New University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel struck an upbeat tone in her first public turn at the helm Thursday — even as she pledged to address issues ranging from the steady climb of tuition costs to a “crisis” of student mental health.
The president, who took over the state’s flagship university this month, joined her governing board’s regular meeting Thursday morning and later huddled with regents at a Faribault retreat.
Throughout, Gabel, the five-campus system’s first female president, argued for a focus on the university’s strengths, though she acknowledged unprecedented pressures facing public campuses nationally to arrest costs and make a stronger case for the value the institutions provide.
“I’m filled with optimism about the U and this important next chapter for us and for higher education across the country,” she said.
But Gabel also signaled she is game to tackle what regents stressed they are eager to see: a bold new approach to pricing tuition and managing enrollment that could reverse a trend of relentlessly climbing costs for students. She appeared to strike an easy rapport with the board in this honeymoon phase of her presidency.
“There’s a pent-up desire to move the ball on the tuition and revenue conversation,” board Chairman Ken Powell said. “There is openness to some new thinking.”
Gabel filled in regents about her frequent visits to Minnesota during the months before her July 1 start date — what she called a “soft launch” to her presidency. She rattled off a lengthy list of people with a stake in the university who met with her on those visits, often on evenings and weekends as she juggled her previous job as University of South Carolina provost: Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, members of Congress, state lawmakers, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, major donors, local business leaders, students, faculty and staff.
This week, Gabel also attended a Harvard University workshop for newly hired presidents in Boston, which she said participants jokingly called “new presidents summer school.”
Systemwide strategic plan
Gabel has restructured the president’s office — a move that reduced the number of staffers from 10 to eight and the cost of base salaries by 5%, to $792,000. (“Where are all the men?” Regent Steve Sviggum asked jokingly when a photo of the almost all-female team came up on a PowerPoint slide. “It’s a fairy tale in my opinion,” Gabel quipped.)
She said roughly half of her team will be charged with looking ahead, including work on crafting the kind of new systemwide strategic plan that some regents have been clamoring for.
“If all we’re doing is keeping the existing trains on the existing schedules, we’re not fulfilling our mission,” she said.
After the regular July meeting concluded, the regents and Gabel traveled to Faribault for a two-day retreat in a bid to rally around shared goals and priorities for the coming year and beyond. On Thursday evening, the president and governing board also had dinner and a reception, but the university said the event was a “casual social gathering” where no university business would be discussed, which under the state’s open meetings law allows officials to close it to the public.
At the retreat, Gabel came across as relaxed, prepared and focused, sometimes quick with a self-deprecating quip. At one point, after Regent Darrin Rosha, a persistent critic of the previous administration, complimented her response to one of his questions, she surveyed the room and said, “Did everybody hear him say that?”
Gabel urged regents to keep the discussion high-level Thursday before focusing on setting goals Friday, at times eliciting a hint of impatience from regents like Rosha, who encouraged her to think about identifying the university’s weaknesses as well as strengths.
For long stretches, she sat back in a swivel chair and listened. She probed the regents’ mood with sweeping questions: Should the university get larger or smaller? Should it push to further drive up research grants across the board — or focus more narrowly on specific areas that perhaps reflect the state’s most pressing needs?
‘Be the North Star’
But as part of wide-ranging conversations about students, faculty and research, Gabel gave regents a flavor of her priorities and leadership style. She spoke of her focus on measurable results. She revealed a preoccupation with student mental health, rattling off statistics about mental illness diagnoses and more.
“If we don’t become an ally in this search for mental health, we will see ourselves decline,” she said.
One of the liveliest discussions revolved around enrollment and tuition, where regents showed both an appetite for new ideas and a sense of the complexities of rethinking the U’s current model. If the U wants to increase enrollment, what to do about severely limited residence hall space on the Twin Cities campus? Does the university open up its flagship campus to a freshman population with a lower average ACT score and risk bringing in fewer students who will graduate on time?
Gabel said she is ready to jump in.
“We are in a position to really be the North Star around how we do pricing,” she said. “That’d be fun. That’d be really cool.”