Joan Gabel and the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents just made top-echelon higher-ed hiring look easy. Gabel, the University of South Carolina provost chosen Dec. 5 as the sole finalist to succeed retiring President Eric Kaler, was elected to the position Tuesday with a unanimous vote and the excitement that accompanies a historic choice. She will be the institution’s first female president.
That outcome from a whirlwind three-month search process should be heartening, even to Minnesotans who don’t spring to their feet at the sound of the “Minnesota Rouser.” Gabel’s fuss-free election positions the state’s most important educational institution to reap the advantages of a smooth executive transition in the next six months. Kaler’s graceful exit and the governing board’s unanimity allow this change to be made with a maximum of good feeling.
Considerable credit is owed the board’s 23-member search advisory committee, deftly led by Regent Abdul Omari. It had to cope with the unwillingness of two semifinalists to continue as candidates if it meant being part of a public, multicandidate competition. Fortuitously, the semifinalist who was willing to accept a public hiring process — Gabel — was also the panel’s top choice.
The Board of Regents acquitted itself well. That 12-member body has frequently been divided over policy and performance questions. Several members had indicated they were keen to pay a successor much less than Kaler’s 2018-19 salary of $625,250. But those regents joined the board majority Tuesday in awarding Gabel a $640,000 salary for 2019-20, an amount a leading critic, Regent Darrin Rosha, termed “a reasonable agreement.” Six of the 14 Big Ten university presidents made more than that amount in 2016, the Daily Illini newspaper reported.
What Minnesotans should find most assuring is Gabel’s caliber. The 50-year-old former business law professor is a star academic performer who had been considered a possible next president at the University of South Carolina. But Gabel made clear as she spent last week visiting campuses in Morris, Crookston, Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities that her sights were set on the Minnesota job.
By week’s end, the Minnesotans who met her seemed similarly eager to install her in Morrill Hall. Gabel got what board chair David McMillan called “overwhelmingly positive” marks for warmth and approachability, poise under pressure, knowledge of this state and its institutions, and an ability to convey messages both reassuring and inspiring.
During Friday’s two-hour open interview with the Board of Regents, Gabel said the U president’s role is “to steward and facilitate excellence.” That’s a winning way to frame the CEO’s job at an institution that is wedded to the academic tradition of shared governance among faculty, administrators and governing board — and that also has a duty of outreach and accountability to the public.
Gabel’s words also acknowledge that while Minnesota’s flagship university is strong, it has considerable “headroom” — Regent Steve Sviggum’s term — in which to pursue greater distinction in both teaching and research.
Every Minnesotan has a stake in that pursuit. Every Minnesotan should welcome the election of a university president who sees the potential for excellence here and is willing to devote her considerable talents to achieving it.
Regent Dean Johnson spoke not just for the board, but for all Minnesotans, when he said Tuesday that “we stand as partners” with the new president as she ushers in “a new day, a new chance for relationships, a new beginning” for the 167-year-old institution.