In an interview earlier this month, I asked University of Miami President Donna Shalala how she had seemed to clean up UM's notorious football program. "I have no tolerance," she insisted, "for breaking rules." Yet, as Yahoo! Sports reported on Tuesday, Aug. 16, convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro boasted that from 2002 a year after Shalala arrived at UM until 2010, he lavished money, nightlife, yacht excursions and prostitutes on more than 70 UM football players in brazen violation of NCAA codes. Shapiro got away with it, he charges, because he was such a generous booster of UM sports. Shalala and UM officials say they were unaware of Shapiro's shenanigans. "I am upset, disheartened and sadded by these recent allegations," Shalala said in a Wednesday statement but an NCAA investigation is underway and could bring heavy sanctions.
Not even Shalala, it appears, can escape the corrupt curse that hangs over University of Miami football a program Sports Illustrated once said should be shut down and the Division I game in general. But the saddest thing about this scandal, coming not just on the eve of a new gridiron season but a new academic year, is how it clouds what Shalala accomplished during the decade Shapiro was stalking UM's locker rooms: She took an underachieving school derided as "Suntan U" and, by 2009, moved it to U.S. News & World Report's list of the nation's top 50 universities, a roster it's expected to make again next month. For once, the University of Miami is being taken more seriously for its academic standing than for its football ranking. "This," Shalala says, "is no one's 'easy' school."
And, like a tropical banyan tree, that attitude has been laying down roots elsewhere in Miami-Dade County. Florida International University, once an obscure commuter school, is now a respected public research university whose international business program is among U.S. News' top 15. At the same time, FIU issues more bachelor's degrees to minorities than any U.S. institution. Likewise, Miami-Dade College is lauded by President Obama for revolutionizing the role of community colleges, raising their academic stature while staying committed to the kind of under-served students, especially immigrants, who are key to the futures of U.S. cities like Miami. "The increased quality and visibility of these schools have been very impressive," says Jaap Donath, vice president of research and strategic planning at the Beacon Council, a local private-public development agency, who notes that the share of Miami-Dade adults earning bachelor's degrees in the past decade has also leapt from 21% to 27%.
The boorish behavior of its jocks notwithstanding, Miami is finally promoting brains as well as beaches. And not a moment too soon. After a century of relying on low-wage economic engines like tourism and construction, metropolitan Miami (which includes the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County) is staring at a 13.9% unemployment rate, one of the highest among large U.S. cities, and a Third World-style gap between its rich and poor residents. Many believe the rise of research schools like UM and FIU, as well as a proliferation of museums and performing arts centers, signals that Miami is making a bid for the kind of high-tech, high-culture groove that could help it realize its potential as one of America's most important 21st-century cities the trade and artistic nexus of the Americas.
That aspiration had been all too often eclipsed by South Florida's sun-addled indifference to anything deeper than plastic surgery and leased Jaguars. But the unexamined life Florida was "paradise," so what was there to examine? didn't look so charming when in 2000 the world shined its "Flori-duh" spotlight on the region during the presidential vote recount debacle. Along with the equally embarrassing Elián González fiasco, it prompted a long overdue reality check for Miamians.
The next year Shalala, the former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin who had just finished eight years as President Bill Clinton's health secretary, took over the private University of Miami, which was founded in 1925 in Coral Gables, Fla., and has a total enrollment of 15,000. "My friends thought I was off my rocker," she tells TIME. "But I just saw the potential here. I'm a builder." Aside from turning UM into a top tier university, aided by a remarkable $1.4 billion development campaign she directed from 2003 to 2008, Shalala says the most important challenge was to help South Florida "create good jobs" for a change. She sees the university's medical school and the city's large, retiree-driven healthcare industry as catalysts for making the region a world-class biomedical enterprise zone the heart of which may be the billion-dollar UM Life Science & Technology Park under construction just north of downtown Miami.
At FIU (founded 1965; enrollment 44,000) business and engineering synergy is fostering advances in areas like handheld devices for detecting breast cancer. "UM and FIU have significantly increased the breadth and depth of their research capabilities," says Jerry Haar, an associate business dean at FIU and director of its Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center, "especially in knowledge-intensive industries that create spillover and multiplier effects." To Shalala, that meshes with Miami's promise, given its grassroots business energy, of becoming "one of the world's great entrepreneurial cities," where companies "may not grow into large corporations, but they'll create critical mass and a larger middle class." Only 20% of Miamians occupy the middle class, versus 45% nationwide.
Urban centers like Boston, California's Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle have all benefitted from university-driven development. Despite California's current budget woes, its renowned commitment to higher education is a big reason 6.6% of its workforce hold high-tech jobs compared to 3.2% in Florida. Miami likes to talk about creating a "Silicon Beach" scene, but it's still largely a port city that transships the products of other regions and countries. If it were to become a city that makes things for a change not just medical tech but green energy like solar tech it could exploit its rich trade links to a booming Latin America far more profitably.
In the meantime, Miami has begun to shake the image of a cultural wasteland in flip-flops. Aside from its highly regarded international book fair, its five-year-old Arsht Center is now the U.S.'s second-largest performing arts venue, after New York's Lincoln Center. Miami Beach's new Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, according to the New York Times, "has the potential to be a game-changer in classical music." Two other major hubs, the Miami Art Museum and Miami Science Museum, are under construction at a downtown park near Biscayne Bay, and the annual Art Basel has grown over the past decade into one of the U.S.'s most important shows. "Miami has realized," says Shalala, "that great cities need great institutions."
Phil Latzman, host of the popular Florida Roundup on Miami's local public radio station, WLRN, who arrived from New York 21 years ago, agrees. But he says it's unfair to expect Miami, incorporated in 1896, to become a Chicago or even a Los Angeles this soon. "This area has only been heavily populated since the advent of air conditioning," says Latzman. "We're still watching Miami in the process of shaping its very multicultural identity. We are the new New York, the new melting pot."
A big question, Latzman adds, is whether Miami's new scholarly and cultural energy can improve its corrupt politics and apathetic civics. Chicago has world-class universities, museums and orchestras, yet its government is still plagued by corruption. But Chicago has at least produced political leaders with urban vision, something Miami where community-connecting public transit is negligible has not done. "Miami does not yet have the infrastructure and governance systems," says Haar, "that are up to the demands of entrepreneurs who are trying to create a knowledge-based economy in the tropics."
The immediate question is how the new scandal will affect the University of Miami's new stature which was won in part, we thought, by reining in the football team's outlaw excesses. In our interview, Shalala insisted that the kind of booster-perpetrated football depravity Shapiro narrates "wouldn't have lasted two minutes under me." But, if Shapiro is telling the truth and some former UM players have indicated he is it lasted eight years. Which means Shalala will start the academic year taking more questions than bows in a tropical city she's done much to help build.