Shalala adjusts well to university life

A dazzling ‘GO CANES’ logo slapped in green letters around the cement pillar that supports the roof under which President Shalala works, is perhaps the most visible sign of the changing times.
Gone are the heavy oak-wood bookstands that kept former president Tad Foote’s favorite reads in place. Filling in for them: myriad plaques, awards and distinctions that Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Clinton administration has netted throughout her career in education and public administration.
Six months into the job, the president is still hesitant to get into specifics when asked to spell out her vision for the University.
“I’ve been listening – haven’t done a lot of acting yet,” she told the Hurricane. “I need to know a lot more about the institution.”
However, last semester was certainly not the time for passive leadership.
September’s terrorist attacks, their repercussions on Muslim students at UM, and the on-campus drowning of freshman Chad Meredith required Shalala to take a number of tough on-the-spot decisions and stand behind the proverbial podium to offer comforting words when the community at large was speechless.
She aced the test according to Student Government President Jose DIaz who was on the committee that led the nation-wide hunt for Foote’s successor.
“The way she handled September 11 and other difficult moments last semester was notable,” said DIaz, who met Shalala four years ago when she accepted an invitation to speak at the Business School.
When Muslim students reported incidents of stigmatization as a result of September’s terrorist attacks, Shalala recurred to no euphemism in expressing her determination to halt that type of behavior by issuing bold statements-“freedom of speech also means that we can answer back.”
When reporters asked her about the circumstances that surrounded Meredith’s death on Nov. 5, Shalala was able to put a face to the name, making reference to a conversation the two had had earlier last semester. “He talked about majoring in political science and history – he wanted to be a lawyer,” she said.
The incidents revealed a president who could be as firm as stone one moment, and playful the next.
“She treats you like a friend,” said DIaz about the president’s leadership style. “She’s the type of person who’s not afraid of getting her hands dirty,” he added.
Dirty or not, the president got her nails done in orange for her inauguration.
Indeed, Shalala has taken a number of peculiar steps to befriend students, such as sitting with them during football games.
“My rule is that I sit the first quarter of every football game in the stands with the students, and the last quarter too. In between, at half time, I usually have guests in my box upstairs that I have to go schmooze with. My preference would be to be outside for the whole game but presidents have responsibilities,” Shalala told the Palm Beach Post last December.
The president’s next important test is likely to be the multi-million fund raising effort that lies ahead amidst times of economic uncertainty.
“I expect fundraising to be down the next few years because of recession in the economy,” Shalala told the Hurricane, adding that scant fundraising might take a toll on her handicap by keeping her away from the golf course.
“No fundraising, means no golf,” she joked.
Better housing options and more flexibility for students in putting their majors together are two local issues Shalala is currently tackling.
The president told the Hurricane that the university is about to pick contractors to build apartments for upper-class students.
Then there’s the infamous parking situation. “I’m experienced in every other aspect of higher education except dealing with parking,” joked Shalala, who served as president of Hunter College from 1980 to 1987 and as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin from 1987 to 1993.
A handful of UM students will soon get to judge one of her non-parking-related expertise: teaching.
“I’ve always taught,” said Shalala who’s looking forward to teaching a 500-level course in public policy next fall.
Commencement protocol is another major change the president is spearheading.
“I come from a very large extended family,” said Shalala. “Forty people attended my graduation. If I had told them there were only ten tickets, many would have been very insulted.”
The next time UM students rig up their caps and gowns, they will each receive their diploma as they shake the president’s hand, and will be allowed to invite as many guests as they wish to the ceremonies that will be broken up into smaller groups.
Despite her hectic, back-to-back meeting schedule during the week, Shalala says she has plenty of spare time during weekends.
“I do what everybody in Miami does. I play tennis, I go to the theater, I love the Miami City Ballet,” she said.
“Oh, and fishing!” she exclaimed. “I recently bought a boat. I was out fishing last Monday. We caught a lot of fish – but none over ten inches, so we threw them back in.”
Politics is one arena Shalala has decided to steer away from. “I’m not near it,” she stated emphatically. “I’m not telling anyone who I’m voting for for governor,” said Shalala, who arrived in Miami with heavy Democratic baggage from her tenure in Washington.
Does governor-hopeful former Attorney General Janet Reno consider a vote from her ex-colleague a sure thing?
“You’d have to ask her,” Reno told the Hurricane during a phone interview. The two, she said, have only seen each other a couple of times since they moved to Miami.
“She’s a busy woman, I’m a busy woman,” Reno explained.
Asked to comment on her former colleague, Reno said she always admired Shalala’s “tremendous energy and her ability to identify issues that need attention.”
Although it may be too early to envisage the impact Shalala will have in the community, a university as vibrant and volatile as UM will likely benefit enormously from the two characteristics Edna Shalala, the president’s 90-year-old mother exalts about her daughter.
“From a very early age, Donna has always been a fearless leader and a risk-taker,” Edna Shalala told the Hurricane during a phone interview from her law firm in Cleveland, Ohio.
“She always wanted to be the first to try things,” she explained. She would be the first to jump from the diving board; she was the first woman from her university to join the Peace Corps, always a little ahead of herself.”
One fun-fact about the president: “She’s the person you want to take to a Lebanese restaurant,” marked Reno. “She always knows exactly what to order.”