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A Natural Evolution

Scott Dahl, ’88, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum Rotunda in Washington, D.C., in front of Henry the elephant, an African bush elephant preserved and installed in 1959, the largest elephant ever prepared for a museum.

When he was a child Scott Dahl, ’88, loved to go to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums and zoo, marveling at the animals on display, living, dead, and prehistoric. His father worked for the Department of Defense and went to law school in the evening at George Washington University, giving Dahl the luxury of living near the nation’s capital—and its most famous natural history institutions—for a few years before moving back to Texas when his father took a job with Texas Instruments.

“I was fascinated by the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian and in awe of their size and ferociousness,” he said, as he fondly recalled running to the dinosaur hall at the Museum of Natural History when he was a boy.

After Dahl moved back to Washington, D.C., after graduating from the Law School, his affection for the Smithsonian only grew stronger. For the Richardson native, it was a dream come true. The storied collections he grew up loving were now once again in his backyard. So when Dahl heard that the Smithsonian’s inspector general planned on stepping down in 2011, he knew it was the job for him. Not only had he loved the Smithsonian since he was a child, he had spent the better part of the last decade working in various senior positions within the inspector general community. The position was a perfect fit.

Fortunately, the Smithsonian agreed, and Dahl was appointed inspector general of the Smithsonian Institution in January of 2012. “I’ve had a longstanding love affair with the Smithsonian ever since I was very young,” Dahl said. “But I’m also enamored with the mission of the Smithsonian, which is ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge,’ dating back to the original 1829 bequest from James Smithson leaving his sizable fortune to the United States. It’s exciting to be part of such a renowned institution.”

As the Inspector General for the world’s largest museum and research center, Dahl’s responsibilities are interesting and diverse. On a daily basis, he oversees a team of investigators and auditors who actively work to improve the programs and operations of the Smithsonian. They also investigate and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse. According to Dahl, the Smithsonian’s IG office is much like any other government agency’s IG office, but the institution is unique. “We are the watchdogs for the Smithsonian,” he said.

This line of work is nothing new for Dahl. Over the last nine years, he has served numerous posts in the IG world. Before coming to the Smithsonian, he was the deputy inspector general for the Department of Commerce. He also held the same post for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and spent time as senior counsel to the inspector general at the Department of Justice. In those roles, Dahl had the chance to oversee investigations of senior government officials and reviews of sensitive government programs, such as the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program.

“I’m really comfortable in the community that I’m in,” said Dahl, who has received a number of awards for his work in the IG sector, including the prestigious National Intelligence Superior Service Medal. “Working in the Inspector General field for nine years has allowed me to develop a strong network of advisors and mentors who I can go to for guidance. I really value and benefit from their counsel.”

The IG field has steadily evolved since its development pursuant to the Inspector General Act of 1978. Originally, there were only a handful of individuals who served as IGs. However, over the last thirty years, that number has swelled to seventy-three.

Under the act, there are three distinctly important roles which the IG must serve. First, they are responsible for conducting and supervising audits and investigations. Secondly, they are tasked with providing leadership and coordination and recommending policies for activities that “promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness.” And lastly, the IG must work to prevent and detect fraud and abuse.

“The Inspector General position has a unique nature—it is an independent office, yet still part of the organization,” Dahl said “And what makes the job interesting and sometimes challenging is that the IG has multiple stakeholders, including the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Congress, and the public. Under the Inspector General Act, we have a dual reporting relationship with the Smithsonian Board and Congress.”

After graduating from the Law School, it was more of a question of “when” and not “if ” Dahl would return to D.C. Though he grew up mostly in Texas and received both of his degrees in Austin, there was always something luring him back to the nation’s capital.

“During law school, most of my summer associate positions were in Texas,” Dahl said. “But I had spent a part of one summer at a D.C. firm and liked the culture and found the work interesting. Also, when deciding where to live, my wife and I loved the idea of living in the nation’s capital and enjoying the lifestyle and proximity to so many great offerings.”

After coming to Washington, Dahl didn’t immediately gravitate to the IG field. He spent three years in private practice before going on to spend more than a decade as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, focused on fighting public corruption and fraud against the government.

Ethics has always been a keen interest of Dahl’s. He’s held multiple positions with the D.C. Bar, including working on the revision of the Bar rules. According to Dahl, developing a strong acumen and understanding of legal ethics has been an immense help in his day-to-day work.

When he’s not working—or spending time with his wife or one of his four children—Dahl teaches. For the past two decades, he has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Not surprisingly, Dahl mainly teaches professional responsibility, though he also has taught a public corruption course.

“I really enjoy getting the fresh perspectives from bright students,” said Dahl, who has taught on an adjunct basis since 1992. “It really keeps me on my toes. I miss being in court so teaching helps fill that void.”

He was a history major for his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, so for Dahl to spend his days surrounded by one of the richest historical collections in the world simply feels natural, though he’s quick to note that there’s much more to the Smithsonian than its venerable museums.

“In addition to the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums and zoo, there are research centers throughout the country and the world. We have an astrophysical observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a tropical research center in Panama,” Dahl said.

Dahl is especially proud to be part of—and help safeguard—an institution with such a strong educational mission. “Considering that the new chair of the Board of Regents is the president of Purdue University and the Secretary was the president of Georgia Tech, there is a rich academic culture at the Smithsonian. You see this even when looking at our e-mail addresses—they end in .edu.” It’s the perfect place for Dahl to be to help make sure today’s children will be able to experience the same sense of awe and wonder he did as a child, and learn something as they do.—Andrew Clark

(Photo by Paul Fetters)

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One Response to “A Natural Evolution”

  1. Caroline Avery-Dahl Says:

    October 21st, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    What an excellent article and great tribute to my son Scott Stewart Dahl. I am very proud of his career path since graduating UT Austin Law School. When we resided in the DC area from 1967 to 1973, I was not working and thus available for taking the kids to the Museums often. We had many visitors, so not only were we making frequent family trips to the Smithsonian but introducing our friends and relatives to these national treasures as well. The Smithsonian has made a meaningful contribution to our family’s history.

    From Scott’s Mom, Caroline

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