A marching band, cheerleaders, serenading students and Sebastian the Ibis were all enlisted to deliver smiles and a sendoff to outgoing University of Miami president Donna Shalala.
The school honored its president, who is stepping down after 14 years, with a ceremony Thursday afternoon featuring Grammy award winner and UM alum Jon Secada, who serenaded her with a rendition of Somewhere, students from the Philip and Patricia Frost School of Music and a handful of other alumni, trustees and featured speakers.
Beyond gifts, including a book scholarship in her name and her own pair of boots to match Sebastian’s, the school also named its newly built $46.5 million Student Activities Center in her honor.
“I feel less articulate than I’ve ever been in my entire life,” said Shalala, 74. “I am so deeply moved by the opportunity to put my name on anything.”
She did find words to thank the hundreds of students, alumni and dignitaries who gathered for the event, including her family who traveled from across the country for the ceremony. Shalala said that all of her accomplishments at the school and in life were thanks to the people she had working with her.
“It really takes a team to transform an institution and every element of that team must believe,” Shalala said.
But, most of the speakers gave Shalala the credit instead. They praised her for boosting and prioritizing academics, her fund-raising initiatives and for being accessible to students.
During her tenure at UM, Shalala cemented UM’s place as an increasingly selective institution of higher learning, raising its academic profile and billions of dollars to boost the school’s programs, particularly its medical school.
UM’s enhanced selectivity helped boost the university’s spot in the widely read U.S. News & World Report rankings. During her tenure, the university jumped from No. 67 to No. 48, tied with the University of Florida in the most recent rankings.
“Donna, you have altered and enhanced our university experience forever,” said Stuart Miller, chairman of the board of trustees.
Lauryn Williams, an Olympic gold track and field athlete and 2004 UM graduate, said Shalala wasn’t just a “mysterious person” who ran the school from a distance.
“If you haven’t run into her on campus or seen her at various events, you need to get out more,” Williams said.
Current students, like freshman Danielle Campisi, said that accessibility was part of why they took time from studying for final exams to join the crowd gathered at the University Center Patio.
“She’s down to Earth and she’s actually real,” Campisi said. “What she says she’s going to do, she does.”
Graduate student Kevin Rodriguez said he thinks Shalala fits in with the presidents who preceded her and continued a strong tradition.
“Shalala has done such great things for the school academically and I feel like she just had a vibrant presence,” Rodriguez said.
The school formally announced her replacement, Julio Frenk, during a ceremony earlier in April. Frenk most recently served as the dean of the faculty at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He also previously served as the minister of health in Mexico.
Rodriguez said he’s hopeful for Frenk’s leadership.
“A lot of my friends are saying he’s like Shalala 2.0,” Rodriguez said. “I know he’s going to be really focused on academics like she was.”
As for Shalala, she announced in March that she will head the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, as president and CEO, after she leaves UM. Shalala had served for eight years as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She took the job at UM after serving in the Clinton administration.
She had also previously served as president of Hunter College of the City University of New York and as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Shalala hinted at her appointment during her speech and drew laughs when she described the difficulty of the new gig. She also didn’t rule out a return to UM one day.
“I’m taking off a year or so to do another easy job, but it actually will be harder because all of you are not with me,” Shalala said.
And as for her “best friend” Sebastian? The two embraced on stage and she explained why she valued their relationship over the years.
“He’s the only one at the university that doesn’t talk back to me,” Shalala said.