When it occurred to President Donna E. Shalala to build the Student Activities Center (SAC), she was taking a walk around the lake with Vice President for Student Affairs, Patricia Whitely.
“The president said, ‘hey Pat, what would you think of tearing that Rathskeller down and building a brand new student activities center?’” Whitely said. “She goes, ‘don’t worry, we’ll put the Rathskeller somewhere in there,’ and from there an idea was born and it took 10 years but she never gave up hope.”
Since Shalala began in 2001, her focus has always been on the students and improving the student experience. Nearly 14 years later, she has announced that she will be stepping down as president of the University of Miami at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
However, she plans to return to the faculty as a professor of political science and health policy, according to a university press release.
Shalala made the announcement Monday in a Dialogue email sent to the university community.
“This great community is maddening, delightful and limitless in its vitality and promise,” she wrote. “We have worked hard to be good neighbors and civic leaders.”
Shalala’s successor will be appointed by a Presidential Search Committee headed by Richard D. Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, according to Stuart A. Miller, chair of the UM Board of Trustees.
“This will be an inclusive process and will seek valuable input from the greater University of Miami community,” Miller wrote in a statement sent to the university community.
Senior Hila Sachs said she was surprised and upset by the news, but she believes Shalala will continue to be committed throughout the remainder of her tenure.
“She made the school what it is today and I feel bad for the freshmen that just came in because they won’t have the same great experience that I did,” said Sachs, a member of the President’s 100 organization.
Throughout her tenure, she helped raise the university’s U.S. News and World Report ranking. UM reached an all-time high at No. 38 in 2012.
Whitely said that she believes Shalala has always been a student-centered president.
“She has changed our student culture in ways that we could not have ever imagined,” Whitely said.
Part of this student-centered approach is Shalala’s commitment to student leaders, according to Whitely.
Student Government (SG) President Alessandria San Roman and the executive board are planning a going-away event in the spring to commemorate Shalala’s legacy.
“Shalala is a large part of UM history and an indelible mark on our campus,” San Roman said.
No specific dates have been set for the event, according to San Roman, but she hopes to keep all student organizations involved in a “memorable going-away celebration.”
Shalala launched the Momentum fundraising campaign in 2003, which raised about $1.4 billion to support scholarships, research and facility improvements. The Momentum 2 campaign, which launched in 2012, seeks to raise $1.6 billion by 2016 – meaning Shalala will have been part of the effort to raise a total of $3 billion for the university.
Aside from her role as president and fundraiser, Shalala is also an educator. She was appointed a professor of political science in 2001.
She has taught a course offered every spring semester focusing on the politics and economics of health care, featuring guests like former President Bill Clinton, under whom she served as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Senior Caroline Levens took the course during her sophomore year. A public relations major, she appreciated being able to integrate political science and medicine into her undergraduate education.
“I sat in the front row so I could interact with her before class began,” Levens said. “I loved how she incorporated her professional experience as Secretary of Health and Human Services into the class. It made it much more entertaining, meaningful and memorable.”
Shalala’s relationship with the Clintons extends beyond her post as HHS secretary. In 2010, UM hosted the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), an annual meeting where students and global leaders come together to address social issues around the world.
Clinton and his daughter Chelsea will return to UM a second time to host CGIU in March, making UM the only university to host the event more than once.
During the 2012 presidential election, Univision, a Hispanic news outlet, hosted a debate between President Barack Obama and the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Before that, the Coral Gables campus held a live broadcast of the George W. Bush-John Kerry presidential debate in 2004.
Find all of The Miami Hurricane’s coverage of Shalala stepping down here.