A look at Joan Gabel: the sole University presidential finalist

Gabel has a wide-ranging experience as a professor, department chair and provost.

Helen Sabrowsky

Joan Gabel, the lone finalist selected in the search for the next University of Minnesota president, brings over two decades of experience in higher education, working her way up from professor to business school dean to provost of a major university.   

Gabel currently serves as provost at the University of South Carolina, the chief academic officer that oversees the schools and colleges on the university’s main campus. 

However, Gabel began her career outside higher education. After graduating from University of Georgia’s law school with a J.D. in 1993, she worked as an associate attorney with the firm Swift, Curry, McGhee and Hiers in Atlanta for less than a year. 

Out of the three candidates discussed at the Board of Regent’s meeting last week, Gabel was the closest to having “nontraditional” experience, said Regent Michael Hsu at the meeting.

Gabel went on to work as a professor at Georgia State University from 1996 to 2007 and then a visiting professor at a university in Italy. She later worked as a professor, department chair and director of international relations at Florida State University’s College of Business. 

She then moved to the University of Missouri, serving as the dean of the Trulaske College of Business for five years, before joining the University of South Carolina as provost in 2015. 

“[Gabel] has very strong academic credentials — a history of strategic engagement and lots of initiatives [and] history of success across multiple assignments,” said Regent Ken Powell, one of the few regents who met with Gabel.

Other regents praised Gabel’s wide-ranging experience. 

“She has the academics behind her, but then has also played and worked in a world that’s not [all] higher education. … We need someone who will think in ways that will attract multiple communities and stakeholders,” said Regent Abdul Omari, chair of the presidential search committee, at a press conference last week. 

Hsu said some faculty members have expressed concern over Gabel’s lack of a doctorate degree, which is considered a step in the traditional path for a University president, specifically for the president of a research institution like the University of Minnesota. 

However, Hsu said while Gabel might be considered a nontraditional candidate, she has experience in higher education leadership. 

“In this case, because she’s a hybrid, it allows her to identify with more parts of the various communities she will need to be able to work with and identify with,” Hsu said. “That’s what I think gives her candidacy more strength.”

Hsu compared Gabel’s experience to that of former University President Mark Yudof, who also has a law degree and worked as an attorney before entering higher education. 

While Hsu is one of the seven regents who have not met Gabel, he said he likes the experience she has and looks forward to meeting her.

During her time at the University of South Carolina, Gabel was unafraid to address complex issues like student fees and academic success, said Taylor Wright, the University of South Carolina student body president. 

“She addressed [issues] head on and was willing to really be the voice and stand up for students,” he said. 

Wright said Gabel speaks her mind and described her as a driven and passionate leader who loves the work she does. 

“[Gabel] has been someone I know I can always talk to no matter what time of day. I can always run ideas off of her,” Wright said. “She’s been amazing here and has really revolutionized things.”

Regent Darrin Rosha was the only member of the board to vote against a motion to select Gabel as the sole finalist in the presidential search. 

Rosha said his decision was not a reflection of Gabel, but rather the process of only naming a single finalist. 

“She’s a remarkable candidate [and has a] remarkable background,” he said. “I look forward to meeting her.”

Several regents praised Gabel’s energy and ability to connect with people. 

“[She’s] someone who can command a room, but also someone who can easily connect and engage with a wide range of constituencies,” said Regent Steve Sviggum. “I can especially see this individual become passionate and [become] a great advocate for the University at the legislature.”

If confirmed by the board, Gabel would become the University’s first female president. 

“I think we’re poised and we’re at a time right now where a woman president would thrive here and take us to another level,” Omari said at a press conference last week.

Former bosses and colleagues spoke highly of Gabel during reference checks, Omar said at the press conference. 

“Every one them unequivocally said that she is ready to be a president of an institution,” he said. “If we don’t take her for some reason that she is going to be the president somewhere, because that’s the type of trajectory she’s on.”  

Gabel does not have direct Minnesota connections. But regents said she was excited and knowledgeable about the state. 

“One of things that came through [Gabel’s] pursuit of this from beginning to end is the candidate’s admiration for the University of Minnesota, which [Gabel] frequently described as the premier opportunity in the country right now in higher education,” Regent Powell said at the meeting. 

In a statement provided by the University, she said she looks forward to traveling to Minnesota to meet with the University community. 

“I am truly honored and humbled. I look forward to traveling to Minnesota next week to meet the University of Minnesota community and friends across the state so I can answer questions, learn from them and discuss our collective vision for the future,” Gabel said in the statement.

Gabel will attend public forums on all system campuses this week, and will be interviewed by the full board on Friday. A special meeting is expected to take place the following week to vote on her confirmation.

Austen Maclaus contributed to this report