Joan Gabel, the sole finalist for University of Minnesota president, spoke of the need for academia to change with the times — from exploring new sources of revenue to drawing a student body that more closely reflects the state’s growing diversity.
Gabel, the University of South Carolina provost, cut a poised, personable figure on the Twin Cities campus, which got first crack Monday at vetting the front-runner for the U’s top job. At a public forum and a later lunch with regents, Gabel got a friendly reception, underscoring her clear shot at the presidency as the only finalist. She cast herself as an approachable team player and vowed to pick up where President Eric Kaler left off in efforts to combat sexual misconduct on campus and to redirect more administrative spending toward teaching and research.
She largely balked at specifics on tuition and other steps she would take if she lands the job. But she noted her appointment would help the U change with the times in a key way.
“This university hasn’t had a woman president before, and I think it’s delightful that might change,” she told a packed Coffman Memorial Union theater, drawing loud applause. But, she added, “Five minutes after you start, it’s about the work.”
Last week, a near-unanimous Board of Regents picked Gabel out of three higher education administrators recommended by the search committee after some regents voiced concerns about bringing in only one finalist. Gabel is spending the week visiting all five U campuses and will interview with the regents Friday.
Gabel was the first female provost at USC and before that, the first female dean of the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri. She told regents about her somewhat unconventional entry into academia, when as a practicing attorney she was tapped to teach at Georgia State University — a move she described as “winning the lottery.”
In a world increasingly skeptical about the value of higher education, she said academics must make a case for what they do — and she pledged to lead that charge on behalf of the U.
She said campuses must strive to attract student bodies and employees who more closely match their states’ diversity. She told of appointing chief diversity officers in every academic unit at USC, where students and staff have protested a lack of racial inclusion.
She said she has worked to “evoke a sense of approachability” on the South Carolina campus, where she seeks to mingle regularly with all kinds of students — not just the leaders of student government. To address concerns about student mental health, the campus deployed more counselors and made it easier to schedule appointments, she said.
“It’s really important to be boots on the ground with students,” she said.
Sharing Minnesota’s stories.
Gabel noted she had opened up administrator retreats to faculty and student leaders. A “bat phone” with faculty leaders helps her hash out key decisions, such as whether to cancel classes after a winter storm this past weekend.
She was at times guarded in her responses, saying it is too soon to flesh out specific plans of her presidency. Asked how long she sees herself staying at the helm of the U, she said she prefers to think of longevity “in terms of the power of the contribution.” She begged off directly addressing regents’ questions about her plans for tuition or administrative cuts.
Gabel, who taught an online class as early as 1998, talked about exploring more opportunities to deploy technology, from offering more online options for students juggling studies with busy lives to “flipping” classrooms, which allows students to watch lectures online so they can tackle more hands-on projects in class.
She told regents she wants to raise the profile of the U’s medical school and leverage the Carlson School’s reputation to grow its partnerships with businesses, even tapping their advice to update curricula.
Gabel said new sources of revenue — from philanthropy to commercial uses of faculty research — are playing a larger role amid stagnant state support and pressure to arrest rising tuition. She vowed to explore alternative revenue streams without compromising the U’s core mission.
She also pledged to continue Kaler’s $500,000 sexual misconduct prevention initiative and spoke highly of Kaler, naming him on a shortlist of presidential role models.
Last week, some regents had questioned Gabel’s lack of strong ties to Minnesota. But she told reporters Monday she has family and friends in Minnesota and assured them she already owns a winter coat and boots. She acknowledged she has spoken with “less than five” other campuses about serving in the presidency in recent years. But she said she was keen on the U’s top job.
“This university is in an absolutely tremendous position,” she told regents. Yet, she said, “There are still some really interesting things that could be nexts.”
Gabel sprinkled in moments of levity and self-deprecation. She said she went to hockey games as a child in Atlanta and rebuffed the suggestion she would not “get” the sport if she moved to Minnesota.
“I’m personally a terrible athlete, but I am a big fan,” she said of college athletics, which she called “a front porch” that helps draw more people to the work and value of a university.
She told regents about raising three children with a demanding career — teaching classes, shuttling her kids to after-school activities and doing research after her children went to bed.
“You have this multitude of experiences that I think relates to the average Minnesotan,” said Regent Thomas Anderson.
Christina Larson, a graduate student in neuroscience who attended the Coffman forum, said Gabel came across as refreshingly down to earth, lacking the formality and self-importance of other administrators. She said she would have liked to hear more on Gabel’s plan to reach out to communities across the state and in rural Minnesota.
At a morning open house, Eva von Dassow, associate professor in classical and Near Eastern studies, asked Gabel about her view on the humanities. Citing her philosophy major as an undergrad, Gabel assured her she would be an advocate.
“I am very glad the regents did choose a person who has the requisite academic qualifications,” she said. “That was a big relief to me.”