COLUMBIA, S.C. – Joan Gabel persuaded University of South Carolina departments to shave money from their budgets to hire top faculty and support innovation. She developed new niche student communities where freshmen with similar interests live together. She helped form partnerships with companies like IBM to pay for research and train students.
After less than four years as provost, the university’s number two job, Gabel hopes to trade the palm trees of South Carolina for a fresh challenge, a bigger budget, larger student body and new title: The 17th president of the University of Minnesota.
Minnesota’s Board of Regents will vote Tuesday on whether to hire Gabel, the lone finalist to become the next leader of Minnesota’s flagship university with a nearly $4 billion annual budget and roughly 50,000 students.
The role will test her ability to lead one of the state’s most complex and fraught institutions, requiring her to navigate often intense and competing demands of faculty, staff, business leaders, athletic officials and politicians. And already, she knows she will need to innovate.
Gabel told Minnesotans she is eager to explore new ways to bring in new money for campuses, from philanthropy to finding commercial uses for faculty and student research.
“Once you hit the wall on price, you have to find alternative revenue,” she said, but added, “I don’t want alternative revenue to start creeping up into our core mission.”
In South Carolina, she has faced a challenging but common budget picture: State funding for higher education has dwindled. The school has had to continuously increase tuition, while fighting for limited federal dollars for research.
While her full impact there is inconclusive, the verdict on Gabel was already forming on the Columbia campus, at City Hall and the State Capitol: She would be missed.
Gabel, 50, arrived in South Carolina in 2015 much like she arrived in Minnesota for community interviews last week — with relatively few connections to the state. But she quickly built a network of people who praised her leadership at the university and in the community, from local businesspeople to professors to the state secretary of commerce.
Widely described as welcoming, funny and a good listener, Gabel is someone who is not afraid to say no, who thinks strategically, delegates easily and is big on adopting national best practices.
Finding the money
Universities need to develop an interdependent relationship with companies, getting them to pay for research that aligns with their needs and helps fund an educated workforce, South Carolina Secretary of Commerce Robert Hitt said. He said Gabel immediately understood that.
“That’s not normal for a provost to show up and go, ‘I get that we need corporate America, they’re not evil. They’re not the dark side, they’re actually the future,’ ” said William Kirkland, who leads the university’s Office of Economic Engagement.
In her previous job as dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business, Gabel worked on corporate relationships, Kirkland noted, and she also worked with businesses as a lawyer at the start of her career.
In Minnesota, she would enter a different political environment. Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz has campaigned on a desire to spend more in education and reduce student debt. He will be working with a politically divided Legislature on those goals.
In South Carolina, university President Harris Pastides is the primary advocate at the Capitol and with the board of trustees. Gabel will have no problem becoming a school’s top fundraiser, said Sara Fawcett, United Way of the Midlands president and a friend of Gabel’s. Gabel has been co-chair of the organization’s two-year, multimillion dollar fundraising campaign.
“When I have seen her on these calls she is not hesitant to ask,” Fawcett said. “She puts it in terms of the mutual benefit.”
‘You’re never off’
Gabel’s mornings often start with a 6 a.m. workout at Orangetheory Fitness, her workout buddy John Singerling said.
Singerling, president of Palmetto Health, has worked closely with Gabel on merging the University of South Carolina Medical School with the nonprofit health care company where he is president. The new model is somewhat similar to the partnership between Fairview Health and University of Minnesota Physicians.
Gabel balances a job where “you’re never off” with family time, leading a United Way fundraising campaign and those early morning gym visits, Singerling said.
Pastides said she has the energy required for the 24/7 job. Several friends in Columbia also said she has strong support from her three children and husband, Gary Gabel, an administrator at an accelerated public boarding school.
Many South Carolina students grabbing dinner at the student union during finals week said they weren’t sure who the provost was. But upstairs at the student government offices, several people who have interacted with Gabel said she knows how to relate to students, having raised three kids — one of whom goes to the university.
Student Body President Taylor Wright meets with Gabel monthly. Of all the school’s administrators, he said she’s the easiest to get time with.
Various friends and colleagues said Gabel would not sweep into a new job as a “change agent” or a “disrupter.” Her style is first to keenly observe and listen in a new environment, they said.
But then she’s not afraid to make a bold move.
One of the most divisive projects Gabel shepherded in South Carolina, in response to a push from the school’s board of trustees, was the creation of the academic excellence fund that required all departments to make a 3 percent budget cut. The resulting $17 million was put in a fund to recruit faculty and creatively invest in research and education, but there have been delays in doling out the money.
“You could find a lot of faculty frustration about that. ... It made tough budgets tougher,” said Mark Cooper, chair-elect of the school’s Faculty Senate. But with that initiative and in other budget changes, she has incentivized proposals that get faculty to work across colleges in the University, which he said is an important step.
Cooper described Gabel as a leader who doesn’t overpromise and respects faculty advice. She has hired a number of deans during her time there, and several professors said she does a good job delegating work to them and to faculty groups.
But she follows up to make sure people are getting results, said Valinda Littlefield, director of African-American studies and the faculty athletics representative. She said Gabel, who is a sports fan, closely watches student athlete data for issues. Gabel has also systematically worked on hiring, retaining and promoting a diverse group of faculty members, Littlefield said.
“I think the fruit will probably bear more after she’s gone. But she will have started the foundation,” she said.
Gabel said campuses should reflect closely the racial makeup of the states they serve. University of South Carolina isn’t there yet, but has made progress, she said.
“It’s a long game,” Gabel said.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Gabel has helped devote university resources to facilitate tough community conversations on issues like police-community relations.
Gabel’s desire to dive into challenging questions was evident even when she was a law student, said her former professor and current University of Georgia President Jere Morehead.
Her background in law, rather than having a Ph.D., makes her slightly unusual in academia. But he said it applies perfectly.
Morehead said a university president must be a fast learner who can quickly grasp an issue and ask tough questions.
“That’s her strong suit,” he said.
Staff Writer Mila Koumpilova contributed to this report.