Shalala graduates with honors

University of Miami president Donna Shalala’s announcement that she will retire next year sparks two major questions for our community:

• How will Ms. Shalala’s 14-year legacy at the Coral Gables university be viewed?

• And what is the future course for the university, which will now select its sixth new president since it was founded in 1925?

The first one is easy to answer — with enduring gratitude. The second is still a question mark. But UM’s momentum under Ms. Shalala should not be slowed.

All of UM’s presidents — Bowman F. Ashe (1926-1952), Jay Pearson (1952-1962), Henry King Stanford (1962-1981) and Edward T. Foote II (1981-2001) — were deeply active in the community, and Ms. Shalala was no different. The first woman to lead the school, Ms. Shalala immersed herself in our civic, business and cultural life.

She had sparkling credentials: She was a former inside-the-Beltway player in the Clinton administration, serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services; former president of Hunter College; and chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Who will follow in her footsteps is now the hot topic of conversation in education circles.

As is her style, Ms. Shalala didn’t hold a news conference to announce her departure. Instead, she wrote a four-paragraph letter to the university community: “A long time ago a friend advised me to always leave a job when you still love it. That is certainly the case here,” she wrote, explaining her exit at 73.

And she hinted in her letter how she wants “The Shalala Years” to be remembered: “We have accomplished what we set out to do — secure the University of Miami’s place as the next great American research university.”

UM Board of Trustees Chairman Stuart Miller echoed a similar sentiment: Ms. Shalala “has guided the University into the top tier of national research universities.” She presided over major initiatives designed to reshape UM's medical school — hiring more than 100 high-profile researchers and creating a biotech research park that boosted the school's profile.

The scandal involving UM football booster Nevin Shapiro and the NCAA investigation that rained down on the university will cast a shadow on Ms. Shalala’s years here. But she looked adversity in the eye and emerged unbowed.

The NCAA sanctions cost UM nine scholarships over three years, in addition to UM’s self-imposed bowl ban. But Ms. Shalala’s unwavering defense of the university as those leading the probe became embroiled in their own scandal was commendable. She questioned the level of fairness being shown the UM student players. Good for her — and morale.

Ms. Shalala’s other talent was fund raising for her beloved “The U.” She launched and oversaw the university’s Momentum campaign that brought in $1.4 billion in private money for the school’s endowment, facilities and its academic and research programs. The campaign should raise $1.6 billion for The U by 2016.

Under Ms. Shalala’s leadership, UM steadily moved up in the annual college rankings published by U.S. News & World Report wiping away the “SunTan U” stigma.

When she first landed the job in 2001, Ms. Shalala told the Miami Herald. “I am going to shake things up.” She did just that — and graduates with honors.