On June 4, 2001, I was privileged to join President Shalala on her first tour of the University of Miami. We were joined by José Pepe Diaz, then president of Student Government and now Florida State representative, and Cie Chapel, then president of the Graduate Student Association and longtime staff member in Alumni Relations.
On that tour, as I have shared many times, President Shalala asked me, “Where does everyone sit?” I replied that we had a few benches, but President Shalala said quickly, “Call Home Depot and put out some tables and chairs; this place needs a little ‘messing up!’”
Subsequent actions, of course, immediately led to lots of green tables and chairs, gliders, hammocks and, most significantly, a feeling communicated that day that “UM students mattered to her.”
President Shalala has been our own rock star, leading UM to becoming a nationally ranked academic institution and, in doing so, vastly and permanently improving the UM student experience. During Shalala’s tenure, students have been exposed to nationally renowned and inspiring leaders such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Maya Angelou, Chief Justice John Roberts, Malcolm Gladwell, George Will, Tim Russert and Tom Friedman, to name only a few. They also witnessed a presidential debate, two visits by the 14th Dalai Lama and the Clinton Global Initiative University, virtually every national presidential candidate in every election, and two visits by President Obama during an eight-month period. She also taught the largest section of UM students in her health policy course.
President Shalala redesigned commencement exercises to allow her to personally congratulate every graduate who crossed the stage and to insure that everyone could bring their entire extended family to the ceremony. She has insisted that activities occur on campus after dark by providing resources for late night programming and, thankfully, it was her vision and fundraising that led to the opening of the Student Activities Center in 2013, insuring the Rathskeller’s survival. Undoubtedly, the Student Activities Center will always be one of President Shalala’s legacies and serve UM students for many generations.
Candidly, I could add many more paragraphs about President Shalala’s accomplishments and contributions, but I want to share most importantly, that above all, and in spite of an overwhelming schedule, President Shalala always cared deeply each day for every UM student, undergraduate or graduate. She always tried to offer assistance, whether it be providing career advice, cutting through “red tape” with three-word answers in an email reply: “We will help,” or attending a multitude of student and athletic events. In fact, just last Saturday night she stopped by the Relay for Life fundraiser at 10 p.m. to support the efforts of our amazing students.
Personally, I have been honored and humbled to work closely with President Shalala for the last 14 years. Like everyone, I will miss her as our president, but we have been blessed and fortunate to have witnessed “up close and personally” her transformational leadership, relentless spirit and energy, innovation and the many ways her daily actions inspired all of us to create a caring UM community.
Luckily, after a year in New York leading the Clinton Foundation, President Shalala will return to the faculty to teach future UM students and remain active in the Miami and UM community. In closing, I ask each of you to salute Shalala and thank her for “messing up” our campus. She has changed the student experience at the U and we will always be grateful.
Dr. Whitely has been Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Miami since 1997. She has worked closely with Dr. Shalala during her entire 14 year tenure as president.