Shalala was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Lebanese immigrant parents and has a twin sister, Diane Fritel. She graduated from West Tech High School and received her bachelor's degree in 1962 from Western College for Women (which, in 1976, was merged with Miami University in Oxford, Ohio).
She served as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Iran from 1962 to 1964, where she worked with other volunteers to construct an agricultural college. She received a Master's and then, in 1970, a Doctorate degree from the Maxwell School of Public Affairs and Citizenship at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
Shalala began her teaching career as a political science professor at Baruch College (part of CUNY), where she also was a member of the American Federation of Teachers union. In 1972, Shalala became a professor of politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, a job she held until 1979. Concurrently, from 1977 to 1980, she served as the Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Carter administration.
Shalala's first experience with academic administration came in 1980 when she became the 10th President of Hunter College, serving in this capacity until 1988.
She next served as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Under her chancellorship and with her support, the University adopted a broad speech code subjecting students to disciplinary action for communications that were perceived as hate speech. That speech code was later found unconstitutional by a federal judge. Also while chancellor, Shalala supported passage of a revised faculty speech code broadly restricting "harmful" speech in both "noninstructional" and "instructional" settings. The faculty speech code was abolished ten years later, after a number of professors were investigated for alleged or suspected violations.
Following a year serving as Chair of the Children's Defense Fund (1992-1993), Shalala was appointed United States Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. She served in this role for all eight years of his administration, becoming the nation's longest serving HHS Secretary. In 1996 Shalala was the first female designated survivor during President Clinton's State of the Union address.
In her role as HHS Secretary, Shalala frequently drew criticism for her positions, which were seen by some as too liberal. The Washington Post labeled her "one of the most controversial Clinton Cabinet nominees." She was also also known for her fervent anti-drug stance.
Every spring semester at the University of Miami, Shalala teaches a course covering the United States healthcare system, drawing on her expertise after serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
In early 2006 the university was involved in a nationally-publicized custodial workers' strike, a dispute between the university's then non-unionized custodial workers (now represented by the SEIU labor union) and the university's contractor, UNICCO. The strike, which lasted from February 28 to May 1, 2006, generated criticism of Shalala and UNICCO, and Shalala's administration's failure to act on studies had shown that UM's custodial workers were among the lowest paid university-based custodians in the nation and were not earning a living wage, until the strike prompted her to raise wages. Award-winning Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez, for example, contrasted the life of a $6.60 an hour custodian at UM with that of Shalala, whose salary was more than $500,000 a year, and who had just been profiled in The New York Times, "photographed amid the splendor of her 9,000-square-foot presidential residence, where she lives with her dog, Sweetie" and describing luxury purchases and her favorite vacation spot, in Bhutan. Some workers and protesters felt Shalala should have acted earlier to prevent the strike, and took the side of UNICCO on the conduct the unionization vote.
On March 6, 2007 President George W. Bush named Shalala and Bob Dole to head a presidential commission called the President's Commission On Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors. The commission was formed in response to a growing outcry over the care of wounded outpatient soldiers.
The commission includes seven other members, ranging from injured war veterans to the wife of a wounded staff sergeant who suffered burns across 70 percent of his body. Demands for corrective action arose after the Washington Post exposed living conditions in a decrepit Army-owned building just outside Walter Reed Hospital and highlighted obstacles and delays in the treatment of soldiers who suffered serious injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission subsequently issued several recommendations for improvement of these facilities.
Shalala serves on the board of the Albert Shanker Institute, a small, three-member staff organization named for the former head of the American Federation of Teachers. She is an honorary board member of the American Iranian Council, an organization that seeks to promote closer U.S.-Iran relations. She is also a member on the board of directors for Gannett Company.
Analysis: Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala refuses to implement law giving consumers access to lower-cost drugs from other countries
Dec 27, 2000; 00-00-0000 Analysis: Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala refuses to implement law giving consumers access to...