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
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."
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