President Joan Gabel is departing the University of Minnesota, leaving one of the state's largest public university systems to search for a new leader after a year punctuated by controversies.
The search for Gabel's successor will mark "perhaps the biggest moment in half a century" for the university, said Regent Darrin Rosha, one of Gabel's most vocal and persistent critics.
"With all transitions, it's an opportunity for the board to hit the reset button and chart the next chapter in the university's saga," Rosha said Monday, hours after Gabel announced she was leaving to take a job at the University of Pittsburgh.
The news of Gabel's departure comes at a critical time for higher education across the nation and in Minnesota. The Minnesota State system is also seeking a new leader, and both systems face pressure from lawmakers to rein in costs and boost enrollment. The U also is seeking nearly $1 billion in state funding to acquire and operate its teaching hospitals amid a proposed merger of the Fairview Health Services and South Dakota-based Sanford Health.
Gabel said in a news conference Monday she is confident other leaders at the University of Minnesota will be able to carry out that work. She said she was proud of work she had done to craft the university's strategic plan, boost freshmen enrollment on the Twin Cities campus and promote research, among other efforts.
"There are a lot of really amazing things that have happened," she said, adding: "Those things create a natural moment when you think about whether you're going to do the next strategic plan or whether maybe it's someone else's turn."
Gabel has spent decades in higher education, rising through leadership ranks and frequently holding roles previously only held by men. She will be the first female chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh and was the University of Minnesota's first female president. Before that, she worked as the provost at the University of South Carolina, where she was the first woman to hold that job.
Gabel had the shortest tenure of a U president since the 1980s. She began work at the University of Minnesota in 2019, overseeing the university as it temporarily moved to online classes at the outset of the pandemic and as it re-evaluated its relationship with city and campus police following George Floyd's murder.
In a statement, U Board Chair Ken Powell credited Gabel with leading the university through "a time of both seismic shifts in higher education and great change here in Minnesota."
He added that he was "deeply appreciative of everything she has invested and accomplished as our president."
Criticism builds over compensation
Her time was not without controversy. The university's Board of Regents in 2021 voted to give her a pay raise that had her on track to earn more than $1 million a year in total compensation. Regents who supported the raise said they wanted to acknowledge she was an in-demand university leader and pay her in line with other Big Ten college presidents. Others argued it was inappropriate to raise administrative costs when students were graduating saddled with debt.
Her leadership drew renewed scrutiny after she decided late last year to take a paid position on the board of Securian Financial, a company that has more than $1 billion in business with the university. She resigned from that post after public criticism from some state elected officials.
Gabel said Monday that she began conversations with the University of Pittsburgh before she had the offer to join Securian's board. "They're not really connected at all," she said.
There are some similarities between the University of Minnesota and the University of Pittsburgh. Both schools have flagship city campuses and four regional campuses elsewhere. Both have ties to local health care systems and prioritize research in addition to teaching. Both rely on a mixture of public and private funding.
The University of Minnesota system enrolls about 68,000 students, while the University of Pittsburgh has about 33,000. Gabel's contract at the University of Pittsburgh also has her set to earn more than $1 million in compensation each year, if she gets bonuses for retention and full retirement benefits. The contract there will permit her to take a seat on another board, though Gabel said she doesn't "have any irons in the fire there."
Gabel said multiple factors drew her to the Pittsburgh job, including its research priorities, its governance system and the students' experience, which she glimpsed after her son enrolled there.
"I wanted to be a part of it," Gabel said. She said she had hoped Pitt would consider her for the job once it opened, and she didn't seek a counteroffer from the U.
Powell's statement said Gabel told the U regents Monday morning that she would be leaving for the new job, which starts in July. He promised to share more details in the coming weeks about efforts to name an interim president and find her long-term successor.
"Our dedication and innovation has helped us weather past challenges and this moment will be no different," he said.
Reaction to Gabel's exit
News of Gabel's departure quickly spread Monday throughout campuses and in the State Capitol. Lawmakers there are weighing whether to grant the university's request for additional funding and questioning administrators about their plans for dealing with a higher-than-expected tuition shortfall and declining enrollment on some campuses.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chair of the House higher education committee, said he had met Gabel twice. "The university, I think, has suffered not from our lack of attention but from their turnover at the administrative level," he said.
Many students learned of the news in an email Monday morning. Dylan Young, president of the Morris Campus Student Association, said students he heard from weren't entirely shocked and some were happy.
He gave Gabel credit for reaching out to him after a regent questioned whether their campus had become "too diverse" — an episode many students described as painful. He also hopes the next president will be "highly cognizant of the financial struggles facing students today."
He said some students were frustrated to hear of her raise and Securian position while they were scrambling to pay for groceries. Still, he struggles to figure out which problems to attribute to her or, more broadly, to the country's higher education systems.
"I don't want to absolve her of her mistakes and missteps," he said. "And to tell you the truth, maybe it's a pessimistic view but I'm not sure if any other college president is going to do any better."
Recent university presidents
Joan Gabel, 2019-2023
Eric Kaler, 2010-2019
Robert Bruininks, 2002-2010
Mark Yudof, 1997-2002
Nils Hasselmo, 1988-1997
Source: University of Minnesota