Joan Gabel kicked off her historic presidency at the University of Minnesota this summer with an unapologetically upbeat message: The U doesn’t have pressing problems, only opportunities to become even better.
Since taking over in July as the university’s first female president, Gabel has carried that message across Minnesota in a high-energy, personable foray to introduce herself and enlist allies. It has helped her win over regents, faculty, business leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But in a state that loves — and loves to find fault with — its flagship university, Gabel’s unfailingly optimistic stance is risky, never more so than in this moment of national reckoning over the cost and value of higher education. Many of those cheering Gabel on have also pressed her to move quickly on issues from rising tuition to the relevance of U offerings in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.
At a recent retreat, Gabel told her governing board she would give herself as long as two years to craft a new strategic plan for the five-campus behemoth with a $4 billion budget, taking time to pick brains on campus and beyond. The regents demurred: They want to see the plan by next summer.
Gabel, who has since embraced the regents’ brisker timeline, stresses that she has no intention of clinging to the status quo.
“There is a temptation when you are really, really good, as this university is, to stay where you are,” she said. “You want to make sure you don’t rest on your laurels.”
She is starting by putting her own spin on her inauguration this Friday, describing it as an elopement rather than a formal wedding with a stodgy, pricey reception.
In her first couple of months on the job, Gabel has hosted elected officials at a TCF Bank Stadium reception, chatted about pest control with growers at Farmfest in Morgan, Minn., collected an Inspiring Women Award during halftime at a Lynx game and whizzed down the State Fair’s Giant Slide with the U’s mascot, Goldy.
Throughout this flurry of public appearances, she has signaled she’s eager to connect with longstanding U partners and cultivate new ones. At a Chamber of Commerce women’s luncheon — the first public speaking invitation she accepted after her hire — Gabel, a onetime philosophy major, spoke about the importance of listening to employers as an antidote to academia’s echo chamber.
In a visit to the Minneapolis City Council chambers — believed to be a first by a U president — she said she sees untapped potential to team up with city leaders. Council President Lisa Bender, who presented Gabel with a framed certificate of welcome, said she sometimes calls the U “a bossy big sister.”
“I am one, and I am mother to one as well,” Gabel, 51, quipped.
A lawyer by training, Gabel was the University of South Carolina provost and former University of Missouri business school dean when she became the U board’s unanimous choice to serve as the institution’s 17th president. Back in December, she signed a five-year contract with a $640,000 salary, a $150,000 initial retirement contribution and the possibility of a performance bonus.
Since then, Gabel has repeatedly touted the U’s growing research portfolio, its financial stability and its status as a state economic engine and “attractor of talent.” She has said the U must be “lean and nimble” amid intense scrutiny of its use of taxpayer and tuition dollars. But by and large, she has stressed, she sees enticing possibilities rather than problems.
“That’s not just my highly evolved Pollyanna tendencies,” she told the board in July. “The change we might decide to tackle is really around improvement.”
She’s made fans. At the Minnesota State system, Chancellor Devinder Malhotra was impressed by Gabel’s ideas for partnering more closely. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, who heads the state House’s higher education committee, and Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, her counterpart in the Senate, both rave about Gabel’s energy and a pledge to put Minnesota first in her approach to enrollment, research and more.
“The room was buzzing after she spoke,” said the Chamber’s Laura Bordelon, a university alumna. “People were impressed by her enthusiasm and her warmth.”
On the Twin Cities campus, Gabel has worked to show she is serious about taking a collaborative approach. She met with student leaders within weeks of taking office. They praise her commitment to beef up student mental health services, an issue she has tied to online graduation and reining in debt. And they appreciate her continued momentum of former President Eric Kaler’s initiative to prevent sexual misconduct.
“She’s coming in with an open mind and she’s willing to listen,” said Mina Kian, the undergraduate student body president. “There’s this accessibility to her leadership style that’s really unique.”
Amy Pittenger, the Faculty Senate leader, says she had a close working relationship with Kaler, but Gabel has brought a new informality and immediacy to that bond. Pittenger used to exchange e-mails with Kaler’s chief of staff; Gabel, who doesn’t have a chief of staff, texts her directly.
Appetite for change
At the July retreat in Faribault, regents peppered Gabel with ideas for her to-do list — and some of the issues they nudged her to address sounded a lot like problems. Regents urged her to rethink the U’s recent model of annual tuition upticks — an overhaul that could involve increasing enrollment, perhaps reversing a net loss of Minnesota students to the Dakotas and other states.
Ken Powell, the board chair, spoke of student debt as “a monster that’s going to eat us,” though student debt hit a nine-year low at the U last year. Regent Steve Sviggum insisted the U’s administration is still bloated. Regents also told Gabel they would like to see her team focus an outreach effort that now encompasses more than 200 programs.
Regents such as Janie Mayeron told Gabel of a “deep yearning, an appetite” for a systemwide strategic plan that would lend the U a clear sense of direction. Gabel told them she would take as long as two years to seek input from the campuses, craft recommendations and then circle back for more feedback.
“That’s too long,” regent Michael Hsu said firmly.
“I’d rather we do it well so it becomes a North Star plan we can use,” Gabel insisted, seemingly unperturbed by the pushback.
Others have expressed an appetite for change as well. Rihab Alemam, a marketing major who paused to chat with Gabel on the first day of school, said she’s thrilled to see a woman in charge. But Gabel must get to work on reining in tuition costs.
“The biggest stress of university is not school,” she said. “It’s payment.”
Bordelon at the Chamber said employers, too, are eager to hear more about concrete plans to keep the U affordable and ensure it’s adjusting to meet companies’ rapidly changing needs.
Powell says it is clear she is interested in exploring a pricing and enrollment shift, backing efforts to restore the medical school’s national standing and focusing the U’s outreach.
Gabel has also suggested she will work on catching the university up in the area of online learning, “a ship that’s sailed without us.” She has said she will explore new sources of revenue and look for ways to curtail costs — carefully.
“I want to tighten the belt to the right notch, not to where we can’t breathe,” she told the Star Tribune’s editorial board.
But first, Gabel is gearing up for her inauguration. It was during the Faribault retreat that she first told regents, who had approved spending as much as $250,000 on the event, that she had something less formal and much more frugal in mind. A couple of regents voiced concern about flouting tradition. But Gabel has stuck with her plan to shake up the occasion, doing away with the gowned procession and the formal buffet dinner of previous inaugurations in favor of a livestreamed outdoor speech with food trucks. After the livestream, all eyes are likely to remain on Gabel.
“It’s critically important to the state of Minnesota that she succeed,” Anderson said. “I enjoy the hopefulness. Now it’s time to get to work and execute on that.”