Joan Gabel was officially installed as the University of Minnesota's 17th president Friday — with the traditional handing of a ceremonial mace and medallion but also with a modern twist involving a livestream of the event, vegan chili and therapy dogs.
Gabel opted for an inauguration ceremony designed to herald a presidency that would honor the university's history while at the same time embracing innovation and more fiscal restraint. Gabel is the first female president since the U was founded 168 years ago.
Before presenting her with a mace symbolizing authority, Gov. Tim Walz said he has heard Gabel described again and again as "dynamic," "transformational" and "collaborative." He touched on the high stakes as she takes the helm of the five-campus system with a $4 billion budget — especially at this time of unprecedented pressure on the U to arrest costs and redouble its efforts as a state economic driver.
"The beating heart of Minnesota and the success of it is the University of Minnesota," said Walz, whose daughter is a U freshman.
In December, the U's governing board voted unanimously to hire Gabel, the sole finalist in a national search the university conducted after former President Eric Kaler announced he would step down following eight years at the helm. At that point, Gabel, who started her career as a lawyer, had already marked firsts for women on two campuses, as the first female provost at the University of South Carolina and the first female University of Missouri business school dean.
She signed a five-year contract with a $640,000 salary, a $150,000 initial retirement contribution and the possibility of a performance bonus.
Over the summer, the Board of Regents approved up to $250,000 for the inauguration festivities, an amount in line with what the university has budgeted for previous inaugurations. Critics of university spending such as former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson seized on that number, urging Gabel to cancel or scale back the ceremony.
In July, Gabel told regents she did want to overhaul the event into a more informal, modern celebration. She said she bypassed a formal wedding in favor of eloping with her husband, Gary, and planned to take a similar, more relaxed approach to marking the official launch of her presidency.
Some regents seemed taken aback, pointing out the inauguration is not just for Gabel, but also for campus communities, donors and others. But, said board Chairman Ken Powell, Gabel convinced the board the university could have a joyful event that honored tradition without the pomp of previous festivities.
The university estimated the cost of the re-imagined event at about $150,000.
Gabel did away with the gowned faculty procession and the formal dinner reception that had increased the tab for past inaugurations. Instead, she opted for a celebratory walk across campus and a livestreamed speech on the steps of Northrop auditorium. The food was vegan chili, corn and food truck offerings.
The Friday ceremony was the culmination of a week of events in which Gabel set out to highlight university research, outreach and more. She stopped by the university's Bee Lab to see students and faculty making honey, flew a drone over one of the university's agricultural fields and attended a career fair at the College of Science and Engineering.
On Wednesday, Gabel hosted a panel discussion on student mental health, an issue she has elevated to a priority for her presidency.
The Friday inauguration started with a traditional installation ceremony in the regent boardroom at the McNamara Alumni Center, with the flags of Minnesota's 11 tribal nations lined up in the background. Gabel's husband, three children, parents and close friends attended.
Law professor Carol Chomsky, the mace-bearer, said she knew Gabel was the right fit for the U when she spoke of a "Bat-phone" to faculty leadership during her campus interviews. "President Gabel has said and demonstrated that she is collaborative to her core," Chomsky said.
Gabel, her guests, regents, employees and others then headed down Scholars Walk, with the U's marching band, cheer squad and mascots leading the way. Students, faculty and staff along the route cheered and took photos and video of the procession, which included three campus therapy dogs.
Members of the university's Teamsters and AFSCME unions protested in support of more concessions in ongoing contract negotiations. Cherrene Horazuk, president of AFSCME on campus, said the U has not delivered on a decade-old promise to simplify a 27-step salary system for its clerical workers — and contract talks so far have not been promising.
AFSCME, which also interrupted last week's board meeting, says Gabel has declined to meet with its representatives even as she has spoken with a slew of campus groups — a step the U has said would deviate from the contract negotiation process.
"We do the invisible work behind the scenes, and we feel we have been made invisible," Horazuk said.
At Northrop, Gabel gave an inaugural address in which she acknowledged the pressures facing higher education nationally. But she said the moment also carries "palpable energy" and a sense of opportunity.
"Our university is prepared to meet these challenges at this important moment," she said. "That's because the University of Minnesota is first-class."
She highlighted the importance of keeping the U affordable and inclusive and pursuing "paradigm-shifting ideas."
"Our best days lie ahead," she said. "Now let's get started."
Medha Kaul, a sophomore genetics major who attended the event, said Gabel's focus on student mental health and an inclusive environment has resonated. Students are hopeful Gabel can bring in fresh ideas to rein in tuition increases. As for the symbolism of the day, Kaul said she felt some ambivalence.
"It's exciting to see the first female president," she said. At the same time, "It's, 'Wow! How has it taken so long?' "