction between the Board of Regents and the staff of the Smithsonian is limited due to the constraints on the regents’ time. In the early years, the Secretary and Assistant Secretaries would meet directly with the regents when necessary to inform them on a particular topic. Regents William Tecumseh Sherman and Montgomery Meigs, both civil engineers, played an active role in overseeing construction of the Arts and Industries Building, working closely with Secretary Spencer F. Baird. For much of the first half of the 20th century, a dinner would be held at the beginning of the regents' meeting. Prior to the dinner, the regents and important guests, such as the director of the Bureau of the Budget (now Office of Management and Budget), would visit exhibits on Smithsonian research set up and manned by Smithsonian researchers. This provided an opportunity for the regents to meet Smithsonian scholars and to talk with them about the current projects in the various bureaus. On February 11, 1927, a Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution was convened in the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle, by the Smithsonian Board of Regents "to advise with reference to the future policy and field of service of the Smithsonian Institution." William Howard Taft, chancellor of the Board of Regents, presided, with assistance from Assistant Secretaries Charles G. Abbot and Alexander Wetmore. The group produced a new strategic plan for the Institution and planned a capital campaign that was launched, unfortunately, at the start of the Great Depression in the fall of 1929. During the 1920s, Chief Justice William Howard Taft served as board chancellor, and took a much more active role in the Institution’s affairs, even holding all-staff meetings in Baird Auditorium. Notably, his wife, Helen Herron Taft, donated the first of the First Ladies gowns to the Smithsonian.
During the 1960s through 1980s, under Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, select research staff were invited to a luncheon with the regents during their meetings. This provided an informal venue for discussion and getting to know the staff. During this era, James Edwin Webb, citizen (1970-1982), served as chair of the executive committee and, in collaboration with Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, encouraged regents to play a much more active role in the life of the Institution. In 1993, the Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed a Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution and charged it with "an examination of the Smithsonian, its mandate and its roles, and an examination of the cultural, societal, and technological factors that influence its capacity to act." The commission was chaired by Maxine F. Singer of the Carnegie Institution, and published its report in 1995, addressing the physical plant, core activities, outreach, financial challenges, and governance of the Smithsonian, titled E Pluribus Unum: This Divine Paradox: Report of the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1995. Today, the board holds regular public meetings and provides information on its activities via the internet.