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 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.