Diversity was a common theme in the childhood of Donna Shalala.
The granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants, along with her twin sister, were raised by working-class parents in a multiethnic Cleveland, Ohio community where the girls went to “public schools that were very well integrated.”
Fast forward several decades, and for the twin who would become one of the first Peace Corps volunteers (serving in Iran from 1962 to 1964) and the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in the country’s history (1993-2001), diversity is still a central issue.
In her role as the University of Miami president, a position she has held since 2001, Shalala, 68, said her interest in diversity and in learning more about Miami’s black community led her to a discussion with one of South Florida’s most prominent black attorneys.
“I was talking to H.T. Smith about something I could do locally [to] learn more and work with the African-American community,” Shalala told the South Florida Times in a telephone interview.
What Smith suggested led Shalala to join the board of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, a 31-year-old organization that works to level the playing field for black businesses in Miami.
“What I wanted to do was to meet more business leaders in the community. We have many African-American students who come from the community. I wanted to make sure that I have contact myself with business leaders,” Shalala said of her decision to join the board.
Chamber president Bill Diggs said Shalala’s addition to the board raises its stature.
“It really sets us apart as an economic development engine,” he said.
Shalala’s first board meeting took place on Tuesday, Oct. 13, and Diggs said her presence there was “refreshing.”
Diggs, who has been president of the chamber since 2005, added, “When you have people who have the ability to affect change, with not only their knowledge, but with their reach in the community, it creates action items that you know will truly be taken care of.”
Involving the university in Miami’s diverse communities is a priority, said Glamour magazine’s 1994 Woman of the Year.
“The university wants to make sure if we participate and when we participate in community activities, that we reach out to many different communities. I have had extensive contact with the Hispanic community but not as much with the African-American community.”
In addition to her leadership role at UM, Shalala also serves as professor of political science, teaching a course on the U.S. health care system each spring.
Heavy discussion regarding President Obama’s efforts to reform the country’s health care system naturally took center stage.
“It’s all about the politics of health care reform,” said the recipient of the 2008 Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award bestowed upon her by former President George W. Bush.
Although health care reform did not occur during her tenure in the Clinton administration, Shalala’s skills at improving the system were duly noted.
Lauded as “one of the most successful government managers of modern times” by The Washington Post, Shalala made health insurance available to an estimated 3.3 million children through the approval of the State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP).
When asked what she thought of the president’s chances of overhauling the system, Shalala said she is “very optimistic. I think they’re going to have a good vote today,” she said of the Senate Finance Committee’s Oct. 13 vote to approve the healthcare measure and advance it further toward a pivotal Congressional showdown this fall.
Education holds high value in Shalala’s family. Her twin sister is the principal of a high school and her mother, a former teacher, “eventually went to law school,” said the avid tennis player, who received her A.B. degree in history from Western College for Women. (An Artium Baccalaureatus degree requires coursework above and beyond that of a Bachelor’s degree and focuses heavily on the classics).
Shalala earned a Ph.D. from The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and has held tenured professorships at Columbia University, the City University of New York (CUNY), and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She served as president of Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1980 to 1987 and as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987 to 1993.
Of her greatest accomplishment since becoming the ‘Canes president, Shalala said, “Raising the stature and quality of the institution. We’ve done a nice job creating thousands of jobs in the community. And we see ourselves more of an economic leader as well as a first-class institution.”
When asked if she had any regrets, Shalala replied, “I’m sure I’ve got a lot of them. Anyone who didn’t isn’t very introspective; or thinks of themselves as perfect.”
Asked to share what her regrets are, she replied, “No. Way too personal.”
Photo: Donna Shalala