The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce almost needed to select a backup recipient for this years Sand in My Shoes Award, as University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala hesitated to accept.
My first reaction was to turn it down, Shalala said. First, I havent finished yet. And second, I think those awards are for people who have made extraordinary contributions to the community, and I never thought of myself in that vein.
The chamber will present Shalala, 73, with the honor at a gala Tuesday night at the downtown Miami Hilton.
When we approached her, she shied away from wanting the award, said Alberto Dosal, chairman of the chamber and CEO of Miamis Dosal Capital. She wants all the focus to be on the university and her students. The only reason she accepted is because it is the most important civic award in South Florida.
Since joining the University in 2001 as president and political science professor, Shalala has expanded the universitys national profile far beyond sports. Its annual budget has grown to $2.7 billion this year, and its endowment to nearly $780 million. Research programs have become a top priority, with research-related expenses hitting $356 million in fiscal year 2013.
In the first decade of Shalalas presidency, the university moved up 29 spots in the U.S. News & World Reports annual college ranking list. It tied with Yeshiva University in New York at No. 47 in the publishers most recent undergraduate rankings.
Shalala also has been a powerful fundraiser, overseeing the universitys Momentum campaign that brought in $1.4 billion in private money for the schools endowment, facilities, and its academic and research programs. She now is leading the charge to raise $1.6 billion by 2016. A $12.5 million gift announced this month puts the campaign over $1.26 billion.
Its ahead of schedule, substantially, Shalala said of UMs Momentum2 drive, acknowledging that it will likely reach its goal before 2016.
I dont know what well do [at that point]. Well all go on vacation, probably, she laughed. We put one foot in front of the other.
Since 1981, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce has annually given the Sand in My Shoes honor to outstanding community leaders who have made significant contributions to the South Florida region. Recent past winners include Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón (2012) and entertainment power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan (2013).
Sand in My Shoes is considered the premier, highest honor in the community, Dosal said. When you experience it firsthand, like I did with Eduardo Padrón and the Estefans, and you see how honored and how touched they are, you really understand the value of it. The winners are the very best of the best.
Shalalas name rose to the top of a list of about 20 nominees that the chambers executive committee began vetting last spring, Dosal said. Besides Shalalas fundraising prowess, the committee also admired the way she has built UMs size and reputation, he added.
With about 13,700 full- and part-time faculty and staff, the university is one of the largest private employers in Miami-Dade County, providing a major boost to the local economy, Dosal said.
Raising money and providing jobs are two huge contributions that Donna has brought to the table, he said. But she also has given University of Miami and, by extent, South Florida as a whole a global reputation and prestige thats difficult to calculate. UM used to be considered SunTanU, and now its consistently ranked one of the top 50 universities and a top research center.
We have Donna Shalala to thank for much of that.
For Shalala, the award adds to a long list of accolades, including several dozen honorary academic degrees as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, and a 2011 induction into the National Womens Hall of Fame.
Before joining the University of Miami, Shalala served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton. She previously was president of Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sand in My Shoes, she said, stands out as a particularly special honor.
This one is from my own community, from the people I live and work with, Shalala said.
Shalala is only the fifth woman to receive a Sand in My Shoes Award out of 33 honorees; three of those were co-recipients with their spouses.
The fact that she won this years award, Shalala said, is an affirmation that women have played a very important role in this community.
Dosal said gender didnt factor in to the selection process. Hes just happy he picked the best person for the honor and that she said yes.
She likes to remind me, Dosal said, that it wasnt easy to persuade her to accept this award. She just doesnt feel worthy of it.
Im like, Are you kidding me? he continued. No one else in this town deserves it more.