Donna E. Shalala has dedicated her life to public service and academia, from her early stint with the US Peace Corps through many years of research, teaching, higher education administration, and government management. She has championed humanitarian causes for the underserved—the elderly, children, and the sick and disabled.
The granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants, Donna Shalala was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from Western College for Women in 1962 she volunteered for the Peace Corps and spent two years in Iran teaching and helping construct an agricultural college. She spent her first summer while in the Peace Corps teaching English instructors at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency camp in Sidon, Lebanon, where she worked with faculty members from the American University of Beirut. While a PhD student at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, she continued to travel back and forth between the United States, Lebanon, and Syria to work with members of the AUB faculty. She then pursued an MA, followed by a PhD (1970) from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Over the years she has taught at Syracuse University, Hunter College of the City University of New York, Yale Law School, Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Miami-Florida.
A distinguished political scientist, Shalala, who has served as president of three major universities, has moved easily between the academy and public life. While a professor at Columbia Teachers College she was tapped by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to become assistant secretary for Policy Development and Research in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Following three years in public office she served as president of Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1980 to 1987, and then became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1993 she returned to government once again when President Bill Clinton nominated her for the position of secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). She has been president and professor of political science of the University of Miami since stepping down from HHS in 2001.
Shalala’s work has been marked by notable success: firsts, superlatives, and many awards and commendations highlight her career. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin she became the first woman to head an American “Big 10” school and was labeled “one of the five best managers in higher education.” As secretary of HHS she was not only the first Arab-American cabinet member in the history of US government, but at the time, she was also the highest ranking Arab-American in the US government. When she left the agency in 2001, the Washington Post described her as “one of the most successful government managers of modern times.” In 2008 President Bush awarded Shalala the highest US civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “for her leadership and her determination to ensure that all Americans can enjoy lives of hope, promise, and dignity.”
At the University of Miami, Shalala conducted one of the first billion-dollar capital campaigns completed in the United States and strengthened the university’s position among research universities, marked by a ranking of 38th in the nation by the U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges.”
Donna Shalala has been granted more than four dozen honorary degrees at home and abroad and innumerable other awards and honors. In 2007 at the request of President Bush, she spearheaded, together with former US Senator Bob Dole, a commission to evaluate health care for wounded veterans of the US armed services. The International Women’s Forum presented her with its Hall of Fame Award in 2009, and in 2010, she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights for her “outstanding dedication to improving the health and life chances of disadvantaged populations in South Africa and internationally.” In 2011 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
But it was as secretary of Health and Human Services that Shalala’s achievements soared as she undertook welfare and health care reform, doubled investment in science, implemented policies targeting HIV and tuberculosis, worked with children’s programs and health insurance coverage, and increased immunization rates. She headed the US delegation to the World Health Organization and led multiple agencies responsible for health, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Public Health Service.
She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.