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Academy of Natural Sciences taps finance man to lead

In recent years, the heads of the Academy of Natural Sciences have included a paleontologist, a zoologist, an oceanographer, and a physicist.

In recent years, the heads of the Academy of Natural Sciences have included a paleontologist, a zoologist, an oceanographer, and a physicist.

This time, the institution with Thomas Jefferson's fossils and John James Audubon's birds - among its 17 million specimens - is going for the money man.

Wednesday, the board of trustees announced that George W. Gephart Jr., a regional business and nonprofit leader, would be its president and chief executive officer.

Gephart will take over the beleaguered institution nearing its 200th anniversary on Aug. 9. He will replace the academy's acting president, Ted Daeschler, an internationally known paleontologist who is also its associate curator and chair of vertebrate zoology.

Gephart, 57, a resident of Newtown Square for nearly three decades, called the academy "truly one of the iconic cultural gems in Philadelphia."

"And my job is basically to polish it," he said in an interview Wednesday. "To raise the visibility. To put it back on the tip of everybody's tongue." And raise money.

Gephart is chairman of the board of Main Line Health System and has served on other environmental and cultural boards. For two decades, he worked with 1838 Investment Advisors of Philadelphia, where he managed the portfolios of major nonprofits and other clients.

Founded in 1812, the academy is the oldest natural-science research institution and museum in the Americas. Its name is synonymous with dinosaurs, diatoms, and, lately, environmental outreach.

Its collection of plant and animal specimens is world-renowned for its size and diversity. It includes more crickets, grasshoppers, and diatoms - single-celled algae found in bodies of water - than any other museum in the world.

It has plants, pressed and mounted, that were collected by Lewis and Clark on their 1804-06 expedition across North America.

Its researchers are engaged in cutting-edge work.

Yet two years away from its bicentennial, the academy, with a current budget of $12.8 million, also faces persistent financial woes.

Its staff has been eroded by reductions over the years, and in 2009 the institution implemented a 5 percent salary cut and a hiring freeze. It now has 253 employees.

In its 2008 annual report, the most recent available, the academy said its endowment and other investments had declined by a third since the previous year, down from $64.7 million to $43.1 million.

Since 2000, the academy has had five acting or official presidents. Gephart replaces William Y. Brown, who resigned in January to become CEO of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass.

At one point in a series of efforts to raise the public profile of the academy, officials decided to dismantle its priceless animal dioramas, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, to make room for exhibits deemed to have more "sizzle." The staff revolted.

Later, the academy, citing its dire financial straits, began the process to sell off a 7,300-piece mineral collection amassed by the Philadelphia-area Victorian gentleman William S. Vaux. But a new president abruptly halted the sale.

"It seems like we have a sleeping giant here," said Nate Rice, manager of the ornithology collection, which includes more than 200,000 bird skins and 15,000 tissue samples and is used by biologists worldwide.

"Everybody in the biological community knows about this place," he said. "Locally, very few people know the importance of the research and the collections."

Gephart, he said, "needs to get out and shout that from the rooftops."

Gephart said one of his first acts would be to "immerse myself into the culture of the academy, and the collections, the exhibitions, the science that goes on. All of these things are central to the mission and the vision of the academy."

In years past, scientists at the academy sometimes felt they were being overlooked, but Gephart sees the academy's many layers as part of the whole.

"When you walk a child into the dinosaur exhibit, the eyes widen," he said. "There is this look of awe. But better than that, especially as they become a little older, you can start to educate them as to what these massive, prehistoric beasts were. It's not just the exhibit. It's the education behind it. Which of course leads directly to the science."

He and his wife, Bryn Mawr native Elizabeth "Pooh" Gephart, have three grown daughters.

Reached while on a birding trip in South Jersey, James Macaleer, chairman of the academy's board of trustees, said that solving the financial issues and raising the profile of the institution were the top priorities.

He said the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Philadelphia Zoo had all recently opted to go with nonscientists for their top leadership.

"All three are doing reasonably well, given the circumstances," he said. "It's not like we're setting a precedent."

"We're struggling to keep the budget in balance each year," he continued. "We want to run a capital campaign. The timing is not perfect for that."

Meanwhile, the structure, built in 1876, needs serious renovations.

"We think George Gephart is the guy who can best help us deal with those issues," he said.

Daeschler, who has been at the academy since 1987 and freely admits to more expertise in skeletal anatomy than accounting, said he was delighted with the choice. "We want to see this place thrive," he said. "I think he can take us there."

He said he saw Gephart as "a man who's been in business his whole life, and now he's following his passion."