Monday is Joan Gabel’s first day in the University of Minnesota president’s office — the 17th person and first woman to occupy it in the U’s 168-year history.
One former regent called overseeing the state flagship university’s five campuses and $4 billion budget an “almost impossible job.” Gabel must juggle the sometimes discordant needs and demands of students, employees, lawmakers, alumni, donors, business partners, fans of Gophers athletics and a 12-member governing board that holds clashing views on the U’s direction.
She inherits an institution enjoying strong student demand and stable finances but one that also is facing formidable challenges, including renewed calls to control costs, ongoing questioning of the value of higher education and a need to better serve an increasingly diverse student body. Eric Kaler, her predecessor, stepped down a year ahead of schedule, citing “an incredibly demanding job, essentially seven days a week.”
Gabel comes to the U with experience shattering academia’s glass ceiling: An attorney by training, she was the first female provost at the University of South Carolina and the first female dean of the University of Missouri’s business school.
She will make $640,000 in base salary under a five-year contract that regents backed in December.
In an interview with the Star Tribune, she spoke about her goals, her interest in seeking new sources of revenue and plans for her September inauguration.
Q: How have you been preparing to take over the presidency during the months since the Board of Regents chose you to lead the university back in December?
A: I have been coming here on average probably four or five days a month, mostly on weekends, to visit with people at different levels of the institution and in the community: a really well-prepared cross section of voices to try to learn the unique opportunities and challenges we have here so that when July 1 came around, we were actually starting to work rather than starting to only learn.
Q: When you were here to interview for the job in December, you were reluctant to spell out your vision for the university or go into details about your priorities. Six months later, what are your goals for your presidency?
A: The goal in the short term will be to take the ideas that have emerged from various conversations to the board so that we can together come to a shared vision for the short term. The goals that we’re setting aren’t fixes. There isn’t this sense that things have gone awry and that we really need to fundamentally redirect. Our goals are more aspirational and taking advantage of the unique, really wide set of opportunities that we have here.
Q: Are you ready to share examples of such goals?
A: I will give you one example. When I went to the Twin Cities campus and every campus that we visited along the way, one of the first questions we received was around student mental health and how this has gone from something we always took into consideration to something that one could legitimately refer to as a crisis. I intend to launch an initiative around being a real ally in the maximization of our students’ opportunities to be well and in particular around their mental health so that we’re making sure they can be their best selves while they are here.
Q: The Board of Regents recently approved the budget for the coming fiscal year. Several regents spoke about an interest in seeing you rethink the way the university budgets and position it to rein in tuition increases in the longer term. Do you have a sense of what changes you might make?
A: I don’t, not yet. One of the things I really need to do is get a complete understanding of where we’re spending our money and on what. What I have observed in the transition period is not waste. I have observed a real conscientiousness toward frugality and measured investment when new dollars were spent. Every conversation is focused around students and what students need in order to be successful, including keeping their costs down as a foundation to that. Before you start to cut things just to cut them, I think it’s really important to understand what the consequences and implications would be, and that can take a little time.
Q: Speaking of generating new resources, you spoke repeatedly about alternate revenue during your interview process. What is alternate revenue, and what are avenues to explore at the University of Minnesota?
A: Most of a public university’s budget is comprised of support from the state and tuition. Anything other than that is broadly considered alternate revenue. Here, we have incredibly competent people who manage the resources that people philanthropically provide and have done national standard-setting work in making sure that those resources generate as much interest revenue as possible. We have incredibly clever scholars and students, and more, and more of it is the entrepreneurial spirit of our students. But this is one of the beauties of a shared governance model. I can posit those things as possibilities, and then we look to the people who do that work — the students, the faculty, the professional staff — to say, “Well, do any of these resonate with you?”
Q: Eric Kaler said that he had hoped to arrive at some closure of the issue of renaming campus buildings named after former U administrators whose legacies have been called into question. But even though the regents voted to keep the names, some students and faculty have vowed to keep pushing for renaming. The regents have tasked your administration with finding good ways to commemorate the university’s history. What is your plan for navigating this fraught issue?
A: The charge from the board is clear in that they absolutely are committed to continuing the conversation. I really embrace the charge because they have given me on behalf of the constituencies that we will engage — because this is certainly a team exercise — a pretty wide lane to bring proposals back on how we would create a sense of reckoning. The task force had a list of recommendations in their report in addition to renaming. Now we’ll go back and look at them. Then, we will do a few more loops at a minimum through the various constituencies and make sure that voices that want to be heard are heard. But what we ultimately come up with is not something I would do individually. It’s something I would facilitate.
Q: Kaler is sticking around as president emeritus in the coming year. He’ll focus on fundraising, but John and Nancy Lindahl, who lead the Driven campaign, said recently you will be the face of the campaign, and you will join them on fundraising trips across the country. Do you have a clear sense of how you and Kaler will work together?
A: Yes, I think so. It may evolve, which I think will be fine with both of us. But we have been in very open communication this entire time about what this looks like, and we have yet to disagree. I have the benefit of both President Kaler and President (Robert) Bruininks living in the community, who are available for advice and context.
Q: Former Gov. Arne Carlson, a booster of the university and also an outspoken critic, said he thinks the first thing you should do as president is to cancel or scale back your own inauguration. Regents recently approved $250,000 for the event in September. Have you heard criticism of that expense, and what do you make of it?
A: I should clarify that the $250,000 is “not to exceed,” so my expectation is we will spend less than that. I am a critic of the deployment of those resources. I have been concerned about spending money that we could spend on a variety of other things that would be closer to our core mission. But I am also an absolute believer in the importance of tradition. We don’t turn over presidencies very often. I am only the 17th. I am the first woman. It’s an important occasion where our students are really actively engaged in something that is deeply historical. A high percentage of the budget is to pay for things that we do in-house. In addition to the food, there is the security, the space, the livestream — all these services are provided by the university. I have been persuaded that embracing the public nature of a ceremony like this is important. If we’re going to do it, I want to do it right and well, with the hope that we wouldn’t be doing it again for a very long period of time.
Q: As you noted, you are the first female president of the University of Minnesota. You said right after the regents hired you that soon your performance on the job will overshadow that historic aspect of your presidency. Do you see longer-term advantages to being the first woman to lead the U?
A: I still stand by the statement I made that the performance will and should overshadow the historic nature of the hire. But I’d like to think that the opportunity to serve as a role model should go on for the duration of my presidency and ideally become sustainable and recurring.