Fishing for dollars

Birch Aquarium at Scripps still seeks executive director

Steven Schindler and Nigella Hillgarth
  • Steven Schindler and Nigella Hillgarth

Already well into the term of its second temporary chief, Birch Aquarium at UCSD’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography is still trying to find a permanent executive director to run the multimillion-dollar operation. It is said by insiders to be troubled of late by money, fundraising, and attendance issues.

The grueling saga began in May of last year when Nigella Hillgarth departed to become president and chief executive of the New England Aquarium in Boston. Steven Schindler, a chief marketing officer at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, was tapped for what was expected to be a year-long temporary replacement, then he abruptly departed last October for unexplained reasons. He was replaced by longtime Birch staffer Deborah Zmarzly.

With still no sign of a new permanent holder of the position, the university has retained the national headhunting firm of Isaccson, Miller to come up with some new candidates. Despite widely rumored behind-the-scenes budget turmoil at the longtime La Jolla landmark, “the Executive Director will assume leadership at a time of great opportunity for the Birch Aquarium,” says Isaccson, Miller’s online posting for the job.

“Scripps Oceanography recently has a new Vice Chancellor for Marine Sciences, Dr. Margaret Leinen, who wishes to expand collaborations between Birch Aquarium, Scripps Oceanography, the wider UC San Diego community, and the general public. This goal is supported by Chancellor Pradeep Khosla who arrived in 2012, and has initiated an ambitious agenda for the campus.”

Among the tough tasks awaiting the future director of the reportedly cash-starved operation: “upgrading the physical structure to provide an improved visitor experience; expanding the use of technology in exhibits to better showcase faculty research; and increasing net revenues to fulfill the mission of Birch Aquarium.”

The job notice continues: “Birch Aquarium is affiliated with Scripps Oceanography and UCSD, but it receives no direct support and must raise its $6.5M operating budget annually. It does receive significant infrastructure assistance from Scripps Oceanography, perhaps most importantly the seawater delivery system.”

In addition, “Currently, the newest exhibit has been on display for four years, which is too long given the numerous advances resulting from top-notch research at the University over that time. Therefore, the Executive Director will be expected to find new revenue streams to fund innovative exhibits that best reflect the quality of research at the institution.”

No prospective salary has been disclosed, but it may be at least partly responsible for the recruiting dearth. Previous full-time director Hillgarth was paid $164,324, according to university records, a figure regarded as low in the major aquarium business.

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