Describing herself as “incredibly excited and humbled” to get the job, Joan Gabel will become the next president of the University of Minnesota.
The university’s governing board voted unanimously Tuesday to make the University of South Carolina provost the first woman to lead the 167-year-old institution, concluding a fast-paced search that put a renewed spotlight on the push-and-pull between privacy and transparency for the U’s potential leaders.
Gabel will make $640,000 in base salary annually under a five-year contract the regents also backed unanimously. She will receive a supplemental $150,000 retirement contribution in 2020 and could fetch a performance bonus, to be negotiated later.
The Board of Regents chose Gabel, 50, as the lone finalist from a pool of 67 applicants earlier this month, after two other front-runners balked at being publicly named unless they were the only finalist. Gabel has a track record of shattering the academia’s glass ceiling: She was the first female provost on her current campus and the first female dean of the University of Missouri’s business school.
“It is not because she is a woman that I’m voting for her but because of her tremendous capacity to lead this university,” said Regent Linda Cohen, one of two women on the 12-member board.
As the U’s 17th president, Gabel will lead an institution serving roughly 66,000 students and oversee a budget of almost $4 billion at a time of unprecedented pressure on higher education institutions to make a stronger case for their cost and missions. She will start July 1, the day after President Eric Kaler steps down.
Gabel cast herself as a collaborative, no-nonsense leader and touted efforts to increase campus diversity, find alternative sources of revenue and cultivate ties with the business world in South Carolina. Although the U placed being a visionary leader at the top of its job description, Gabel largely declined to spell out a vision for the university before starting on the job — a move that Board Chair David McMillan dubbed “wise and prudent.”
Gabel, a mother of three, said that while it’s important to recognize that her appointment marks a first for the U, she should be judged on her work.
“It’s hard to call yourself a trailblazer at an institution with such a tremendous legacy,” she said.
Regents again gave Gabel high marks Tuesday for her academic credentials and energy.
Regent Steve Sviggum, who served on the 23-member U search committee, said he had predicted Gabel would land the job right after the committee interviewed her.
“I said, ‘The next president of the university is going to be a woman,’ because I knew it was going to be her,” he said.
Regents offered mixed reviews on the plan to include a performance incentive in Gabel’s contract, but they largely praised the agreement. Darrin Rosha, who along with a couple of fellow regents had pressed earlier this fall for a salary lower than Kaler’s to buck a national trend of fast-rising administrative pay, said the package was “reasonable.” He did criticize the process in which the university negotiated with a single front-runner — and with “the handicap of members having already declared their support.”
Repeating the argument that high presidential salaries reflect a competitive market, he asked, “Is this really a market approach?”
President Eric Kaler negotiated a salary of $610,000 when he started in 2011 and received a $50,000 supplemental retirement contribution the following academic year — pay that landed him in the middle of the Big Ten. Also a sole finalist, Kaler had served as provost roughly the same amount of time as Gabel, about three years; he had a Ph.D. to her law school degree.
His salary, now at $625,250, has remained flat, but the university is chipping in significantly more for his retirement, with a $225,000 contribution next year and $325,000 the following year.
Next year, as president emeritus focused on fundraising, he will make more than Gabel in total compensation.
Female presidents rare
Women remain underrepresented in academia’s top job. They make up about 30 percent of college and university presidents, according to a recent American Council on Education study — and less than a quarter at doctorate-granting institutions such as the U.
But with more than half of presidents nationally slated to leave in coming years, and more women coming up through the ranks, female leaders stand to make further gains.
In Minnesota, Gabel joins three out of four greater Minnesota U campus chancellors and half of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s 30 presidents, who are women.
Although women made up roughly a fifth of the U’s application pool, five of the nine people the search committee interviewed were female.
Female higher education administrators earn roughly 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. But that gap narrows significantly for top executive positions.
Only nine of the 50 public university presidents with the highest salaries are women in a list compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education, with the highest — Margaret Spellings at the University of North Carolina — coming in at No. 12. Kaler ranked 28th.
At the U, presidential pay has risen steadily in recent decades, from about $152,000 in 1990 to $335,000 in 2000 to $445,000 in 2010.
Other perks for the U president include living in St. Paul’s Eastcliff mansion, which will undergo almost $1 million worth of renovations next summer before Gabel and her family move in.
The U’s supplemental contribution to Gabel’s retirement, on top of the standard faculty retirement plan, will gradually increase under the contract, to $165,000 in 2024. If terminated without cause, she will have a choice between joining the faculty or pocketing severance equal to her annual salary.
In a news conference Tuesday, Gabel spoke of the varied opportunities online learning offers, the importance of student safety and the high standards she plans to have for the U’s athletics department.
A key challenge would be reining in the rise of tuition while keeping up education and research quality on campus.
“Striking that balance is very difficult and something I see us working on very actively,” she said.