University of Minnesota presidential finalist Joan Gabel appears poised to land the job after a two-hour interview with regents Friday heavier on compliments than tough follow-up questions.

The U’s governing board is kicking off contract talks with Gabel, the University of South Carolina provost, with votes on her candidacy and pay slated for Tuesday. During her week visiting all five U campuses, Gabel got high marks for her preparedness and sparked excitement as the likely first female president of the university. The final stretch of the four-month search process also reignited the debate over how the U picks top administrators, pitting charges that the process is too opaque against counterclaims that it’s too public to keep top contenders in the running.

The university drew fresh criticism for bringing a single finalist to campus and charges that it violated the spirit if not the letter of the law. One regent, Darrin Rosha, has voiced concern the U’s governing board abdicated its most important job to its search committee and violated the “public’s right to know who is being considered.”

Meanwhile, officials such as board Chairman David McMillan insisted the search was legal and “broadly inclusive of the university community.” They have suggested the university should appeal to lawmakers to allow regents to interview presidential finalists in private, without disclosing their identities.

“The way the process works today makes it very difficult to have a robust conversation about finalists,” McMillan said. “I don’t think [private interviews] would harm transparency in any way.”

Support signaled

Gabel heads into talks over her contract in a strong position. Several regents signaled their support and one, Dean Johnson, said he would vote yes on her candidacy.

Gabel described herself as a collaborative leader and humble listener who draws on student and faculty input. She spoke about efforts at the University of South Carolina to boost diversity and attack achievement gaps, including introducing students of diverse backgrounds to campus as early as middle school. She also touted her focus on supporting student mental health, finding new sources of revenue and promoting athletics as a “front porch of the university.”

Gabel said she will work to maintain the U’s momentum as a premier research institution, raise the profile of its medical school and keep philanthropy “top of mind.”

The most pointed questioning came from Rosha, who asked Gabel how academia can continue to make a case that it merits public investment given a widening gap between what top administrators and the average citizen make. Rosha was among a minority of regents who argued earlier this fall the U should seek a president willing to take more modest pay than Kaler’s $625,000 salary.

Gabel, who makes roughly $400,000 in her current job, said the president’s job has become more complex.

“I am a believer in markets,” she said. “I believe things are valued based on what supply and demand dictate.”

Concerns about process

Rosha said he, too, is impressed by Gabel, but remains troubled by the process.

After reviewing 67 applications and interviewing nine candidates, the U’s search committee recommended three semifinalists to the regents. Two of them set a condition: They would agree to be named finalists — the point at which applicant identities become public under Minnesota law — only if they were the lone front-runner.

Regent Abdul Omari, who chaired the search committee, and McMillan met with all three semifinalists to persuade them to submit to public interviews. McMillan and Vice Chairman Kenneth Powell, neither of whom are on the committee, had met briefly with the top nine candidates after their interviews with the committee, unbeknown to some of their fellow regents.

Based on the search committee’s stated ground rules, regents who were not committee members should not have been privy to the identities of any applicants until after the search committee made its recommendations to the Board of Regents.

At a meeting last week to discuss the committee’s recommendations, Omari moved to name Gabel as the sole finalist, citing her willingness to be publicly named even with other finalists. Pressed by other regents, he acknowledged the 23-member committee had also rallied overwhelmingly around her. Rosha was the lone regent who voted no.

Minnesota case law allows the regents to enlist an advisory committee to help with the search process behind closed doors — but it cannot delegate the final decision to it. To Rosha, the presidential search committee, which included three regents, made the de facto choice of the U’s next president. Fellow regents spoke of the need to trust the committee in accepting they would likely meet and interview just one of 67 applicants.

John Borger, a retired attorney who argued a 2004 case in which the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that regent interviews with finalists must be public, said Rosha’s argument is plausible, but it might be tough to make a case that this latest search involved full delegation. To have a truly open process, he said, the university should dispense with backroom wrangling with candidates on the cusp of becoming finalists.

“Every option recommended to the board should have been somebody willing to go through the public process without any guarantees,” he said.

McMillan said that though he would have liked to have seen multiple finalists, the process worked well overall. The university would have severely limited its pool of applicants if it had not given them options to maintain their confidentiality throughout, he has said. Few high-profile administrators, particularly sitting presidents, are willing to risk the damage to their careers and standing with governing boards and donors.

Regents such as Linda Cohen and Richard Beeson have said the university should lobby legislators to allow regents to interview finalists in private — a case the U tried to make unsuccessfully to lawmakers after the 2004 Supreme Court decision siding with the Star Tribune and other media.

Simran Mishra, the Twin Cities undergraduate student body president, says for her and other students, any concerns about the process are muted by support for Gabel.

Aside from public forums on each campus, Gabel’s meetings with student leaders, faculty and others this week were by invitation only and closed to the media. But Mishra said students elect student government officers to represent them.

“At the end of the day, it’s about this process producing a leader who is highly qualified,’ she said.