One day in the early 1950s, Donna E. Shalala and her family scurried to shelter as a tornado bore down on their hometown of Cleveland. Then she disappeared. When the funnel had passed, her frantic parents raced to look for her on their tree-littered street.
No worries. Shalala, age 10, was at the corner, directing traffic.
The same sense of personal action and command soon swept the diminutive daughter of Lebanese immigrant parents along in a tornado of accomplishment: to Iran for a stint in the Peace Corps (1962-64), a doctorate in public affairs, a career teaching political science, and another as a high-level university administrator. From 1993 to 2001, Shalala served as the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.
Now president of the University of Miami, Shalala was at Harvard last week (June 6) to accept the Radcliffe Medal, a tradition that includes delivering the keynote address at a luncheon on Radcliffe Day.
A morning program — the Radcliffe Alumnae Awards Symposium — included a panel discussion moderated by Michele Fitzsimmons Levy ’87: “What Are the Challenges, Risks, and Obligations for Women in 2008 and Beyond?”
Shalala, who made several joking references to her slight physical stature, delivered an afternoon address nearly as short as she is: seven minutes. Meanwhile, a chilly breeze rattled the stiff sides of the vast tent set up in Radcliffe Yard for the luncheon. Listening underneath were about 750 graduates and alumni along with Harvard faculty and friends.
Harvard President (and Lincoln Professor of History) Drew Faust was on hand. She is almost a year into her new role.
“Let me first say something I’ve always wanted to say,” Shalala began, looking at Faust. “Sister president.”
On hand too was Harvard computer scientist Barbara J. Grosz, who just this April — after an interim role — was named dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where in 2001 she had been named the first dean of science.
The elevation of a woman to be president of Harvard, and Grosz’s own new deanship, said Shalala, “sends a very clear message — that we’re strengthening the reins of leadership in higher education.”
As for getting women into other positions of leadership, she added, “for those born impatient, it can never be fast enough.”
“I am just deeply honored to be here,” said Shalala, with a nod to a stellar cast of previous honorees. (Last year’s medal went to novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Previous medals have gone to, among others, Madeleine Korbel Albright, Lena Horne, Katharine Graham, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Dole, Billie Jean King, and Janet Reno.)
Grosz, the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, served on a National Academy of Sciences panel with Shalala that in 2007 published “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.”
The report — with Shalala as chair — concluded that deep reform is needed to eliminate gender-based barriers to science education at universities, and that neglecting the potential of women shuts off an important source of talent.
“Donna Shalala is a force of nature,” said Grosz in the award presentation, “upsetting the world, but leaving it much better off.”
Women of her generation had to push hard at glass ceilings, said Shalala — and Harvard and the Radcliffe Institute now offer a glimpse of a brighter future.
“We are in fact witnesses to a season of maturity in the culture of great institutions of higher education,” she said, calling for “true diversity and true equality and true enfranchisement.”
Universities have taken the lead, said Shalala, but have more work to do.
“We must be scrupulous to seek out and dislodge the weeds of racism and sexism from our own gardens, before all else,” she said. “Only then will those of us who lead the great higher educational institutions be vested with the moral authority to take our messages to the world.”
To offer a world-class education, said Shalala, equality has to be “full equality.”
“When the riches of a first-class education are truly made available to every one of our children, irrespective of sex or sexual orientation or race or economic class or disability or creed,” she said, “then our position as a compassionate, thoughtful nation … among all the nations of the Earth will be assured.’’
That means “maximizing the potential in every one of our people,” said Shalala — an ideal “alive today at this gathering.”
It’s already clear, from the experience of the best universities, that quality and equality go hand in hand, she said.
But the “economic argument” is not as clear, said Shalala. The United States can’t afford to turn its back on gender equalities in universities, and in the workforce, she said. “The consequences of not acting will be detrimental to our nation’s competitiveness. There’s a lot at stake — our future as a powerful nation.”
Newton could stand on the shoulders of giants, “but many of your past honorees and I — as well as many women in the room today — have only had to rely on ourselves,” said Shalala.
“No one — no one — could ever accuse me of being a giant,” she said, getting a ripple of laughter. “But I hope that my shoulders are big enough for others to stand on.”