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Interview with President Joan Gabel: student mental health, development plans, transparency

The Minnesota Daily interviewed President Joan Gabel this week.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.
Image by Emily Urfer
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.

The Minnesota Daily interviewed University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel this week, where she discussed topics including student mental health, renaming and the University’s capital request.

At the Board of Regents meeting this month, you broke down your plan to tackle mental health on campus. Why do you think we need a mental health initiative? What do you think are the biggest issues regarding mental health on campus?

[Both questions] relate to the percentage of our student population that is suffering. Nationally, we know it’s over 40%, and that’s true on our campus, too. And we know students can use the support, and we know that support is likely to make them more successful and progress more smoothly to graduation and to life. So we want to make sure that we’re purposeful about it because the old ways of providing support are insufficient, given the growth in the percentage of students who need that support. 

We are looking at making sure our counseling services are set up the right way that we have enough of it. We’re looking at … outside of counseling support, things like PAWS, that is helpful and mindful, but not necessarily an appointment with the counseling service. We’re looking at the faculty role in terms of research but also in terms of the classroom environment … it took a lot of work for us to even identify what we’re currently doing. And so if I were a student seeking support, particularly if I were distressed, I might not know where to look myself, and that should be the easiest part … It’s not a question of whether there’s been a commitment to student mental health, but the organization around it has some room for improvement.

The University of Minnesota just approved a development plan for the East Gateway project. How can students be assured that this project will have public oversight?

This project is overseen by multiple parties, actually. So, it would have city oversight as it’s being developed. The [University of Minnesota] Foundation, which is the organizer of the development, is mission bound to serve the University. And then at key points in the process, there are decisions that are either brought to the Board [of Regents], or where there are Board of Regents representatives. And so that combination is where we think that students should feel some comfort. There are multiple groups committed to the idea that what would be our neighbor is something that is to the benefit of the entire University community. And so we would have the loop-through process for something that profound in the way that you would expect.

What is the University’s hope for this project?

I think that the opportunity to have a really modern robust innovation corridor right next door is something that is a unique opportunity for universities like ours that are research universities that sit in metropolitan locations. 

There’s also work being done around coming up with a framework for renaming buildings. Why is it important to have these kinds of frameworks, and what is the process going forward?

So, the process that we’re in now is the next chapter after the task force submitted a report to the board. The board’s decision was to charge the administration, with the development of a renaming policy. … The board also charged us to have ongoing educational activities … In the anchor of that charge was a policy that gives a structure for the consideration of whether the honor that is bestowed on a person by virtue of their name appearing on a building should have a process for exploration when questions about that person arise. And when those questions arose before there was no structure and the thought is it’s always better to explore these really complicated and sometimes very painful questions with a structure.

Once created, how is this framework intended to change the University and the names of its buildings?

The framework is not intended to change anything. The framework is a tool for when the questions arise around building names. The framework is a process. What is intended, is that we would have every attribute of our campus physical, instructional, scholarly, represent our values, and when those values are called into question there should be a process for exploring whether we would need to make a change. So the process does not dictate the change but it dictates the methodology.

The University of Minnesota requested more than $300 million for a bonding bill from the Legislature. Do you think the University will receive this amount, and will the University ask for a supplemental budget request this year depending on the February forecast?

It’s hard to know exactly how much we will receive. What we’ve encountered so far after having testified formally in front of three committees and had a multitude of informal meetings with leadership at the Legislature is that no one is questioning what we’re asking for, or why we asked for what we asked for in terms of projects or the amount, but it’s just a question of whether there’s enough to go around and how they will set their priorities. So we’re very optimistic about the support for the projects dollar for dollar. It’s really a little too early to say… 

We are watching very closely for the February forecast, as are lots of other people. If the forecast is positive, and we think that creates some margin, then we would probably regroup and consider asking for something supplemental … If there were a supplemental request we would work on it through the board and then bring it to the Legislature.

Sen. Jim Abeler recently questioned the University’s lack of transparency in relation to how the institution uses state funding. How will you work to ensure that state funding is being spent in a transparent way?

Yes, so he was also complementary because he thinks that things are off to a good start for the next chapter, which we were grateful for him noticing and recognizing. We had a report prepared by a third party consultant, just after the beginning of the year that looked at our administrative overhead, because when your questions around, transparency, generally, not always, but generally, what our friends and partners are referring to is our budget. And so we wanted to get at this notion that things are not run well here.

But what we’ve done is made that report publicly available. We provided it to the board. We’ve provided it to every legislator who’s asked us for it. We are just simply trying to answer questions clearly with data in a reasonable period of time, and hope to build the trust associated with that.

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

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