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Presidential Progress

University of Miami's Donna Shalala is a high-profile president with purpose.
University Business, Jul 2007

IN FRONT OF A WIDE WINDOW IN PRESIDENT Donna Shalala's ground floor office at the University of Miami, two picture frames make perfect bookends for the latest chapters in her remarkable career.

One photograph, dated January 1993 and showing the petite Shalala standing between President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, is inscribed, "With Thanks and Great Expectations," a preview to her eight-year run as the nation's Health and Human Services secretary. The other frame contains a Miami Herald article from January 27, 2006, with the prominent headline, "UM feels like a billion bucks," a testimony to the university's massive fundraising effort on her watch.

And while Shalala's story as UM's fifth president in its 82-year history is still being written, her six-year tenure has seen the university's academic standards and national reputation rise dramatically, along with a number of high profile new buildings on the campus, located just south of Miami in Coral Gables.

"I like building institutions. That's my thing," explains Shalala, who explored a dozen university presidencies after her government job. "I like being at institutions where you can make more than incremental progress, and the Miami people made a commitment that they wanted to get better fast. [The Board of Trustees] decided they wanted me, and they pulled out all stops. I loved it because they were conservative Republicans."

Shalala, of course, rode into Coral Gables with more than her civic background and celebrity. She had led Hunter College in New York City and the University of Wisconsin-Madison before being tapped by the Clinton administration. And she points out that her university experience had given her an unusual advantage in her Cabinet position.

"I was used to a place that was not hierarchical and in which you weren't in control, which means you have to consult a lot and build consensus," she says. "Government positions are more hierarchical, so when you say something, people actually jump. I was so unused to that, and they found me so collegial. I wanted everybody in the room. I didn't have small meetings. And so my natural tendency fit nicely into working in a large, complex situation."

Shalala adds that the listening skills she cultivated in academia also served her well. She points to her dealings with AIDS activists in her early days at the Health and Human Services Department. "They were angry at the previous administration," she recalls. "They were prepared to be angry at us. And everybody in government gets very nervous when someone demonstrates or yells at you. I had been at universities. I was used to people getting in my face, screaming at me."

Shalala literally started from the ground up in making her mark at UM. She thought that the school's empty, rolling lawns and omnipresent palm trees made the campus look more like a country club golf course. The scene was conspicuously lacking in student life. So she set to building stone patios in front of key buildings and adding chairs, tables, and large green umbrellas-and then creating more free time between classes-to let students congregate.

Shalala adds that those changes were just the start of making the campus more vital. The percentage of students living on campus has risen to 48 percent in 2006-2007 (with a long range goal of almost 70 percent), compared to 43 percent in her first school year there, 2001-2002. To that end, the university has just opened a residential complex for upperclassmen, the first such construction in four decades. "I think this is more of a community than when I first came," Shalala says. "We have more students living on campus, more students hanging out on campus. It's hard to compete with South Beach and Miami, but I think that there's much more campus atmosphere."

'Everybody in government gets very nervous when someone demonstrates or yells at you. I had been at universities. I was used to people getting in my face, screaming at me.'

What's also changed is UM's reputation during the 1980s as a football and party school known in some circles as "Suntan U." The school's academic standing improved during the 20-year tenure of Shalala's predecessor, Tad Foote.

But most observers here agree that UM has made quantum leaps since Shalala arrived. The average SAT score of incoming students has jumped by 100 points. There are now almost 20,000 applications annually for 2,000 slots in the freshmen class. And more than two-thirds of those incoming freshmen ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class, compared to barely half six years ago.

"That happens because there's a buzz," Shalala suggests. "People go back home and say, 'This is a great place.' So you get better and better students applying." Stephen Sapp, chair of the Religion Department and the Faculty Senate, appreciates the difference in the student body. "They're better prepared," he observes. "We can talk about things that in the past they wouldn't have been exposed to or would have to be explained to them."

By all accounts, Shalala has taken UM's students seriously, and the students and faculty have taken notice. "She's extremely visible, and she talks to everyone," says John Constantinide, who served as speaker of the Student Senate before graduating this year. Shalala answers student e-mails round the clock and still receives e-mails from previous graduates. When she lined up former President Clinton to speak at the school earlier this year, she gave the student newspaper the chance to break the news first.

"The students come here with a stereotype of college administrators and presidents," she says. "They didn't know their high school principals very well, so they come with the assumption that we're in some distant building and that they'll never see us. But they see me all the time. And I like talking to students. I like working with student leaders." Shalala still teaches classes. Sapp, who co-taught a course with her on "The Graying of America," says she is willing to roll up her sleeves. "I just sort of assumed she'd just show up for the classes she was responsible for," Sapp says. "But she was there for every class except when she was traveling. When it came to the final exam, she insisted on grading all 120 essays, and she did it over one weekend."

That hands-on approach is just one way Shalala has won over the UM faculty and administration, Sapp continues, noting that she regularly attends the monthly Faculty Senate meetings. "The give and take is good, and she's very good at answering questions," he says.

"The faculty see that she's helped us put the university on the map," adds Pat Whitley, vice president for Student Affairs and a 25-year UM veteran. "For me it's been the experience of a lifetime to work so closely with her. I'll also say I've never worked so hard as in the last five years. She really understands higher education, young people, and the university's role in the community. And when you have all of these things working for you, you can't help but get better."

The university's new senior vice president of Business and Finance, Joe Natoli, admits that he took the job in large part because of Shalala. "I really appreciate the trajectory that the University of Miami is on," he says.

Shalala's government expertise also has helped her work with the surrounding community, although she says the way had already been paved. "At most of the places I've been, the community has respected the university, but they didn't love it. Here in Miami, the community actually loves the University of Miami," she explains. "And it's not just the football team. It's what we do in medicine. It's that their kids have gone here or the kids of friends have gone here. They feel like it's their university."

It also helps that the university is the largest employer in the Miami area and that its Jackson Memorial Hospital serves as a primary health center. Natoli recalls asking Shalala during his job interview how he would know he was being successful. The answer he received: "You'll have helped create 5,000 jobs in the greater Miami area."

Still, there have been times when Shalala has played hardball with the city of Coral Gables, most recently in March when she helped break a political logjam holding up UM's ambitious development program, including the construction of new alumni and student activity centers. "We finally had to give it one big shove to get it going," she says. "The fact is, it's expensive for us to wait. We need to keep up with our competition. We can't go to our donors and say, 'Hey, it's taken us four years to get the plan approved for the building you financed that's now going to cost twice as much.'

"You can't yell, 'Fire!' all the time. But every once in a while, you have to yell 'Fire!' at precisely the right time with the right people speaking. And that's what we did," she explains. "But it's not easy. Having universities in residential neighborhoods, you have to struggle to help those neighbors understand what you're doing and why you're doing it."

Shalala has stayed connected to her previous life in the public sector. As she sat for an interview in early March, she occasionally glanced toward a TV tuned to CNN, having been named by President Bush that morning to co-chair a commission to investigate conditions at the U.S. Army's Walter Reed Medical Center.

Last year, she led a similar inquiry on the qualifications of women in science, in the aftermath of controversial remarks by former Harvard president, and fellow Clinton administration member, Lawrence Summers.

More often, though, Shalala has ushered the outside world and its critical issues onto the UM campus. In 2004, UM hosted the first presidential debate of the election season. And with a little help from her friends, Shalala has promoted civic and global awareness to UM students. "Bill Clinton came here and looked them in the eye and said, 'Elections matter,'" she recalls.

Former Vice President Al Gore followed the next evening with a personal presentation of An Inconvenient Truth, his documentary about global warming. And a star- studded lineup ranging from Supreme Court justices to the Dalai Lama has made the trip to Coral Gables.

'The students come here with a stereotype of college administrators and presidents. They come with the assumption that we're in some distant building and that they'll never see us. But they see me all the time.'

Along the way, Shalala has made her own contributions. "The message I consistently tell students is that they ought to see volunteerism- contributing to civic life-as part of being a good citizen in this country," she says. "All of them can't go and join the Peace Corps or work at a nonprofit organization, but they can volunteer in their communities, and we have a huge number of students who volunteer here."

She notes that 10 percent of UM's student body is international, adding that global awareness has become a fact of life on campus. "This is not a place for people who want to come and live in a homogeneous community," she stresses. "It is a place for students who are excited by diversity, because I believe that our students can be plunked down in any place on Earth and they could figure out how to operate."

Nitin Aggarval, who came to UM's Class of 2007 from Tanzania, sees Shalala's point. "She realizes that if we want to succeed in 20 years, we need that education."

All has not been smooth sailing for Shalala. Last year a dispute over wages for UM's contract workers boiled over into labor demonstrations, faculty protests, and national media coverage. "She's not always easy," says Sapp. "A lot of faculty were unhappy with her approach."

Shalala even endured criticism from high-profile Democrats Howard Dean and John Edwards before eventually admitting that she took too long to make changes in the university's salary structure. "We went through a bad patch, but I think we worked it through," she says.

This past fall, Shalala literally found herself in a front-row seat for another maelstrom when UM football players were involved in an on-field brawl with rival Florida International University on national television. Eventually, UM suspended 12 of the players for one game and another player indefinitely. The athletic department also issued a "zero tolerance" warning that any future fighting would result in a season-long suspension or a dismissal from the team entirely.

Shalala drew national attention, and criticism, for declaring, "We will not throw any student under the bus. ... I will not hang them in the public square."

"I got some letters that said, 'You should have thrown them all out of school,'" Shalala remembers. "I got a lot of feedback from the press that said, 'You just weren't tough enough on these kids. Given the history of Miami, you should have been 10 times more tough.' And my point was, 'We have rules, we have a disciplinary process. I support that process. I do not want to treat students unfairly.'

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer and a correspondent for National Public Radio.

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