CORAL GABLES (CBSMiami/AP) — Donna Shalala has been a part of the University of Miami for a very long time.
The university will hold six commencement ceremonies in the coming days, where graduates will walk across a stage and shake Donna Shalala’s hand.
It wasn’t always that way.
In Shalala’s first year as president at Miami, graduates didn’t walk. To some onlookers, commencements seemed more obligatory than celebratory. Tickets were limited. And Shalala didn’t like it, so she changed the rules.
“A student came up to me and said he was so grateful that we changed it because 13 members of his family contributed every month to pay his tuition and he didn’t know how he would have limited the number of people he invited,” Shalala said. “That brought me to tears. A small change, a little extra effort by the university and by me, had a big impact.”
Shalala had plenty of impact during her 14 years as Miami’s president and points out that even at 74 — having spent 44 of those years in college — she isn’t retiring. She’ll soon take over the Clinton Foundation and resume working with President Bill Clinton, under whom she was U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary from 1993 through 2001, and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
“I like adventures,” Shalala said. “So when I went to see Mrs. Clinton and asked what I could do to help her get elected President, she came back to me and said ‘Would you run the foundation for us for a while?’ And I said yes.”
At Miami, Shalala oversaw the construction of buildings, revamped the faculty and improved Miami’s academic reputation. Her crowning achievements might have been two fundraising drives that led to $3 billion in pledges coming in over the last decade — the second campaign came only after she decided to abort her original plan to leave Miami in 2011.
“I came to try to transform the institution,” Shalala said. “I thought Miami was poised to be transformed into the next great American research university. Now, we’re not quite there yet.”
Under Shalala, Miami hosted presidential debates and forums, twice was the site of the Clinton Global Initiative University and even welcomed the Dalai Lama. Big events seemed common.
Shalala also removed the stuffy feel she thought the campus had in 2001. Patio furniture is now all over campus to encourage students to socialize outdoors. A building that once was a storage unit for the library is now a Starbucks. And she was a regular at Hurricane sporting events.
Miami renamed the student center for Shalala, at the one celebration of her presidency that she permitted.
“I’m likely to come back and teach in a year, a year and a half when I come back from New York,” said Shalala, who has also led Hunter College and the University of Wisconsin. “As much as I’ll miss daily interaction with students, I’m sort of steeled to move on to the next job.”
There were regrets and mistakes.
Miami’s athletic department went through a scandal and NCAA investigation that lasted more than two years over the actions of a rogue former booster who’s now in federal prison for masterminding a Ponzi scheme. And Miami’s medical department went through massive financial issues, leading to layoffs of about 900 people several years ago.
“I’m sorry that we had to lay off so many people,” Shalala said. “I’m sorry about the NCAA investigation. I wish that my antenna had been better but no one’s antenna was very good about that guy.”
Among other items Shalala wanted to get done: Make Miami more competitive on financial aid matters and improve the level of undergraduate housing. Those tasks will be inherited on Sept. 1 by Dr. Julio Frenk, who will be leaving his post as a dean at Harvard.
“He is perfectly poised to take over,” Shalala said.
And before she goes, there will be those last six commencement celebrations. She’ll savor them all.
“The university is now in the top tier of American universities and I don’t mean just by ranking,” Shalala said. “You talk to people in this community about the University of Miami and they smile. That’s a big deal.”
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