Shirley Sears Chater, described by her new boss as a woman of skill, vision and tenacity, took the oath of office yesterday as commissioner of the Social Security Administration at its Woodlawn headquarters.
The 60-year-old educator will oversee a work force of more than 68,000, including more than 14,000 in the Baltimore area.
"If only Shirley Chater can do for America what she did for Texas Women's University," Donna E. Shalala, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said before swearing in the new SSA chief.
The SSA is a major part of Health and Human Services and accounts for about half of the department's annual budget.
Mrs. Chater comes to her $115,700-a-year job from a successful tenure as president at TWU, a liberal arts institution for women in Denton, Texas, with about 9,500 students. She was credited, in her seven years there, with changing what was regarded as a dowdy, backward institution into a high-tech force in Texas education.
She also started a program for single mothers and children, a clinic to provide health care for low-income families and a prenatal clinic for Hispanic women.
"We have to restore confidence in the Social Security system," Mrs. Chater told SSA employees in the agency's main auditorium. "There are a lot of myths about the system, and we have to correct those. And we must provide the highest possible quality in our service.
"I'm someone who likes to work in teams," she said. "I see problems as opportunities. I'm aware of the enormous responsibility, and I'm prepared to devote all my energy to the task."
Mrs. Chater's energy is legendary in Texas. She was walking on campus by 6 a.m. every morning, according to her colleagues, and worked well into the evening and on weekends.
She is a native of Sunbury, in Pennsylvania coal country. She earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania, a master's from the University of San Francisco, and a doctorate in education from the University of California in Berkley.
Before her appointment at TWU, she worked for a university president search firm in Washington. She also was vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of San Francisco.
Mrs. Chater is the 11th administrator in 16 years of an organization that distributes billions of dollars to more than 45 million beneficiaries.