Joan Gabel, the sole finalist for the top job at the University of Minnesota, has forged a reputation as a down-to-earth, approachable leader.
As a provost at the University of South Carolina, she has been tested by protests over student and faculty diversity, concern over rising costs, a push to innovate more with fewer resources and two hurricanes — issues that, except for the hurricanes, are bound to consume the next president at the U as well.
A former attorney, award-winning business law professor and dean, Gabel, 50, has brought a collaborative style and low-key charisma to tackling academia’s challenges, some who know her say, though her efforts are a work in progress. “I saw her grow in her role,” said Marco Valtorta, who chairs the USC faculty senate. “She has become a very confident academic leader.”
On Wednesday, a near-unanimous U Board of Regents picked Gabel out of three higher education administrators recommended by the search committee, landing her on track to become the first female president since the U was founded in 1851. Some on campus and beyond said they are intrigued by her background and academic bona fides, even if they would have liked to have seen more than one front-runner interview on campus.
Gabel will visit all five U campuses and interview with regents next week. She signaled through U staff that she will hold off on media interviews until her arrival on campus.
After completing her law degree at the University of Georgia, Gabel spent a few years practicing law. But by 1996, she had shifted her focus to a career in academia. Nancy Mansfield, a professor of legal studies at Georgia State University who helped hire Gabel as an assistant professor specializing in risk management, said her talent and ambition were evident from the start. “She’s razor-sharp and always prepared,” Mansfield said.
Over the next several years, Gabel worked her way up to a full professor position, receiving university recognition as a “master teacher.”
Mansfield and Gabel worked together on research and traveled to conferences around the world. She said travel has long been a passion for Gabel, who often brought along her three children and husband, also an educator.
Gabel went on to chair the department of risk management and insurance at Florida State University. Later, she became dean of the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri, where she launched a new MBA program offered in part online and worked on a fundraising campaign. The Wall Street Journal named her to a list of women business school leaders it labeled as “shining stars.”
She arrived at the University of South Carolina in 2015. Soon after, students staged a walkout, calling on the administration to redouble efforts to make the campus more diverse and inclusive. A video from the protest captures a visibly self-conscious Gabel facing the students, reading from a prepared statement — though she later sticks around to take questions.
Protests have flared since and minority faculty members have questioned hiring and promotion practices. But student government President Taylor Wright said Gabel has been steadfast in addressing concerns rather than just responding to crises. Working with chief diversity officer John Dozier, Gabel appointed academic diversity officers in each of the university’s colleges and schools. Dozier called her “an amazing champion for diversity on campus.”
“Beginning the work on diversity at a Southern institution isn’t always the most popular thing to do,” Wright said. “But I think she thought it was the right thing to do.”
Wright said Gabel has also taken on making the university more transparent about its fees, earning her credit for tuning in to student concerns.
Faculty have found Gabel approachable as well, said Valtorta, a 30-year campus veteran who teaches computer science. She takes questions at each faculty senate meeting and opened up the annual provost retreats, previously reserved for administrators, to faculty senators.
A recent test came when Gabel was tapped to shepherd an “excellence fund” initiative, in which departments trimmed 3 percent of their budgets to free up dollars for new research and other innovation. The process of figuring out how to grant money out of the resulting fund hit snags, Valtorta said, and faculty have voiced frustration with a reported delay in making grants until a new campus president steps in next summer.
Gabel was seen as a worthy candidate to replace President Harris Pastides, who announced in October that he’ll step down in 2019, said John von Lehe Jr., chairman of the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees.
“She completely lacks any element of arrogance,” von Lehe said. “She’s just a down-to-earth, highly knowledgeable and well-spoken person. People like her.”
Hossein Haj-Hariri, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing, said on Gabel’s watch, the department’s faculty has grown from 100 to 130, with more hiring planned for this academic year. Undergraduate and graduate enrollment in the department has surged.
USC has about 34,000 students and a $1.6 billion budget, compared to the University of Minnesota’s 50,000 students and $4 billion budget.
On the U campus and beyond, some said they are looking forward to meeting Gabel next week. Jennifer Schultz, a professor on the Duluth campus and a state lawmaker, said she likes that Gabel comes with a distinguished track record as a faculty member and experience on multiple campuses.
“I’m also excited that she would be the first woman president,” she said.
Simran Mishra, the undergraduate student body president on the Twin Cities campus, said Gabel’s credentials and knack for making change are clear. Still, she hopes students will attend forums with Gabel and ask tough questions. Mishra wants to know how Gabel plans to advocate for the U at the Legislature, invest in student mental health and continue the momentum of recent sexual misconduct prevention efforts on campus.
Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, an organization of executives of the state’s largest companies, said Gabel seems like a good pick. But he’s interested to hear from her about strategies for easing the state’s labor shortage.
Former Gov. Arne Carlson, a U alum and vocal critic, said he thought the presidential search process was rushed and bungled at times. But he says he was pleasantly surprised by the front-runner — someone he feels can bring a fresh, unconventional approach to the U’s challenges. “I think they may have just landed on an excellent choice,” he said.