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U of M president finalist Joan Gabel on higher ed’s role, tuition, diversity, vision for the U

U of M president finalist Joan Gabel
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Joan Gabel spent time on the Twin Cities campus on Monday mingling with students, faculty and other interested attendees during a reception held outside of the Coffman Theater.

Last Wednesday, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents named Joan Gabel, provost at the University of South Carolina, the sole finalist to become president of the University of Minnesota.

If appointed, she’ll become the university’s 17th president and the first woman to take the helm.

She’s served as the executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina since 2015.

Before that she served as dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business for five years. In addition to holding other administrative and faculty positions at two other institutions, she’s served as editor-in-chief of the American Business Law Journal.

She holds a juris doctor degree from the University of Georgia and earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

She’s married and has three children.

The Board of Regents will publicly interview Gabel at their regularly scheduled board meeting this Friday, Dec. 14. That marks the final round of vetting in a search process that began in August, shortly after the U’s current president, Eric Kaler, announced his resignation in July. In October the Board of Regents switched search firms and the process continued, with the U’s search committee sorting through 67 applicants to nominate three finalists for consideration by the board.

Before Gabel makes it to that final hurdle, however, she’ll be spending time at each of the university’s five campuses, where she’ll participate in public forums. (The full schedule is available here.)

To start, she spent time on the Twin Cities campus on Monday — mingling with students, faculty and other interested attendees during a reception held outside of the Coffman Theater, where she then spent a little over an hour fielding questions from audience members. This initial campus forum ended with a brief period of media availability.

Addressing the audience with some opening remarks, Gabel noted that higher education has changed a lot during her career. And some of those changes are resulting in “pressure that not all of us like, or enjoy.”

“But the universities that will come out of this ahead … are universities that have a deep investment in discovery, that understand what students need in the classroom and beyond the classroom, that understand what it means to serve their state while they impact the world — and this university knows how to do that,” she said. “I’ve never seen a university better positioned to be the kind of university that recognizes legacy and is ready for what the future holds, in a positive way with a contribution that we’ll be talking about in the next 170 years.”

On commitment to higher ed and diversity

The moderator started the forum by asking Gabel to make the case for higher education, at a time when the value of higher education is being questioned, nationally. Gabel said this work certainly falls on the president’s shoulders. But it also requires a bit of a cultural shift among campus faculty, who are good at talking about their research with their peers and students, but not always comfortable sharing it with the broader community because it “has felt like bragging.” In addition to encouraging faculty to go more mainstream with their research, she talked about the university’s role in preparing students “for a life well lived,” being a place of discovery, serving as a “beacon of inclusion,” and driving economic development.

“The resources that are invested in the university do yield for the state,” she said. “We need to remind people of that — be prepared to describe that in the specific classes that we offer, the programs that we offer, the research that we do, and the way in which we serve the state through our extension offices, across all the counties, our campuses, and right here in the Twin Cities.”

Asked about her commitment to advancing diversity, Gabel talked about how campuses are well positioned to be at the front lines of this work because things like “dignity and respect actually lead to better discovery, better instruction.”

“We are thinkers. We like to discover. We like to prepare ways to have robust conversations,” she said. “And that is something that we can do really well. So a we can and should lead this conversation.”

In addition to building momentum behind inclusion, Gabel says universities have a great capacity to take action, by hiring a diverse staff, admitting a diverse student body and ensuring that all voices are heard.

On mental health and sexual misconduct

At the University of South Carolina, Gabel says she’s been working to shore up mental health services for students in a number of ways. Operationally, she and her colleagues have hired more counselors, made changes to scheduling and expanded office hours. “We’re also doing a lot of benchmarking against what other institutions are doing in terms of peer support, faculty preparedness,” she added.

Getting more resources in the hands of faculty, so they’re better equipped to connect students with the supports they needs, has been huge, she said. Likewise, working closely with the student government, which is also championing reforms, has been key, she added.

Queuing up another major student concern — sexual misconduct — the moderator noted that Kaler is currently in the midst of a major prevention initiative and asked Gabel to comment on this effort.

She said she’s been following the conversation unfold here at the University of Minnesota and has been impressed with how leaders have looked to leverage the know-how of their public health colleagues and are “thinking about this as a public health crisis.”

“With the unfortunate recognition that perfect prevention is unlikely … the idea is to make sure that your support structure on campus is fully aware of the unique attributes and issues of this type of crime, of the consequences of this type of experience, and works together to make sure the support is absolutely world class and top-notch,” she said.

Recent changes to Title IX, at the federal level, she notes, need to be considered and followed as well so that the university stays in compliance. “But I don’t see that as in any way limiting the investment made in prevention and support for when the event unfortunately happens.”

On tuition and alternate revenue

Gabel didn’t make a clear commitment to holding off tuition increases, but she did talk a bit about her openness to exploring alternate revenue.

“Nationally, there’s definitely pressure to contain the total cost of education and looking at ways to do that,” she said, noting universities have the competing needs to make sure they’re accessible while also attracting the best and brightest. “Once you’ve hit a wall on the price, you have to find alternate revenue.”

Along those lines, she says there are a number of things the university does that are monetizable — in how it partners to engage in discovery, in terms of applied projects that students do with university partners, tech transfer and commercialization and more.

That being said, she made one guiding principal very clear: “I don’t want alternative revenues to creep into core mission.”

On getting to know Minnesota

Gabel made a pretty convincing case for her potential to adapt to, and fully embrace, the local culture — and climate. When she was growing up her father worked for the federal government, so her family moved every two years. So while her bio says she was primarily raised in Atlanta, she also highlights the fact that her experience moving so often made her “ highly adaptable.”

“One of my favorite things about having lived that life … is coming in and learning and embracing is really fun. So I want to get you. And I’m studying you,” she said, evoking a round of laughter from the audience.

Additionally, she told media that she has family and lifelong family friends who live in Minnesota who have piqued her interest in the state. And she’s no stranger to cold weather. She lived in Canada for a year — a period that enabled her to deepen her appreciation for hockey.

On leadership style

Asked about her leadership style, Gabel talked about surrounding herself with “really smart people who balance each other well, balance you well, care about the institution,” and then letting them do their job.

She said the goal is to ensure they all feel able to share their ideas and that everyone can laugh now and then, even amid disagreement. It’s her job to help pull together a few good ideas to then execute.

No one individual is going to have all of the skills or knowledge required to run a complex institution like the U, she said. But the president can and should be able to pull together a team  that has the “expertise and compatibility” to get things done.

More specifically, the forum host later asked Gabel to comment on how she’d balance the dual roles of serving as chancellor of the Twin Cities campus and president of the entire system at the same time.

Gabel noted this is the exact same leadership structure used at the University of South Carolina. There, she has sought mentorship from the current president, Harris Pastides, who’s taught her to recognize that “there are very specific value contributions that each system campus makes, and then the collective makes a contribution.”

You need to appreciate both, she said. That means recognizing the unique faculty expertise, curriculum components, local economic drivers and local partnerships of each campus. It also means recognizing how all these campus assets fit together.

“What does it mean to work together and essentially create an executive council of what does it mean to serve the state, statewide?” she said.

Vision for the future

In the midst of a turbulent period in higher education, Gabel says the University of Minnesota has a strong foundation that sets it apart: It’s a top-ranking research institute; demand among highly qualified students is high; and there’s a discernible interest in what’s going on at the university among state legislators and corporations.

“The next bullet points aren’t going to be about a turnaround conversation – on how to rescue ourselves,” she said, noting this isn’t necessarily the story that every university is telling right now.

Looking forward, Gabel says she sees potential to deepen the partnership with Fairview, to strengthen the impact of the system, and to tap further into cross-disciplinary research. But she’s reluctant to spell out any specific agenda items without having first gathered input from those in the university community.

Asked if she has career ambitions beyond the U, Gabel gave a qualitative response.

“I want to serve the University of Minnesota for as long as I’m making a positive difference in the eyes of the constituencies we serve — most notably the Board of Regents.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/11/2018 - 10:13 am.

    It always seemed that Kahler’s primary qualification was that he is “one of us”. A U of M PHd grad. His time in office could best be described as “caretaker”.

    Combine a caretaker President with a BOR filled with legislative cronies and you get the recent lethargy we have had.

    Ms. Gabel seems a very qualified candidate with energy and drive not seen in U of M leadership for awhile…

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2018 - 02:01 pm.

    Hmmm, so the students aren’t an important constituency? Isn’t teaching students stuff they come to learn about a big part of the University mission? Is this a University campus or a corporate campus? I understand to some extent it can both, but which comes first? If you step back and read this article without noting that the U of M is mentioned by name… you would have no idea what kind of institution this person is planning to run. I hope it works out.

  3. Submitted by JUDITH MONSON on 12/13/2018 - 10:58 am.

    Thanks Erin for your wonderful article. I wasn’t able to attend one of the public forums for Joan, but I felt like I was in the room as you described your experience. As a 78-year-old alum (B.A. ’63, Humanities), I can’t begin to express my excitement about her candidacy. She seems to be everything we need right now. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s a woman (any day now — but don’t hold your breath — the Board of Regents is going to be 51% female)! I encourage all to read her “curriculum vitae” and click onto all of her many accomplishments, including a few quite interesting pieces of video. There’s, for instance, a wonderful nearly 30-minute interview in which she talks about the “branding promise” and how MIZBIZ (Missouri – the “show me” state) came to be. Although Erin’s article is terrific in its coverage of how she presents herself at her first public forum (including carefully chosen quotes), when you see her on video (or in person, as I know Erin can attest) you get a sense of how genuinely charming and “old shoe” she is, how she doesn’t wear her intellect on her sleeve, or what a quick and curious mind she has — not to mention, how” perky” (a 20th century vocabulary item almost lost) and full of laughter she is when engaged in conversation. She’s going to fit in here just fine! Aren’t we lucky? You betcha!

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