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At Helm of Nation's Health, Donna Shalala Thrives

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala, Crimson Staff Writer

As the longest serving secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in U.S. history, Donna Shalala takes her work seriously. And she is not afraid to tell anyone.

"Places are different when I leave them," Shalala told The New York Times. "That's what I do for a living. I run large institutions, public mostly, and improve them."

She now leads a government department with 61,000 employees and a $387 billion annual budget.

Known for her extensive educational background, her strong feminist ideals and her five-foot stature, Shalala stands proud of her accomplishments.

Today at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), Shalala--who says she will leave government with the end of the Clinton administration--will share her thoughts with the school's graduating class, confident of her past but unsure of her future.

Head of the Class

Donna E. Shalala was born on February 14, 1941 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.

She began her career in public service early. After receiving her bachelor's degree from Western College for Women in 1962, Shalala volunteered for the Peace Corps, teaching in Iran. She returned to complete her master's degree from Western in 1968 and her Ph.D. from Syracuse University two years later.

With a solid education in hand, Shalala moved into academia. From 1970 to 1972 she taught political science at Bernard Baruch College, and between 1972 and 1979 she taught politics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Jeremy E. Solomon, who served as Shalala's deputy director for scheduling and advance last year, said that Shalala's work as a teacher carries on in her role at HHS.

"That is something that has truly defined her," says Solomon, who is a rising second-year student at KSG. "With her staff, she has always been a teacher."

"She is delighted to be around young people," he adds.

In 1980, Shalala entered academic administration as president of Hunter College in New York City, and after eight years there became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As the first woman to head a Big Ten university, Shalala helped raise over $400 million for the school's endowment and worked to improve the university's science research facilities.

During her tenure, Business Week named Shalala one of the five best managers in higher education.

"She's used to working with professors with big egos who think they are always right," says David T. Ellwood, Littauer professor of political economy at KSG. "That experience can be very helpful when working with people in government."

Ellwood, who served as an assistant to Shalala on welfare reform from 1993 to 1995, says Shalala's university management experience prepared her for her HHS appointment.

"She's used to thinking intellectually and looking at the big picture," he says.

"It taught me how to listen," Shalala says. "I'm comfortable talking to people."

Head Honcho of Health

In 1993, President Clinton appointed Shalala secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services--the division of the federal government that deals with programs like Medicare and Medicaid, federal welfare programs and children's programs like Head Start.

The department also administers such institutions as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

During her tenure, the department has tackled a series of thorny issues, from welfare reform to organ allocation.

Shalala had previously served as the assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Carter between 1977 and 1980.

At HUD, Shalala worked to improve the treatment of women through initiatives such as the creation of battered women's shelters.

Some thought that Shalala's appointment to HHS was a politically correct move to have a woman--and a friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton--heading the agency. Shalala, however, deflects such charges.

"They were wrong then, and they wouldn't say the same thing now," Shalala says.

Target Practice

Shalala had little time to worry about the scrutiny. Clinton asked her to tackle major administration initiatives like welfare and health care reform, both of which have achieved varied results.

"We didn't get universal health care," Shalala says. "Our proposal was too complicated, and the country wasn't ready for it."

Ellwood says that Shalala's successes far outweigh the failed initiatives under her watch, however.

"Quite a lot has happened since she has been there, from welfare reform to extending medical benefits to the poor to helping Social Security become an independent agency," Ellwood says.

Recently, Shalala has spearheaded an effort to make organ allocation for transplants based purely on need rather than proximity to available organs.

The House voted in April to accept a system closer to the status quo over Shalala's recommendations, but the vote may be blocked by a presidential veto.

Because of the sensitive projects that Shalala deals with--which can create conflicts that go beyond party lines--she is often an easy target for protesters and political opposition.

"[The HHS secretary has] absolutely the most difficult position because you always have so many activist groups trying to reach you on everything from abortion to AIDS to welfare to animal rights," said former HHS secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan to Cleveland's Plain Dealer. "You get picketed and sued more than anyone else."

And Shalala, an ardent feminist, was one of several Cabinet members criticized for not walking out on the administration during the height of the Clinton sex scandal.

Shalala, however, says that her job was more important than the political attacks on Clinton.

"I think the Cabinet basically decided to stay," Shalala told The Times. "We had work to do."

"She cares about people and is supportive and loyal to the people she works with," Ellwood says.

She says she still has a good relationship with President Clinton.

"We're close," Shalala says. "We have a good working relationship."

Shalala, however, says that characterizing her department as controversial is a misnomer.

"It has a few controversial issues," she says. "Most of our budget has bipartisan support, and we usually receive more money that we ask for."

And despite the attacks, Shalala says she believes she has done her job well.

"American children are healthier and wealthier," Shalala says. "And American science is in a golden age."

Colleagues agree, saying she has provided direction for HHS.

"She is an amazing woman and a terrific manager," Solomon says.

Ellwood says Shalala's personality--which Shalala describes as "enthusiastic"--made her a perfect fit for the job.

"She is caring and thoughtful, but she can be tough when she needs to be, which makes for a terrific combination," he says.

Despite her longevity as HHS, Shalala says that once the Clinton administration ends, she will not serve in another Cabinet or run for any public office and will most likely return to a university setting.

She says she "might" consider teaching at Harvard after HHS.

"My career has been characterized by larger and larger responsibilities and more interesting jobs," Shalala told The Times. "It's harder to get bigger and more interesting than this."

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