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Gabel talks UMN’s role in dealing with climate change and reconciling with University history

She also discussed Gopher football and her favorite moment after five months as president.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Thursday, Sept. 5.
Image by Jasmin Kemp

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

President Joan Gabel spoke about reckoning with the University of Minnesota’s past, the school’s role in combating climate change and what Rachel Croson, the next provost, will bring to the University, in a conversation with the Minnesota Daily earlier this week. 

Despite the loss last week, it’s been a really exciting season for Gopher football. You, coming from a place where you haven’t been part of Gopher football before, what is this like for you, being part of this season?

Well, it’s really fun. I’m having fun. I’m also very pleased to see that this all happens in an environment of off the field success — high GPAs, great graduation rates. … It has a momentum that the rest of us pick up on. But also it has brought a lot of people to the University in the excitement of it. … It gives us a platform to talk about other wonderful student programs and some of our research and some of our community engagement, so it’s great.

Some changes in graduate student health insurance resulted in some things unexpectedly not being covered anymore. How can the University make changes like this smoother for grad students in the future?

… We had, I think, as much of a communication challenge as a substantive challenge that left students unaware of how to navigate. In each of the cases where students experienced a change where a particular thing they needed treatment or medication did not appear to be covered, those students eventually were taken care of one-on-one, to have their situations resolved in at least a mutually satisfying way. But the idea that our students felt for one minute like we didn’t care and like we did this in a way that didn’t include them … was very upsetting to a lot of people, including me, and I am sorry that that happened. I think the most important thing we do is commit to better communication going forward, and additionally maintaining the consultation that led to the original decision.

What do you see as the University’s responsibility in combating climate change?

I think we have a lot of scholarship that we have the potential to deepen and support that can provide at a minimum mitigation and, with any luck, some solutions. I think we also are a community of curiosity … who can pose questions [and] be active in service and volunteerism. … [When] we have legitimate opinions about policy based on subject matter expertise, we need to allow the academic voice to speak on those issues. I think that totality of scholarship, expertise, education, community engagement and volunteerism is where and how we best fulfill our obligations and responsibilities as any citizen would.

Do you think the University should be trying to set a model for how it conducts its own energy usage?

Yes. I think that we have improved greatly in our efforts to be more, broadly speaking, more green. We have work to do. … I think we get better every year and we should continue to get better. With every decision we make, take into consideration the footprint of that decision. … There’s, for better or for worse, still a lot of opportunity for us to continue to get better.

You just hired a new provost. What qualities do you hope she’ll bring to the job?

[Rachel Croson] has a spectrum of really interesting qualities. So in addition to just being a very lovely person, … her area of expertise really puts her in a position to see things from multiple points of view, which I think from personal experience is critically important to that role. … She has a large body of undergrad, graduate, professional and doctoral students. So she sees that point of view of student engagement. … She also has spent time in a leadership position on a system campus when she was in Texas. So I think she has a really good perspective on that, on top of being an incredibly accomplished scholar herself. … I think she’s really got exactly what we need.

Last week the Department of African American and African Studies hosted a lecture about the University’s history with slavery. What are some ways that the University can reckon with this aspect of the past?

I think not the least of which is to host speakers like Dr. [Christopher] Lehman and bring people like him in who have subject matter expertise and a point of view. What I really liked about that event is that he was the primary speaker on his book … but we had a panel with a variety of points of view. The president’s office was really honored to co-sponsor that … and to have it be a part of an ongoing sense of how we as an institution lean into our ability to educate and inform as part of reckoning. We need to understand our history in order to develop either indicia or programs and that allow us to heal. … So I think reckoning comes with an understanding and Dr. Lehman and others help us deepen our understanding.

Last week there was also a campus community discussion about the education opportunities to reckon with the University’s past following renaming. How is the development of those opportunities going?

This is hard stuff but really important. And so in the context of a painful history, I think it’s going well, in that we’re working really closely with a lot of different constituencies on campus and with community partners, to think about how we fulfill the [Board of Regents’] charge as the floor, but it doesn’t have to be the ceiling. We can think about other ways … expanding the knowledge base, developing curricula, exposing our students to multiple points of view and then allowing them to discern and become their own critical analysts, have their own opinion. … I think that it would be better if we had no pain in our history, if our history wasn’t complicated, but it is. And so we need to learn about it, study it, educate about it and do our best to be preventers of further pain.

We’re in your fifth month as president now. What has been a specific moment that you consider your favorite?

… I would say the inauguration. After getting married and having my children, it would probably be the biggest day of my life. … Part of why it was such a happy day is because of the way the community rallied, and the fact that the community could. That we set it up in a way where everyone could come and it was really joyful and fun, and it allowed us to showcase a lot of really good things that we do.

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

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