Joan Gabel juggled more crises in her first year leading the University of Minnesota than some college presidents face in their entire tenure.
She closed the U’s five campuses and oversaw the school’s first-ever shift to remote learning when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Minnesota this past spring. She severed some of the university’s contracts with Minneapolis police after the death of George Floyd. And she threw her support behind a lawsuit against a since-rescinded federal rule that could have subjected many international students to deportation.
Her inaugural year as president of Minnesota’s flagship university has been a crash course in crisis management. So far, the verdict on the U’s first female president has been largely positive — despite a couple of episodes that prompted backlash from students and the U’s governing board. Gabel has won praise from students, faculty and regents for her decisive leadership in steering the school through a pandemic and the aftermath of social unrest that rocked the Twin Cities. Many of her biggest decisions were made from behind a webcam at the president’s Eastcliff residence, her base of operations for the past five months.
“It was a tough year, without question,” said Gabel, who dons a maroon and gold mask when she’s out and about. “There is so much uncertainty around everything going on right now.”
Some of Gabel’s choices have been met with calls for her to better consult the U’s Board of Regents. In March, she was accused of shortchanging students when she proposed a flat room and board refund for those who had to move off campus midsemester because of the pandemic. She promptly reversed course and offered prorated refunds, which regents signed off on.
In June, Gabel announced the U would reopen to students this fall. About a month later, school officials revealed 70% of classes would be taught online. Some students and regents accused leaders of false advertising.
“They say one thing and then the next week they say something different,” Regent Michael Hsu said. “They’re kind of losing credibility in terms of being on top of things.”
Regent Ken Powell, chairman of the board, countered that Gabel’s flexibility is an asset: “Sometimes people just dig in. We don’t see her as like that.”
Gabel described her leadership approach during the pandemic as being rooted in flexibility. As she enters her second year, she knows she may have to quickly pivot to keep students and faculty safe and her institution afloat.
Leading with values
Since taking over as the university’s 17th president in July 2019, Gabel has built a reputation as a kind and collaborative leader.
Amy Pittenger, who was the U’s Faculty Senate leader until June 30, said Gabel’s values were on full display at the onset of the pandemic.
She froze tuition for most students. When the campuses shut down in March, Gabel chose to pay student workers through the semester, even if they could not continue work remotely. Housing and dining services stayed open for students who had nowhere else to go.
Gabel has not asked faculty to do anything she herself would not do, Pittenger said. While faculty will be furloughed to help offset losses from the pandemic, Gabel and members of her cabinet will take a 10% pay cut. Gabel also let faculty members choose whether to teach online or in person this fall.
“She really involved faculty in ways that really surpassed my hopes,” Pittenger said.
Just as Gabel put the stressful spring semester behind her, a new crisis arose: the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Then student body President Jael Kerandi wrote a letter to Gabel demanding the school cut ties with the department. Gabel announced the next day the U would no longer contract with Minneapolis police for large events, such as football games, and would limit collaboration to “joint patrols and investigations.”
The decision was a statement that “enough was enough,” Gabel said. She was dean of the University of Missouri’s business school when Michael Brown, a Black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. And she became provost of the University of South Carolina just months after a white supremacist murdered nine Black worshipers at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
“I have this strange and sad but real experience with social unrest, racial unrest occurring right outside the gates of the campus in which I worked,” Gabel said.
To Kerandi, the swift decision showed that Gabel wanted Black students to know “their lives matter.” To critics, the move was yet another example of Gabel not consulting the U’s governing board.
“I think to rush to a decision of that magnitude … I wish they would have taken more time to make it,” said Sen. Paul Anderson, a Republican from Plymouth who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.
More challenges await
Gabel’s second year begins with what is perhaps her biggest gamble yet: reopening the University of Minnesota amid a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
Dormitories will open under reduced capacity, classrooms and common spaces will be restructured and students must wear masks on campus. But Gabel knows the school ultimately will not be able to control students’ behavior.
“My worry is that people would not stay safe and healthy, and that as a consequence of that people would be ill … and it would affect our ability to function as an institution,” Gabel said.
Gabel has plenty of other work to do, too. She is planning a virtual launch this fall of a student mental health partnership with the Minnesota State college system. She also will revive the debate over renaming campus buildings when she brings a new policy proposal to regents in the coming months.
Next spring might not be any easier. The university will pitch its two-year budget request to state lawmakers as they grapple with a potential $4.7 billion deficit. If that deficit holds, Minnesota colleges could be in for a “rude awakening,” Anderson said. “Not only are you going to not receive status quo money, you’re going to receive some significant cuts.”
Former U President Eric Kaler said Gabel is facing a “once in a lifetime” crisis that may require her to chart a new path to financial sustainability and reconsider how many classes are taught on campus.
“Even if we can come back together, are we going to want to?” said Kaler, who will teach chemical engineering remotely this fall.
Regent Powell said he trusts Gabel can handle whatever challenges emerge. He noted that she completed a systemwide strategic plan on time despite the demands of pandemic planning.
“I think we know that there is an opportunity to get a lot done at the university over the next several years,” Powell said.