Donna Shalala has been a true transformational leader for UM

LAST COMMENCEMENT: Donna Shalala presided at her last graduation ceremony as president of the University of Miami on May 8. Jimmy Buffett was the main speaker.
LAST COMMENCEMENT: Donna Shalala presided at her last graduation ceremony as president of the University of Miami on May 8. Jimmy Buffett was the main speaker. Miami Herald Staff

John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, wrote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

By every measure, Adams’ words describe the University of Miami’s own leader, Donna E. Shalala, who steps down June 1 after a game-changing 14 years as president. In that relatively brief time, she remade UM into a world-class research institution that has had a major impact on the culture and health of South Florida — a remarkable achievement made possible by a unique mix of focus, strength and determination.

But Shalala brought much more than strong personal character to the job. She had already spent 13 years leading two other academic institutions and eight years as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

When she stepped onto our campuses, Shalala wasn’t here to learn about leadership; she was here to teach the rest of us what a real leader looks like.

Her prior roles had revealed two critically important truths: First, a modern university should not be an isolated ivory tower of intellectuals; rather, it should be an active — and influential — player in the community. Second, good health — our most precious, irreplaceable personal asset — is also one of our most valuable societal resources.

President Shalala had the good instincts to combine the two. When she led UM off the campus and into the neighborhoods, our community-focused healthcare programs were right beside her.

Her influence was not limited to South Florida, either. Her travels, like our research, have given UM a global reach.

She also invited the community to join us on campus for high-profile events headlined by the world-renowned figures in her Rolodex. President Shalala gave students exposure to leaders from every walk of life that they would find nowhere else. Big events would raise our image on the outside while she raised the bar of excellence on the inside.

It worked. UM has had an enviable rise in the rankings and is a highly respected institution worldwide. President Shalala has presided over two record-setting fundraising campaigns that have brought in $3 billion.

Nowhere has President Shalala’s supporting hand been felt more strongly than at the Miller School of Medicine. Many of us came to UM because of the exciting challenge she offered of taking the school to new heights in research and education and creating a world-class healthcare system. Her support for that vision has been unwavering, even through difficult economic times.

As a result, the Miller School of Medicine has enjoyed its own spectacular rise in the rankings — 11 points in nine years. It has strengthened funding from the National Institutes of Health for biomedical research, brought on renowned clinicians and researchers from leading institutions and put together a stronger mix of students with every new class. Bascom Palmer Eye Institute is ranked the No. 1 eye hospital nationally, the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center just received a Cancer Center of Excellence Award from the state of Florida, and our other centers and institutes are doing cutting-edge work in precision medicine, genetics, nanotechnology, robotic surgery, stem cells, transplantation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, nervous-system injury and degenerative disorders, and many other fields.

Our University of Miami Health System — UHealth — is expanding throughout South Florida, with satellite facilities across four counties and more than 2 million patient encounters a year.

Our University of Miami Hospital has a growing patient base and a growing regional reputation. Our with Jackson Memorial Hospital, where UM physicians provide world-class care to all regardless of their ability to pay, has never been stronger in its more than 60 years. Together we are building a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center, and our Miami Transplant Institute performs more than 500 life-saving procedures annually.

Our relationship with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center brings cutting-edge care and research to war heroes. Medical students, with the support of our physicians, are bringing preventive and diagnostic care to underserved communities of our region.

None of this would have happened as quickly, or as successfully, without President Shalala. Her greatest gift, recalling the words of John Quincy Adams, has been as a source of inspiration for all who have come in contact with her.

Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., is senior vice president for medical affairs and dean of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and CEO of UHealth. This piece was written on behalf of UHealth clinical chairs and senior administrators.