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A Ānatural' as skipper

A 'natural' as skipper

Stephen Goldstein

October 31, 2001

She's "the best shortstop" George Steinbrenner says he ever had, and the best gift University of Miami trustees could have given their school for its 75th anniversary. On Friday, Donna Shalala will be invested as UM's fifth president, but the significance of her appointment goes beyond Coral Gables.

No one even close to her stature has been tapped to head a college or university in Florida in at least the past 25 years -- perhaps ever -- and no one is likelier to lead it to greatness.

You're wrong if you think that Shalala has come a long way from Cleveland and the "Annie Oakley Pigtail League," where Steinbrenner really coached her in her youth to protect the infield and throw overhand. Circumstances don't change people like her; it's the other way around. She's the same "natural" in everything she does that she was as a kid playing baseball. Born with an instinct for being "the best," she encourages it in others. That's why she's perfect to lead UM now: She loves to move into situations where there are strengths, but room for achieving excellence, so she can make a difference.

So, how is she likely to change UM? Fearlessly. Remember this is the former Secretary of Health and Human Services who publicly defended Bill Clinton when he said he was telling the truth about not having had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, but who shredded him, privately, at a Cabinet meeting, after he confessed to lying about it -- and didn't deny doing so when the story was leaked.

However intrepid, Shalala always learns the lay of the land before she forges ahead. From her stints as the head of Hunter College and the University of Wisconsin System, some of what she'll do is predictable. Keen on mentoring young people, she'll make UM preeminent for catering to students' needs -- assessing the effectiveness of academic programs, keeping costs manageable and enhancing campus life. She'll attract, reward, and retain the best faculty. To move UM into the ranks of America's elite institutions, she'll increase research and its quality; at the same time, she'll insist that faculty apply what they discover as meaningful catalysts in their immediate environment. An accomplished golfer, tennis player, and passionate fan, she'll unstintingly support sports -- especially football -- not just for the sake of the games, but because she sees them as a way to build community spirit.

Finally, Shalala will jauntily raise the billions of dollars for endowment and general purposes she'll need to create a vibrant UM for the 21st century. A person who naturally enjoys people, she's perfect even for that unenviable job. At the beginning of the Clinton administration, she was pegged as a liberal who would have trouble working with Republicans, but she proved to be masterful at forging bipartisan coalitions. To her personal magnetism, bridge-building and vast connections outside of Florida, add a strong commitment to raising funds that the Board of Trustees that hired her owes her, and you've got the makings of a successful capital campaign before it begins.

More important than anything else, Shalala is one of a vanishing breed of true academic leaders who know the subtle, but critical, distinction between running a business and running a university in a businesslike way. At a time when too many university presidents prefer to think of themselves as CEOs, but act like mid-level managers and bean-counters, selling out academic quality to the bottom line, Shalala relishes the chance to implement her vision of what a real university should be, manage a large organization in broad, strategic ways -- and still ensure its financial stability. She'll surround herself with talented professionals and give them the freedom to do their jobs.

Shalalas have boundless energy. Into her 80s, her mother played tennis and golf. Shalala herself is invigorated, not enervated, by work. On UM's 100th anniversary, she may no longer be president, but she will have shaped its fourth quarter-century. Watch, George Steinbrenner, wherever you are. Shalala and UM will bat .1000 for excellence in education.

Stephen L. Goldstein's commentaries are broadcast on "South Florida Today" on WXEL-Ch. 42. E-mail him at trendsman@aol.com.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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