For Gabel, collaborative leadership and shared governance win

Many say her prior experience in higher education and personality are an asset to the University.

Dylan Anderson

As the University of Minnesota’s new president, Joan Gabel emphasizes collaboration and shared governance as pillars in her leadership style.

Gabel’s previous experience in higher education and focus on collaboration has University stakeholders excited to work under her leadership as the University’s 17th and first female president. Gabel said she wants to optimize opportunities for students, put faculty in the best position to serve their scholarship and focus on diversity and inclusion both on campus and throughout the state.

“It’s important to remember that presidents don’t make decisions in a vacuum,” Gabel said in an interview with the Minnesota Daily. “I don’t do anything without consultation or actual vote around shared governance.”

Establishing a direction

Harmonizing around the new Board of Regents to develop a clear direction is important for Gabel, ultimately creating a new system-wide strategic plan, something many regents have been clamoring for. Creating a strategic plan is more than a final document, Gabel said, rather a collaborative process involving input from across the system.

Board Vice Chair Steve Sviggum said a strategic plan needs to have focuses both in the short and long term with overarching goals and specific steps about how to get there. He said a plan could include pretty much anything including enrollment targets, performance metrics and goals for tuition.

Gabel said tuition would ideally remain flat, but realistically, funding the institution is a co-investment between the state and students. One way to address financial constraints is to recognize staffing inefficiencies but acknowledge only so much can be slashed from the budget.

“You can’t cost cut your way to excellence,” Gabel said, emphasizing that too much of a focus on reducing spending can impact the quality of education.

Ian Ringgenberg, former chair of the Professional and Administrators Consultative Committee, said conversations about administrative bloat should be more precise.

P&A staff are often the focus of these conversations, and Ringgenberg said they would like to be a larger part of them and other discussions involving them from the start. 

Building a team

Sviggum said he thinks the most important first decision for Gabel is appointing a new University provost.

Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson said the breadth of what the position involves makes it important that her successor is someone to whom Gabel can feel comfortable delegating vital educational duties.

Sviggum said the relationship between Gabel and the board is a team effort and regents need to have a good balance of pushback and support for her goals.

“You recognize and respect the differences that there might be, you agree to the direction that you’re going to go and then you open the door for each other’s success,” Sviggum said. 

When it comes to working with the legislature, Sviggum said he thinks she will bring a whole new energy and enthusiasm to the Capitol.

Gabel said the University is unique in having a world-class experience for students, faculty doing research with top-tier funding and a state that, while may not provide all the money the University requests, is still investing in the institution. Rather than weaknesses, Gabel sees the University as having opportunity for improvement.

“To be in a really vibrant, creative economy that has really robust industry, both here in the Twin Cities and what the state does statewide in agricultural industry and otherwise is a unique vibrancy that I think could be maximized,” Gabel said.

Addressing the University’s history

Faculty Consultative Committee Chair Amy Pittenger said she already has familiarity with Gabel as she was on both the search and transition committees. From those conversations it was clear to her that Gabel valued shared governance and the role of faculty in the decision-making process.

The FCC wants to work with Gabel on initiatives to expand mental health services for students, Pittenger said, and partner with her to continue conversations about reckoning with the University’s history.

When the board rejected former President Eric Kaler’s recommendation in April to rename four campus buildings, it also charged Gabel to acknowledge the University’s history in other ways. Gabel said she wants to include many University voices in this discussion and is open to revisiting renaming if it seems appropriate.

“Renaming is a very toggle on toggle off method for addressing reckoning,” Gabel said. “Educational programming gives us some real degrees of freedom … it gives us some real opportunities to be really creative and do more than one thing.”

Minnesota Student Association Vice President Jael Kerandi said she wants this conversation to be a collaboration and however it is done, the result is something that teaches future students about this history and isn’t just something students will pass by at orientation.

“My hope is to make sure [institutional history is] memorialized in a way that first-year students coming in 10 years are still able to understand this history,” Kerandi said.