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.
"We cannot let the actions of some define the many," Shalala said.
Meanwhile, she's been trying to maintain an aura of normalcy on campus, mingling with incoming freshmen and attending a women's soccer game.
Miami's been down this road before, when the football program went wild in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s, when reform efforts were undermined by more NCAA sanctions.
But the university itself is a different place these days.
In the early 1980s, the Fiske Guide to Colleges reported "serious students are easy to spot at the University of Miami. They're the ones without the deep-burnished tans." The latest edition reports the "stereotypical beach bum ... need not apply" and describes a place that's still fun but highly competitive academically.
Always known for marine biology, Miami — with about 10,000 undergraduates — is now also well-regarded in music, business and medical research. About 60 percent of new students come from out of state. Applications have soared to around 25,000 and the acceptance rate is 39 percent, down from 53 percent a decade ago.
"High-quality students would have it on a list, and maybe even the top students would have it on an extended list," Lee Stetson, a private adviser who works with college applicants around the country, said of Miami's growing reach with applicants nationally. "Under Donna Shalala's leadership and just in general, the whole university has become a more sought-after undergraduate experience."
Observers say Shalala's predecessor, Tad Foote, also deserves credit for Miami's renaissance, but give the current president her due. She's pushed Miami's image relentlessly and spent money to make money, including millions to host a 2004 presidential debate and expose the university to a global audience.
But some of those investments have proved controversial. The former secretary of health and human services raised some eyebrows when Miami hired Charles Nemeroff, a star researcher who left a previous job at Emory during a conflict-of-interest scandal, to lead the medical school's psychiatry program. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of the university hospital system contributed to a debt downgrade.
She herself received nearly $1.2 million in compensation in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available in the Chronicle of Higher Education's most recent survey of college presidential pay. That puts her in the top 20 among college presidents nationally, according to the Chronicle.
Until last week, at least, Miami looked like it had proved wrong the doubters who didn't want the Hurricanes in the ACC. The most recent figures show Miami's football program with the second-highest academic progress rate in the conference, while legacy ACC programs like North Carolina and Georgia Tech were mired in NCAA investigations.
But the football program just can't seem to shake its demons.
After the 2006 brawl, Shalala attracted some criticism for not handing down harsher punishments, and for saying she hadn't watched a tape of the incident before the suspensions were announced. Head coach Larry Coker was fired at the end of that season.
Then, just before the Miami scandal broke, Shalala was quoted in an ESPN The Magazine article about Ohio State President Gordon Gee — who had joked that he worked for now-former football coach Jim Tressel, not the other way around. The magazine quoted Shalala saying she was "on alert at all times" and scouring the sidelines for suspicious characters during football games. So it didn't look good when a photo surfaced of Shapiro handing her a $50,000 check for the university at a bowling alley.
Another quote that may come back to haunt her was published in The New York Times in 2006.
"People think (the job of college president) is really hard, but I think it's easy," she said. "The more complicated and messy it gets, the happier I am."
"I think she's now trapped a bit in that she's always talked about running a clean program and compared herself in private sessions to her predecessors who didn't," Burness said. "You're hoist by your own petard when you put yourself on a pedestal and the whole thing falls apart."
Justin Pope is the AP's national higher education reporter. You can follow him on Twitter (at)jnn—pope97
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