Presidential finalist Joan Gabel wins over UMN community

University of Minnesota members say they're pleased with her experience, style and approach to the job.

Helen Sabrowsky and Austen Macalus

There’s building excitement about University of Minnesota presidential finalist Joan Gabel as she heads into her interview before the Board of Regents this Friday.

Among faculty, staff and students who have met Gabel this week on campus, a consensus emerged painting her as a “good listener,” and a “well-prepared” and “authentic” leader — qualities echoed by those who’ve worked with her.

Although there were initial questions about her nontraditional background in business and law, University members say Gabel alleviated any concerns during her visit to University campuses this week.

“Even though it hasn’t been the traditional path of a university president historically, I don’t think that’s against her,” said Mckenzie Dice, student representative to the Board of Regents.

Sheri Breen, professor of political science on the Morris campus, said she was impressed when she met Gabel this week.

“She brings a lot of different background experiences that I think are relevant to what we’re looking for in a university president,” Breen said.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, former chair of the higher education committee, said that multiple college presidents with nontraditional backgrounds have succeeded in their roles.

“I think it’s all about the person themselves and how they have prepared for the job and sometimes we have to go out of the norm or comfort zone to find the right person,” Nornes said.

Gabel, provost at the University of South Carolina and former business school dean at the University of Missouri, has a J.D. rather than a Ph.D., which is typical of college presidents.

But faculty say that Gabel, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate, believes in the academic and educational mission of the University.

“I feel very comfortable with her compatibility with the broad academic mission we have here,” said Peggy Nelson, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts.

Ian Ringgenberg, chair of the Professional and Administrative Senate, said some were concerned that Gabel would be a “real dollars and cents kind of person ” —  more focused on the bottom line than higher education.

However, he said Gabel “did a pretty good job talking about the value of higher education in not only return on investment,  but our creation of knowledge.”

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, a University of Minnesota-Duluth economics professor, said she is excited to meet Gabel.

“She’s going to be bringing a new perspective to the position because she’s had so much experience with other universities,” Schultz said. “I’m eager to work with her both as a legislator and faculty member.”

Many University members have also praised Gabel’s leadership style, which she described as “collaborative.”

Sean Chen, president of the University’s Council of Graduate Students, praised Gabel for her support of student initiatives and students.

“I think she is very vibrant, very passionate, and very personable, so I do like her qualities, and she’s very knowledgeable,” he said.

Gabel will travel to all five University campuses this week. University members, especially those not on the Twin Cities campus, said they were reassured that Gabel had experience at a university with multiple campuses and a system structure.

Dice, a student on the Morris campus, said Gabel was supportive of the work the campus is doing on sustainability and the role of liberal arts in higher education.

“She definitely reflected what I think the Morris mission is, [which] is that students are leaving with an education that is going to make them a worldly person and more understanding of other cultures and languages and backgrounds,” Dice said.

Those who’ve worked with Gabel attest to her inclusive leadership style.

Hubert Mobley, vice chair of the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, described Gabel as a “consensus builder,” who’s willing to take on initiatives, garner support and get things done.

Mobley said Gabel was widely considered to be a strong candidate to take over the presidency at the University of South Carolina, after the school’s president announced his retirement last month.

John Dozier, chief diversity officer at the University of South Carolina, says Gabel has been willing to “make bold decisions.”

After protests by black students demanding increased attention to diversity, Dozier said Gabel pushed to add diversity officers in all academic units, backing up her “commitment to diversity,” with action.

“I can’t say enough positive things about her,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary gain for the University of Minnesota, if you are fortunate to land her as your president.”

These qualities also stuck out to University members, who expressed excitement in Gabel’s candidacy.

Laura Bloomberg, vice chair of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, said committee members liked Gabel’s strong track-record and expressed confidence in her ability to lead.

“What we wanted to look at was the way she handled complex multi-partner situations,” Bloomberg said. “The things that really stood out to us were things that she accomplished. Things she actually had done.”

Amy Pittenger, a member of the presidental search committee, said Gabel “articulated a very inspiring vision of where we could go next.”

If Gabel becomes president she will face several challenges affecting the University and schools nationwide. However, Gabel’s interactions with University members inspired confidence in the University’s future where Gabel’s in charge.

“It’s amazing. Because really everybody seems to have very similar opinions to what I have,” said University chemistry professor Phil Buhlmann. “I haven’t really heard anybody express any major concerns.”