Readers of the sports pages and anyone who lives in Connecticut know this story: how Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala went on to become president of the University of Miami; how President Shalala vouched more than a year ago that Miami was happy being part of the Big East Athletic Conference; how on the basis of that assurance, the state of Connecticut ponied up $90 million to build a new football stadium, Rentschler Field, in Hartford for its up-and-coming University of Connecticut (UConn) team; how, meanwhile, Shalala was plotting to switch Miami into the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and had been quietly working with two other Big East schools, Boston College and Syracuse, also to switch conferences and thereby financially ruin the Big East; and how Connecticut’s attorney general Richard Blumenthal organized a lawsuit with other members of its beleaguered league complaining of “promissory estoppel” by Miami and the ACC.
It takes a lot to overcome my indifference to sports, but the maneuverings of Donna Shalala as tight end dashing down the gridiron of big-time college sports are irresistible. Shalala, who as chancellor of University of Wisconsin in the 1980s was the architect of its descent into diversity delirium, and who as secretary of HHS for Clinton steered her department into all-quotas-all-the-time, is making a new mark. She realized that the Miami Hurricanes football team could potentially produce a few more millions in revenue for the university, if it moved to a different conference, and if that conference secured new big bucks television contracts for its championship game. All of these calculations arose from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules that specify that a conference has to have twelve teams for a playoff. The Big East had eight, counting Miami. ACC had only nine; hence Shalala’s needs to suborn Boston College and Syracuse into the plot.
If this sounds complicated, believe me, I am only scratching the surface. The skullduggery with all its plot twists and betrayals, however, is clear if you keep your eyes on the money. Miami got $9.8 million last season from the Big East Conference, of which $7.8 million derived from football. It could gain a few million more if the pieces of Shalala’s plot came together. Never mind that Miami’s relatively small gain would come at the price of enormous loss for eleven or so other universities. Apparently it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there beyond HSS. But up in the nutmeg state, Attorney General Blumenthal, a Democrat with his eyes on the governor’s office, needs to show he can come to the rescue of the UConn Huskies. Meanwhile, down in Virginia, the Democratic governor Mark Warner leaned on John Casteen, the president of the University of Virginia, telling him he was not allowed to vote for ACC expansion unless it included a berth for Virginia Tech.
And last week a surprise ending. The Big East came up with a financial offer for Miami for the next five years better than what Miami would get from the ACC, but Shalala went with the ACC anyway. Shalala explained, “It has been a bizarre, strange, and goofy process, but it has allowed us the opportunity to give ourselves some distance, so that we got a view of who we are, where we are, and where we want to be.” Huh? But then she got on script: “The ACC represents grate academics and great athletics, and we have both.” Sportswriters around the country offered acerbic analysis. My favorite, from Michael Gee in the Boston Herald, “Faced with a crisis of conscience,” Shalala, “turned to the first rule of ethics in her former profession: Once bought, an honest politician stays bought.”
Sports, money, politics: This is great stuff. And this is what big-time college presidents do.
Several years ago, I wrote an article, “Dogfish,” in which I pointed out that there were only a few things expected of college presidents these days. They have to raise lots of money; they have to promote “diversity;” and they have to put on a good show once a year at commencement. Nonetheless the failure rate is very high. The title “dogfish” was prompted by my observation that the average tenure in office of a college president is 6.7 years, while the maximum recorded lifespan of the spotted dogfish is eighteen years. This difference is worth keeping in mind should you ever find yourself in a position of having to distinguish one from the other.
The university president I was working for at the time wasn’t especially amused by this observation. But then he lasted as president only six years and nine days, which is 246.5 days less than the average. Perhaps he needed a better chief of staff.
In any case, I have been reconsidering my list of essential characteristics in college presidents. Warm, buttery insincerity remains a highly desirable quality, but Donna Shalala shows that even those who are utterly devoid of that oleaginous Clintonian quality can thrive if they are sufficiently ruthless. Shalala’s distinction lay in how far she was willing to go in throwing big time colleges sports into turmoil in pursuit of what was little more than a pittance in additional income for her university. Her calculations, centered on football revenue, seemed to ignore utterly the interests of the young men and women playing basketball and other team sports at Miami and other universities.
There’s the spirit. Crush the kids. Get the dollars. The withering criticism Shalala received — and maybe the lawsuit — took some of the exuberate joy out of her greed. In the end, Shalala’s decision to take Miami into the ACC seemed more about her wounded vanity than money. One of her comments perfectly captures the trajectory from avidity to hauteur: “I don’t want to pretend money wasn’t a factor, because that would be disingenuous of us.”
But as it happens, there is another, entirely different, but equally great story about higher-education leadership unfolding at my doorstep. William Bulger — Billy — chancellor of the University of Massachusetts has had to testify to a congressional committee seeking information on the whereabouts of his brother “Whitey” Bulger, the fugitive killer and Boston mob boss. I mean “alleged” killer, mob boss. Again, if you live in the northeast, you know this story in abundant detail: how Billy Bulger excelled in school, went into politics and rose to become the clever, personable, and ruthless president of the Massachusetts Senate, while his brother excelled in loan sharking, prostitution, drugs, and cold-blooded murder and rose to become the clever, personable, and ruthless king of the Winter Hill gang. Whitey turned FBI informant in order to get the feds to wipe out the Italian competition, and incidentally succeeded in corrupting his FBI handlers, one of whom tipped him off to his impending arrest. Then Whitey hit the road and hasn’t been seen since, although his brother’s use of the Fifth Amendment in his congressional testimony assures us that Whitey is doing okay.
Billy Bolger’s loyalty to his brother, despite the trail of corpses and broken lives, is touching, so much so that a bunch of his stalwart friends in the legislature have so far successfully blocked Republican governor Mitt Romney’s attempts to abolish the position of UMass chancellor. Billy has had a tough season, but he has friends, including John Silber, the chancellor of Boston University, where I work. The attraction makes sense to me. I’ve met Chancellor Bulger on several occasions and can attest to his charm and intelligence. Rather than treat his refusal to rat out his brother as a character defect that might undermine the moral fiber of University of Massachusetts students, shouldn’t we see him as an exemplar of older and deeper values? If Governor Romney were a real conservative, wouldn’t he acknowledge the true grit in Billy Bulger, a man who is loyal to his brother even when said brother suffers the misfortune of making the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list?
Can we connect these two stories? The University of Miami (“the largest, most comprehensive private research university in the southeastern United States with a well-earned reputation for academic excellence”) and the University of Massachusetts (a large public university with a well-earned reputation for dreadful academic programs) have little in common. Yet at the head of both stand figures who rose to distinction (so to speak) in politics. Shalala is an actively destructive force who inflicted lasting damage at the University of Wisconsin by ushering in an era of ideological rule, but who is unleashing a different kind of turmoil now. Bulger is a sort of academic traditionalist who might well be doing some academic good at UMass, but is really living in the afterglow of his legislative career.
The real thread that connects them is that they exemplify the strange fate of the American college president, who was once a figure of intellectual substance and even of moral importance, and who has become something vastly diminished. If there is any common quality, perhaps it is just that these are ruthless people. Not to be confused with the superficially similar, but longer lived spotted dogfish.
— Peter Wood is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept and professor of anthropology at Boston University.