In her decade as University of Miami president, Donna Shalala has strived to get a school once called "Suntan U" mentioned with the likes of Duke, Vanderbilt and Stanford — world-class private research universities that also win big on Division I courts and playing fields.
Now, the worst-case scenario: The scandal emerging from Miami's football team could instead leave the university forever paired in the public's eye with Southern Methodist University, so far the only school with a football program declared so irredeemable the NCAA shut it down.
While football fans debate if the Hurricanes might be the second, higher education observers are wondering how the scandal will affect the legacy of one the most visible, ambitious and highly paid college presidents in the country.
In 2004, three years after the former Clinton cabinet member arrived in Coral Gables, Shalala made a move that signaled all at once her athletic, financial and academic ambitions for her school: Miami bolted the Big East for the ACC. Shalala wanted Miami in a stronger football conference, with more revenue potential, but she also hoped the ACC's strong academic reputation would rub off on "The U" and help it move on from its scandal-plagued past.
By many counts, she's succeeded, not-so-quietly helping Miami improve its standing in recent years — arguably, as much as any major university in the country.
Average freshman SAT scores are up from 1183 to 1293 during her tenure, and applications have nearly doubled. She's finished a $1.4 billion fundraising campaign, plucked both students and star researchers from colder climes and is adding to an already luxuriant campus.
"It was a very exciting place — the quality of the students, the faculty, the research," said Barbara Kahn, who served as dean of the business school under Shalala until moving to the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year. "We had the mandate to turn the University of Miami into a first-class research school."
Miami has also met an explicit goal to move up in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. It's jumped from No. 67 before Shalala arrived to No. 47 currently, a more rapid climb than any other major university.
All of which gives Shalala substantial capital as Miami confronts allegations, first reported by Yahoo Sports, that a convicted scammer and rogue football booster provided 65 football players who suited up for the Hurricanes with cars, money, gifts and even prostitutes between 2002 and 2010. Ten former Miami football and basketball coaches were also implicated by the booster, Nevin Shapiro.
The NCAA has been investigating the matter for five months and has interviewed Shalala, though there's been no evidence so far to suggest top university officials knew what was happening.
Unless such evidence turns up, Shalala's job is not widely considered to be in jeopardy.
But the fruits of her painstaking work to build up Miami's reputation may be more vulnerable.
At the very least, the latest allegations — on top of mixed reviews of her response to a 2006 brawl between Miami and Florida International University football players — paint her as the latest example of an ambitious university president struggling to corral a big-time sports program. Such programs hold the power to bolster the university immeasurably but also to humiliate it in the blink of an eye.
"I think most people who look at Miami under her presidency would say it's a vastly superior institution," said John Burness, a former public affairs chief at universities including Illinois, Cornell and Duke. "But it's a mark of the power of big-time athletics that it can take the integrity of the (whole) institution down."
Miami's board has expressed support. A university spokeswoman declined an interview request for her but Shalala released a video statement about the allegations on Monday.
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