Gabel discusses first day of school, diversity and the next steps of renaming conversation

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel sat down with the Minnesota Daily late last week.

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Thursday, Sept. 5.

Jasmin Kemp

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Thursday, Sept. 5.

Dylan Anderson

In her first monthly sit down with the Minnesota Daily, President Joan Gabel discussed promoting diversity, student mental health and the next steps in the process of reckoning with the University’s history.  

How was your first, first day of school as UMN President?

It was great. Welcome Week and the first day of school were really fun. When you do this for a living … you’re really happy when the students come back. That’s what you’re here for. It’s always just the best energy when the students come back and seeing their excitement, and also where possible, helping with questions or concerns and just being a part of making sure that it’s the best next chapter of their life. It’s been wonderful.

You’ve made an extra effort to note the University of Minnesota was built on the traditional homelands of the Dakota people. Why is that so important to you to note?

I think that doing acknowledgments is part of how we own a history and move forward together in a spirit of reconciliation. That requires being overt, and I think that that’s how we get better. I think people come to universities … because we want things to continuously improve. That’s what universities do and that includes doing things like land acknowledgments.

You’ve talked about promoting diversity quite a bit. It’s a priority for the Board of Regents this year. How specifically do you want to promote diversity among students, faculty and staff?

Those work differently, but they fit together if you do them the right way. For faculty recruitment … it’s very relational, and very specific to the needs of a department. You don’t just hire a professor, you hire a professor who does a certain type of work, who has a certain type of expertise, and has the ability to expand knowledge. … That is in and of itself a type of diversity, a diversity of thought and scholarship and expertise. Then you want to layer upon that a diversity in background and perspective.  … We have very robust implicit bias training … and that can help us overcome anything we inadvertently do. … When we’re looking for the way in which we fill out a portfolio of academic expertise, we’re also filling out a portfolio of perspective. We would expect to see some of the numbers come up as a result of that. … This is a welcoming place we have. … And that is true for faculty and staff.

For students, we know that in order for students of a variety of backgrounds and perspectives to choose an institution, they need to have a relationship with [the University]. … [We have to] make sure that our story is being told early … that we’re there and that they see the opportunity here. And then once they’re here, that they have what they need in order to be successful, that would be true for all of our students. But we need to be overt about it so that we don’t inadvertently leave someone out of that conversation.

Student mental health is an issue that you have made clear you want to address. Why is this issue so important to you and how do you want to address it?

I want our students to be successful. And I also believe very much that we meet students where they are. … In the last few years, meeting students where they are has very much come to include the fact that a very real percentage of our students experience a mental health challenge, some of which rise to the level of a diagnosis and some of which don’t. … We want our students to be well, because it will make them successful. … That includes being well, and being well includes being mentally well. So that’s why we want to do it.

The how is being developed as we speak. We already do a lot. … We realized we needed to take a short but real pause to evaluate what we’re even doing. We call that an environmental scan … that shows everything we’re doing. What I learned was there was no one person or one group of people who knew everything we did around student wellness or student well being. And so therefore, how could a student possibly know all of their options and where they could find them easily, particularly when they were feeling stressed? … We want to make that clear and robust so that students can find it easily. … Once we have that done, we’ll do a gap analysis and figure out what we have. We have one gap that we already know about, which is the access to services on the West Bank. … That’s already underway, we’re not waiting for the environmental scan. But we suspect we’ll find other things that we could be tweaking or fundamentally changing that would improve the services we provide. 

Last May the Board of Regents voted to not rename several buildings on campus. And they charged you with finding other ways of reckoning with the University’s history. What do you envision that being and what is the process for fulfilling that, and where are we in that process?

… It’s a never-ending process. And I mean that in the best way, which is that we will always learn more about ourselves. That is the nature of history, and the scholarship of history. … So while the board did not vote to rename, they did vote to have sustained educational opportunities and learning opportunities. 

The task force … included options in addition to renaming that are extremely helpful in a conversation around sustained educational programming. So we’re looking at those options, including things like event series … that would start at some point this year. 

We expect there to be physical space where we could have reflection on our history that would allow us to learn more about what has happened here, but also give us the opportunity to find a sense of peace as we move forward.

We’re looking at learning opportunities … It’s very valuable and helpful for universities to remember who they are, when difficult, painful, social questions arise, and who we are, are learners and curious people and scholars with expertise with a shared mission of service. And so if we can take the pain of what has happened historically, and make it an ongoing instructional opportunity and research opportunity, and incentivize that, I think that we can move from reckoning into reconciliation. And that’s my goal. And so I’m working with a couple of our deans and some of our faculty on whether we could think of an instructional opportunity — a standing course, for example. And I know we have one launched already. … I want to be clear that that’s just the beginning of the conversation. We expect this to be something we just do, you don’t finish this, this is something that you strive to continuously improve on. 

In July, the University came under scrutiny for mishandling public data requests. How important is transparency to you and what steps are you taking to ensure that public data requests are handled properly?

It’s critically important. It’s a question of public trust. It is very difficult in very large, complex organizations to be perfect all the time, but that’s what we should strive to be. We do sometimes make mistakes. And so I think when mistakes happen, you have to own them and apologize for them, you need to look at systemically what allowed the mistake to happen and fix that. If that’s … human error, which sometimes there is, then you have to do the training to try to mitigate or minimize if not eliminate the likelihood of that error happening again.

In this case, we had a little of all … we had a large document production that had a small number of documents that were questioned in terms of the amount of redaction and some of the documents questioned were over redacted. We’re doing a full sweep of the data production unit in our in our office for whether we are doing the entire process well and accurately. Those of us who are very active … in data production have gone through training to make sure we understand what we’re supposed to provide. … I believe in self reporting, even when it is awkward or painful, which we did in this case. And the hope is that we would find ways to improve the systematic process. We should have the results of that internal review soon.

We’re just two months into your presidency. Have you thought about what you want your legacy to be, and if you have, what would that be?

I thought about it a lot. I will say that, I think the best time to really start to articulate the legacy is after we’ve done the strategic planning process. And that’s not a hedge. That’s because that’s the absolute best way to hear what people want the University to be. And one of the questions we’re asking … is what are what we’re calling “north star goals,” things you might never achieve, but that we should still be striving for: 100 percent graduation rate, zero student debt, number one in research productivity. What would those goals be for us? … And then you work backwards from that. I think that there are things that I would like to see happen, but I really think the role of a presidency in a system and in a land grant mission is to curate and cultivate a vision and a legacy that comes up from the constituencies and that shared voice. I have opinions, but I’m going to tailor my opinions based on what I hear.

This interview has been edited for length, grammar and clarity.