UMN presidential transition already underway

The University’s transition team has six months to prepare President-Designate Joan Gabel for the role.

University President-designate Joan Gabel shakes the hand of Regent Ken Powell after being voted into the job on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at McNamara Alumni Center.

Ellen Schmidt

University President-designate Joan Gabel shakes the hand of Regent Ken Powell after being voted into the job on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at McNamara Alumni Center.

by Austen Macalus

Joan Gabel will not take over as President of the University of Minnesota until July, but planning for her presidency has already begun. 

A University transition team has six months to prepare President-Designate Gabel for the role — time that will be spent making connections with on-campus leaders, shaping priorities and getting up to speed on the University’s internal affairs. 

The presidential transition kicked off almost immediately after the Board of Regents voted on Gabel in late December. 

Regent Richard Beeson, co-chair of the ten-member transition committee, said the process will help with “informing President-Designate Gabel as to how the University functions, how we’re organized and what some of the challenges and opportunities are.”

While Gabel continues her full-time work as provost at the University of South Carolina, Beeson said her time on campus will be jam-packed. This will include meetings with administrators from all five campus systems, academic leaders, deans and members of University governance. 

It’s really people who are the University,” Beeson said. “This is a relationship business.”

Although President Eric Kaler will oversee this year’s budget, Gabel will also start learning more about the University’s fiscal operations. 

“It’s sort of understanding the baseline of what we have and what those opportunities and challenges are,” he said. “That’s the process we’re starting.”

The transition will also involve advising Gabel on key priorities, while at the same time giving her space to bring new ideas, Beeson said. 

“She has notions and ideas certainly, but those will be best developed by the time and information she gets from us about what it is we’re going to be doing right now,” he said. 

However, the transition process is not without its challenges. 

University professor Karen Seashore said Gabel will have to adjust quickly to the University’s unique position as the state’s flagship research and land-grant institution.  

“There’s a long tradition of people feeling like the University of Minnesota belongs to the people here. That’s not the case in all states,” said Seashore, who studies organizational sociology, policy and leadership. “Minnesota has its own culture, which is very different than the places that she’s had her experience.” 

Like others across higher education, Gabel will have to contend with reduced state funding and constant financial constraints, Seashore said. 

Seashore went on to say that those coming from outside Minnesota, including former President Mark Yudof, discovered how closely the University is tied to the state and its politics. 

“It’s a lot to learn in a short period of time” said former University President Bob Bruininks, who served before Kaler took over in 2011. “It’s a big transition for anyone because the University, I think it’s safe to say, is one of the most complex universities in the country.”

Bruininks had spent more than three decades at the University and served as interim president before assuming the role — something he said was an advantage compared to Gabel. 

However, Bruininks said he also inherited a difficult political situation, as the state drastically reduced the University’s budget in the early 2000s.

“Everybody has a different sort of entry into this position, but everyone faces many of the same challenges,” he said. “You have to get to know the place, obviously, you have to get to know the state of Minnesota, you have to develop a keen appreciation of the challenges facing the University of Minnesota.”

Bruininks said a president’s start is largely shaped by their predecessors.  

“The issue of continuity is really important,” he said. “You have to build on what’s there and what’s happened in the recent past, but you also have to put down some markers to improve the future [prospects] of the University.” 

Although there will be a learning curve, Bruininks said Gabel is well-prepared to step into the presidency. 

“She’s coming in with [a] really solid background and good experience to hit the ground running,” he said. 

The monthslong transition matches the position’s scope and complexity, Beeson said, because stepping into the presidency is unlike coming into any other job. 

“This time will go fast and there will certainly be plenty keeping her occupied,” he said. “Almost nobody is ready to start this job [on] day one.”