By Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963–65)
And … that would be Donna Shalala, a Volunteer that catapulted herself from a field assignment in Iran to the august halls of the U. S. Congress — after being a Cabinet Secretary and president of several universities along the way!
Donna received a degree in 1962 from Ohio’s Western College for Women. In that year and through 1964, she was among the first Volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps. Her placement was in Iran where she worked with other Volunteers to develop an agricultural college. In 1970, she earned a Ph.D. from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
In 1970, Donna began her academic career as a political science professor at Baruch College. In 1972, Donna became a Professor of Politics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, a post she held until 1979. She became the only woman on the Municipal Assistance Corporation, a group tasked with saving the city during the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis. Concurrently with these duties, Donna also served as the Assistant Secretary for policy development and research at the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, she became the tenth president of Hunter College, serving in this capacity until 1988. She next served as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison until 1993, the first women to lead a Big Ten Conference school, and only the second woman in the U. S. to head a major university. Under her leadership, the university adopted a broad speech code subjecting students to disciplinary action for communications that were perceived as hate speech.
Following a year serving as Chair of the Children’s Defense Fund from 1992-93, she was nominated by then-President Clinton for the position of Secretary of Health and Human Services, serving in this role for eight years and becoming our nation’s longest-serving HHS Secretary. One of her major accomplishments was the implementation of CHIPS (the Children’s Health Insurance Program). It was the largest expansion in health care since Medicare and Medicaid. After the end of the Clinton Administration in 2001, Donna went on to become the President of the University of Miami, a post she held until taking a leave of absence from her tenured position in the academic year 2014-15.
Ever resourceful, Donna went on to become CEO of the Clinton Foundation from 2015-17, after which she returned to her full-time teaching position at the University of Miami. In March 2018, she declared her candidacy in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 27th Congressional District. Its seat was held by a 30-year incumbent Republican. In the Democratic Primary, she won the seat by 31.9% of the vote over her challenger’s 27.5%. Donna went on to the general election, winning the Congressional seat at the age of 77, making her the second-oldest freshman Representative in history. Her victory returned the seat to the Democrats for the first time since it was held by the long-time Congressman Claude Pepper in 1989. In the 2020 general election where she served as Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Convention, Donna was defeated by a Republican candidate.
Over a lifetime of public service, Donna was elected to the Council on Foreign Relations; the National Academy of Education; the National Academy of Public Administration, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the American Philosophical Society; the National Academy of Social Insurance; the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences; and the National Academy of Medicine. In 2008, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, and in 2010, she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.
In 2019, to round out this incredible career of service to our nation, she was announced as one of the members of the Inaugural Class of the Government Hall of Fame — a tribute that marked her incredible passage through the halls of higher education and senior levels of government service.
Most certainly, Donna Shalala is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer that is exemplary of its 3rd Goal, earning her a well-deserved Profile in Citizenship.