As the American Museum of Natural History prepares to open its new science center in February, the institution on Tuesday selected as its new president Sean M. Decatur, a biophysical chemist who currently serves as the president of Kenyon College.
“I have spent my career committed to access and opportunity for students and also to an understanding of science,” Decatur said in a telephone interview. “This feels like a natural evolution.”
Decatur, 54, who starts on April 3, succeeds Ellen V. Futter, who will step down in March after a 30-year tenure. Given that Futter was the first female president and that Decatur will be the first Black leader, Scott L. Bok, the chairman of the museum’s board, said this kind of progress was “overdue among large institutions like ours.”
“Look at the city that we live in,” Bok added. “We clearly would like the museum to speak to more people.”
Although Kenyon and the natural history museum are similar in terms of budget and staff size, Decatur has never led a cultural institution. And he will be taking over just as the field has been facing challenges including the coronavirus pandemic, issues of diversity and political debate over climate change.
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But Bok said Decatur’s outsider perspective could be a plus. “Maybe it’s helpful that he’s not from a museum background,” Bok said, “to think about how do we make the place great for the next 50 years.”
Decatur acknowledged that his appointment as one of few Black museum chiefs may have important symbolism. But he also said “diversity, equity and inclusion is everyone’s work.”
“It’s a collective effort,” he added, “that has to involve the institution as a whole and not necessarily fall on single individuals.”
Decatur has the advantage of inheriting a completed major capital project — the Gilder Center, the new science wing designed by the architect Jeanne Gang. But he will still have his work cut out for him in having to contend with more costly overhead because of the additional wing and the pressure to make the $431 million new science center a success.
Moreover, the museum wants to continue building on its role as an educator, having offered a doctoral-degree program in comparative biology since 2008 and a master’s program in teaching science since 2011.
Decatur’s fund-raising skills will be tested at a time when cultural organizations all over the country are still recovering from Covid closures and increasing competition for philanthropic dollars. The Natural History museum has an operating budget of about $186 million and more than 1,000 full- and part-time staffers (Kenyon’s budget is about $180 million and the school has more than 600 people on its faculty and staff).
Born in Cleveland, Decatur grew up visiting his mother’s classroom; Doris Decatur for nearly 40 years taught math and science in the Cleveland public schools. At 6 years old, young Sean memorized the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“He was this little guy,” Doris Decatur told the Kenyon Alumni Magazine in 2013. “He got up and did that speech from beginning to end, without stumbling or forgetting it. Everybody knew him — the little boy who does the Martin Luther King speech. He talked about the red hills, and, oh, they had a fit. It was one of those things that brought tears to your eyes.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and in 1995 was awarded a doctorate in biophysical chemistry from Stanford University.
Decatur served as an assistant and associate professor of chemistry at Mount Holyoke College, a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College.
Under his leadership, which began in 2013, Kenyon joined the American Talent Initiative, a coalition of colleges working to expand access and opportunity, and inaugurated the Kenyon Access Initiative to increase diversity and foster inclusion.
Decatur, who has been on sabbatical from Kenyon since July, is married to Renee Romano, a professor of history and of comparative American studies and Africana studies at Oberlin College. They have two adult children.
“There is a lot that translates from higher education to the cultural world, but there are also going to be a lot of new things to learn, both about this type of institution and about the museum in particular,” Decatur said. “I’m excited to get started.”