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Editorial Cartoon: Alabama and IVF
Editorial Cartoon: Alabama and IVF
Published March 1, 2024

Opinion: UMN’s secrecy haunted in Gabel’s departure

UMN President Joan Gabel’s last day was June 9, 2023.
Opinion%3A+UMN%E2%80%99s+secrecy+haunted+in+Gabel%E2%80%99s+departure
Image by Sarah Mai

The official departure this week of University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel is a product of the school’s penchant for secrecy.

The sudden and stunning announcement this spring that Gabel would be leaving the University this summer to become Chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh caught everyone by surprise, except Gable and those at Pittsburgh who pirated her away.  

Her abrupt flight from the University after only four years, following her highly-acclaimed pomp-and-circumstance investiture, grew out of a clandestine arrangement between her and the authorities at the smaller, less prestigious Pennsylvania school, where she starts her new job on July 1. Her expedited departure from the University, as finalized by the Board of Regents last Friday, was accompanied by a $160,000 payment to her retirement fund, part of the largesse in her five-year contract with the institution, which she breached in mid-term.

It’s been reported in Pittsburgh that Gabel’s salary there will be close to hers at the University, $950,000 annually, but with sweeteners including retirement funding and multiple bonuses that will bring her compensation package close to $1.5 million or more, about double the $700,000 salary of the outgoing Chancellor.  

With that kind of compensation package, Gabel won’t have to moonlight.

Rather than paying her, perhaps the school should have declared her in breach and pursued a claim against her for damages caused by having to hire an interim head and conduct a search for a new permanent one, along with the higher salary her replacement will undoubtedly command.

But don’t hold your breath for that: too much “Minnesota Nice” to disturb Gabel on her way out. The University is acting like a banker helping to escort a robber out the door and tossing a bit more cash into the get-away car.   

Pittsburgh was able to hire Gabel only a few months after she entered into a new five-year extension of her contract here, highlighted by a compensation arrangement of about $1 million annually plus bonuses. Her stealthy departure comes on the heels of the controversy following her acceptance of a second part-time $130,000 moonlighting spot (the same amount that ex-President Trump paid for Stormy Daniels’ silence) on the Board of Directors of Securian, a financial outfit that does billions of dollars of business with the University, preceding her withdrawing a month later from that position due to the incredibly bad optics and potential conflict of interest.

That incident created a sour situation that may have played a role in her decision to look for greener pastures, although the Steel City is not known for its greenery.

Gabel’s disowning of her arrangement with financial titan Securian was brought about because of a firestorm at the Legislature a lot of hand-wringing by influential observers and newspaper editorialists arising out of her secretly making that deal and the Regents then insouciantly approving it.

That blaze was kindled by this publication in an article a few days after Gabel’s deal was revealed, an arrangement and ensuing critique that probably paved the way for here to look elsewhere for work. 

Gabel and Pittsburgh managed to pull off the heist because the hiring process there was shrouded in secrecy. That’s the same type of covert process that accompanied her hiring here, as it has been done for decades at the University, much to the consternation of many advocates for transparency, including this writer.  

The University’s capacity for opacity, which underlied her obtaining the presidency here, facilitated Pittsburgh spiriting her away by shielding the process until after it became a fait accompli. By being stung this way, the University may have learned its lesson that transparency is a better process than the secrecy that has traditionally been the way it picks its Presidents.  

Meanwhile, Gabel is being replaced temporarily by former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger, fresh off his uphill losing race as a Democrat for Congress in the First District in southern Minnesota, the former stomping grounds of Governor Walz.

As an interim, his salary will be $400,000 annually, a steep drop from his pay at the Austin food producer but nonetheless a living wage.  

The Regents, to their credit, opened up the interim selection process a bit by identifying publicly the four “finalists,” two internal candidates and two outsiders, including Ettinger, whom some speculate may seek the position on a permanent basis. That overture was a departure from the University’s long, and often-criticized,  practice of only naming only a single candidate for the top job.

The temporary transparency may, hopefully, form a model for a similar approach during the search for a permanent President in conformance with the requirements of the state “Sunshine” laws, which the institution customarily flouts, as it did in the secretive selection of Gabel.

Marshall H. Tanick is a University of Minnesota alumnus and employment and Constitutional law attorney.

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