On the Eve of Her Departure, Donna Shalala's Principles Questioned

When Donna Shalala was inducted as University of Miami president on June 1, 2001, she became the first female president of the private university, breaking a 76-year streak of five male presidents. During her 14-year reign, she elevated the private university’s ranking so that it regularly appeared on the U.S. News and World Report’s coveted top-50 ranking (peaking at 38 in 2012), And of course, she helped raise close to $3 billion for the school.

Shalala was also been credited as being a champion of women’s rights. This was on display  when she promptly booted two football players after they allegedly raped a 17-year-old student athlete in July 2014. Shalala has always been a visionary. Bill Clinton has called her "a remarkable person" with a "personal touch with people" and a "sense of innate fairness." During the very public Nevin Shapiro NCAA scandal, Shalala self-imposed penalties on the football team and has been praised for her handling of the debacle

In March, Shalala was crowned the future president and chief executive of the Clinton Initiative as Hillary Clinton runs for president. Her last day on the job is about a week away. “A long time ago a friend advised me to always leave a job when you still love it,” Shalala wrote in an email to the university community in September 2014, announcing her resignation. “That is certainly the case here.” 

But Shalala's reputation has taken a hit lately with a series of stories, including a New Times piece on a student who filed a sexual harassment claim from her prominent professor, Colin McGinn — as well as a complex case of alleged rape involving a graduating senior.

Feminist lawyer Ann Olivarius, who is representing the alleged student victim of sexual harassment in the McGinn case, says there's another side to Shalala's legacy. Olivarius compares Shalala's exit to the way the Catholic Church kept silent and moved its pedophilic priests instead of addressing the situation.

“For centuries, the standard way Catholic bishops handled child sexual abuse by priests was to move them quietly to a new job and keep mum,” she says. “Donna Shalala doesn’t quite look like a Catholic bishop, but I am astounded how much she seems to have borrowed from their playbook in steering the University of Miami after one of its graduate students.”

In 2012, after the student Olivarius is representing submitted explicit emails and text messages from her professor as part of a sexual harassment complaint, Shalala made sure the tenured and prominent professor was removed from the university. Shalala rerouted the proper firing protocol for a tenured professor by strong-arming the accused professor into resignation for “failure to report a consensual, romantic relationship” and avoiding a faculty senate hearing.

The student claims that as soon as the professor left,,Shalala stopped caring about her well-being even though she had been complaining of retaliation as a series of blog posts sprouted up on the professor’s personal blog. She also says that having McGinn cop to a lesser offense allowed her alleged harasser to continue to claim that their relationship was consensual and romantic. 

Olivarius contends that Shalala offered McGinn the “plea bargain” and a dignified exit to “avoid a long and ugly Faculty Senate trial that would have generated terrible headlines for UM. Shalala and other University officials threw the student under the bus knowing full well that McGinn had harassed her,” Olivarius says.

Shalala responded to the New Times investigation saying: “No good deed goes unpunished” and celebrated the university’s prompt response. “UM is a safer, better place for it.”

Then there's the case of UM senior Angela Cameron, who started a a petition after a student she claimed had raped her was suspended for only one semester and then allowed to return to his classes. “I’ve seen worse for plagiarism,” Cameron told the Miami Hurricane

Even McGinn speculates about Shalala's motives, especially after her appointment to the Clinton Foundation: "She obviously doesn’t think Bill Clinton's history with Monica Lewinsky is an impediment to taking [his] money and working with him," he says.
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson