The idea took root before the first shovels of dirt were even turned.
Four years ago, as the ceremonial groundbreaking for a new University of Miami student center was ending, the Fairholme Foundation’s Bruce Berkowitz proposed a name for the facility that was billed as a “game changer” for the institution.
His suggestion—the Shalala Center—drew a standing ovation, but little came of the suggestion after it was made. When the building officially opened at the start of the 2013-14 academic year, it was simply called the Student Activities Center.
As it turns out, that was only temporary.
On Thursday, in a going-away tribute fit for a queen, UM cemented President Donna E. Shalala’s name in Hurricanes’ history, renaming the 119,000-square-foot Student Activities Center in her honor.
The plaque unveiled in the center’s third-floor ballroom during the eventful occasion said it all: On April 30, 2015, this building was officially named the Donna E. Shalala Student Center in recognition of the President’s extraordinary vision, leadership, and connection to the student body from 2001 to 2015, when the institution attained unprecedented levels of distinction.
“A fitting tribute for an extraordinary leader and educator who for 14 fun and fantastic years always put our students first” is how UM trustee Tracey Berkowitz put it. She and her husband, Bruce, head the foundation that made the lead gift to fund the center’s construction.
It was an act of philanthropy partly influenced by the fact that three of their children attended UM during the Shalala era. “We were so pleased that our three ’Canes had the opportunity to learn in such an incredibly student-oriented institution as the U,” said Tracey Berkowitz, adding that she and her husband wanted to do “something” that would further enhance the student experience.
That “something” turned out to be the generous gift that pushed “the U past the finish line” in its efforts to build a new student center, said Bruce Berkowitz.
Last September, Shalala announced that she would step down as president at the end of the academic year, and as her term neared its end, rumors began to swirl that the Student Activities Center—home to a 24-hour study space, offices for UM’s many student organizations and Student Life departments, a Starbucks, and a new Rathskeller—would undergo a name change.
Thursday’s event, attended by more than a thousand people, made it official, as trustees, donors, administrators, invited guests, faculty, staff, alumni, and, of course, students gathered to honor the University’s first madam president, who always put students at the top of her list.
Shalala, whom Senior Vice President for University Advancement and External Affairs Sergio M. Gonzalez said is “not easy to surprise,” was not privy to much of what was happening inside the third-floor ballroom. UM cheerleaders and Sebastian the Ibis escorted her from her office in the Ashe Administration Building to the center—her walk captured on video and aired live to the audience. She entered the ballroom to the singing of “Hello, Donna!” (set to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” by UM alumnus Jerry Herman). And from that point forward, a touching homage ensued that included everything from comments by former and current students to a musical performance by UM alumnus Jon Secada.
“You may not know that President Shalala was instrumental in enabling student leaders from undergrad, grad, law, and medicine to attend the Fiesta Bowl National Championship Game [in 2003],” said double alumnus Devang Desai, who served as president of the Student Bar Association during Shalala’s second year on campus. “The fact that she invited and paid for student leaders to travel to Tempe spoke volumes about how much students and their experiences mattered.”
But should that have come as a surprise? After all, Shalala, at her December 2000 introductory press conference, made no secret of what her No. 1 priority at UM would be once she took over: students. “Not just the quick, articulate ones but the quiet, shy ones, too,” she said
“A student’s president” is how Alessandria San Roman described Shalala, saying the former Clinton cabinet member transformed “lives both inside and outside the classroom.”
“She has boosted cultural awareness and has been monumental in creating diversity on our campus, a feat we pride ourselves on,” said San Roman, a UM senior who will forever be known as the last Student Government president of the Shalala era. “And we have definitely witnessed her impact whether it was in the numerous new buildings we have added to campus, increased scholarships and financial aid, or engaging speakers who help students see the world in a different way.”
Those speakers included the likes of President Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Dalai Lama, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Spike Lee, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and many more. Shalala didn’t merely bring such powerhouse figures to campus; she made sure students got the first crack at interviewing them—and witnessing them make history.
In 2004, after 250 students had been selected from an essay contest to view the presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry at the BankUnited Center, Shalala gave her own ticket to senior and Olympic medalist Lauryn Williams to enable one more student to attend the event.
Shalala “changed the landscape” of the entire University, said Stuart Miller, chairman of the UM Board of Trustees, adding that she “navigated difficult political environments to pave the way for the University growth.”
Among the achievements of the Shalala era: A top-50 ranking by U.S. News & World Report, new facilities and construction projects, increased research funding, a larger endowment, conference titles in multiple sports, higher and higher SAT scores from incoming freshmen classes, a University-owned and -operated hospital, two successful record-breaking capital campaigns that raised more than $3 billion collectively, and the list goes on.
But when it came time for her to speak, a humble Shalala deflected the praise, crediting her senior administrators, staff, and faculty for helping to transform the University.
“It’s not just that you helped to transform an institution,” she said, as many of her family members, including her twin sister, looked on. “You believed that it could be transformed and made better. It took a strategy, and it took some leadership. But I’m always reminded when I’m watching UM baseball that you can hit 500 but still lose the game. It really takes a team to transform an institution. And every element of that team must believe.”
Once the ceremony had concluded, Shalala, again led by cheerleaders and Frost School of Music students, walked outside to the Student Center Patio stage, where Williams, the Olympic medalist, presented her with a pair of Sebastian the Ibis feet. San Roman also announced a book scholarship in Shalala’s name, and a model of one of the many gliders that Shalala helped bring to campus, was presented to her.
For the next year Shalala will head the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit that works with businesses, governments, NGOs, and individuals to improve global health, increase opportunities for women and girls, and address a range of other pressing problems. After that, she will return to the University to teach.
Shalala’s message to students: “Believe that you can transform lives and make the world a better place.”
Tribute book – Donna E. Shalala: The Mark of Historic Leadership