Joan Gabel, provost at the University of South Carolina, is the sole finalist to become president of the University of Minnesota and would be the first woman to lead the U in its 167-year history.
Gabel was one of three semifinalists recommended by the university’s search committee and the only one willing to be publicly named even if she wasn’t the lone front-runner. All but one member of the university’s 12-member governing board voted Wednesday at a special meeting to name her the finalist, after several voiced concerns that they, members of the university community and public would get to meet and vet only one contender.
Three regents who served on the committee and met Gabel, known throughout the meeting as “Candidate A,” said she won over the committee with her energy, confidence and extensive homework she had done on the U and Minnesota. They said those strengths and her enthusiasm for the job made up for her lack of ties to the state.
Regent Abdul Omari, who chaired the search committee, said the time is right to bring in the U’s first female leader. “It’s an easy decision to name her a finalist,” he said. “I know she will be able to come in with innovation, and she’ll be able to inspire.”
Some regents, faculty and others had said the selection of the 17th president for Minnesota’s flagship university — with 50,000 students and a nearly $4 billion annual budget — is too high-stakes to make without face time with multiple candidates.
Regent Darrin Rosha, the only no vote Wednesday, said that though he is impressed with Gabel’s credentials, he could not back having a single option to lead the university system.
“I think that puts the university in great peril,” he said. “I find it unfortunate.”
He nominated an applicant, who had not made the committee’s final three, to bring in alongside Gabel, but his colleagues did not go along with his nomination.
Even regents such as Michael Hsu, who had earlier said he would not be comfortable with a lone finalist, said he was sold on Gabel’s experience, which includes work outside of academia and her willingness to go public.
He and others did express some disappointment that none of the semifinalists had ties to Minnesota.
After President Eric Kaler announced he would step down next summer, the university launched a search for his successor on an aggressive timeline.
In September, Board of Regents Chair David McMillan appointed the 23-member search committee made up of faculty, students, alumni and others.
An early setback in the process came when the U changed search firms, dropping its original consultants, Storbeck/Pimentel, when the firm also took on the Michigan State University president search.
Last month, the search committee narrowed the 67 applicants for the position to five women and four men whom committee members interviewed privately.
Last week, the committee recommended three of those contenders to the governing board as possible finalists. Two of the three front-runners told regents earlier this week they would be willing to go public with their candidacies only if they are sole finalists.
Some regents balked at that ultimatum.
But others said the committee and the U’s new search firm, AGB Search, had vetted the applicants extensively and picked top-notch semifinalists. They said they understand the concerns of high-profile candidates from academia who risk alienating their own governing boards, donors and others if they go public and fail to get the job.
The university faced criticism back in 2010 when Eric Kaler, a U alum and then provost at New York’s Stony Brook University, became the only finalist for the job.
Gabel is slated to visit Minnesota next week for public forums on all five campuses; an interview has been scheduled for next Friday with all the regents.
In response to a request for an interview Wednesday evening, Gabel sent a statement saying she is “honored and humbled” and looks forward to her campus visit.
She has served as executive vice president and provost for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina since 2015.
Before that, she was the dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business as well as a professor and risk management and insurance department chair at Florida State University’s College of Business.
She was also a longtime business faculty member at Georgia State University and an editor-in-chief of the American Business Law Journal.
In a minority of applicants who did not have a Ph.D., Gabel got her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and her juris doctor degree from the University of Georgia.
She has three children.
Regents said she describes the presidency at the U as her “dream job.”
McMillan stressed that if the university community and the full board are not sold on Gabel after meeting her next week, the U will revisit the other semifinalists.
Some regents had expressed interest in negotiating a salary lower than the $625,000 Kaler makes with his successor to send a message to students grappling with rising tuition and debt and lawmakers skeptical of the U’s funding requests. Omari and McMillan said committee members did not broach the issue of compensation with candidates they interviewed.
“It’s a marketplace,” McMillan said. “We have to pay for quality.”
Scott Laderman, head of the faculty union on the U’s Duluth campus, said he along with other professors had hoped for multiple finalists, which he said makes for “a healthier process.” Ideally, he would like to see a leader with experience at the helm of a complex institution. But he said he is relieved the regents chose to bring in someone with extensive experience in academia.
And, he said, “We’re overdue for a female president at the University of Minnesota.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Haverford College in Pennsylvania; J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law.
Experience: Dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business; professor and risk management and insurance department chair at Florida State University College of Business; longtime business faculty member at Georgia State University; editor-in-chief of the American Business Law Journal.
Current post: Executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina since 2015.
Family: Raised in Atlanta. Husband, Gary; three children.
Pastimes: Sports fan; active with her kids’ activities; enjoys reading, volunteering, travel.
• Joan Gabel is slated to visit all five University of Minnesota campuses for public forums Dec. 10-12.
• She is scheduled to be interviewed by the Board of Regents on Dec. 14 at the regents’ regular meeting.