University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel is getting a pay raise that brings her compensation in line with other Big Ten college presidents but brought objections from students, staff and faculty.
Gabel's new contract immediately increases her base salary from $650,000 to $660,000, with another raise bringing it to $706,000 by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. With increases to her supplemental retirement contribution, a new annual performance bonus and other allowances, her compensation will total about $1 million next year.
The U's Board of Regents voted 9-2 on Friday to approve Gabel's contract extension, with regents Darrin Rosha and James Farnsworth in opposition.
"In the best interest of this University of Minnesota, we cannot replace President Joan Gabel," said Board Vice Chair Steve Sviggum, describing Gabel's first two and a half years on the job as "high performance, without question, warranting the compensation."
Sviggum said Gabel recently had received higher-paying offers from two colleges in the southeastern United States.
"She is a commodity that is wanted around this country," he said.
By the end of her contract in fiscal year 2026, Gabel's base salary will be $771,000, with benefits bringing her total compensation to about $1.2 million. Nine other Big Ten presidents have base salaries of $750,000 or more.
U students, staffers and faculty members voiced opposition to Gabel's pay bump before and during Friday's meeting, noting it comes not long after employees were furloughed, three men's sports programs were eliminated and tuition was raised 1.5% during the pandemic.
They argued not that Gabel was undeserving of the compensation but that her raise is ill-timed and comes as other pressing needs remain to be addressed.
"If there are monetary resources available to further compensate the president, where are the monetary resources for students facing immense financial barriers?" said Gurtaran Johal, a student representative to the board who asked regents to reject the contract.
"Where are the funds to increase student wages? … Where are the funds to lower tuition rates?"
The minimum wage for U student workers is $10.33 per hour, Johal said, lower than the minimum wage set by the city of Minneapolis.
Johal's remarks drew loud applause from students, union members and even some Republican lawmakers who sat in on the board meeting. The U's undergraduate student government, the Minnesota Student Association, also urged the board to reject the contract in a letter Thursday.
The union representing some 1,200 U clerical workers, most of whom are paid about $45,000 annually, announced its opposition to the president's pay raise earlier this week. The union's request for inflationary raises in each of the next two years was recently rejected by the university.
Faculty in the U's American Association of University Professors chapter also came out against Gabel's pay raise, issuing a statement that U faculty salaries are 5% lower than those at peer institutions.
Several regents defended Gabel's pay hike Friday and even accused critics of gender bias. Regent Kodi Verhalen said female employees more commonly have their pay raises questioned and their contracts pulled from meeting agendas for further consideration.
"As recently as November, we approved an employment contract of the coach of our football team on the glowing comments of this board that he has done great things … that the longevity of that position is important to this university," Verhalen said, referring to P.J. Fleck's new seven-year, $35 million contract.
Regent Janie Mayeron shared Verhalen's concerns and said Gabel is well deserving of the raise. She and other regents pointed out that under Gabel's leadership, the university has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, achieved record four-year graduation rates and landed its largest freshman class in several decades.
"I personally believe that we are not paying enough. I think she should be paid more," Mayeron said.
Rosha disputed many of his colleagues' arguments. He disagreed with the notion of needing to pay Gabel the market rate for Big Ten presidents because that approach, he said, has allowed universities across the country to continuously play "compensation leapfrog" with each other.
"Compensation for the president isn't a question of a few hundred thousand dollars," Rosha said. "It's a matter of tens of millions of dollars once the adjustments in compensation in the successive levels of administration are accomplished."
On gender equity, Rosha said he also opposed pay increases for former U President Eric Kaler and the compensation package for Myron Frans, the U's senior vice president for finance and operations who was hired last year.
Rosha and Farnsworth took issue with a provision in Gabel's contract allowing the board's chair, Ken Powell, to have discretion over whether the president receives her full annual $100,000 performance bonus. Powell will have to consult beforehand with the board's presidential performance review committee, which consists of regents he chooses, and the bonuses are based on agreed-upon goals and metrics.
An amendment Rosha offered to instead let the full 12-member board determine Gabel's performance bonuses failed 8-3, with Farnsworth and Verhalen joining him in favor of the motion.
Rosha warned his colleagues that Gabel's pay increase could negatively affect the U's relationship with Minnesotans and the Legislature.
"When … people question why a public higher education system that was once accessible and affordable is now characterized by high administrative salaries and insurmountable tuition, please step forward and explain that when you had an opportunity to make a difference … you declined to do so," Rosha said.