MINNEAPOLIS — Joan Gabel sees the University of Minnesota system as a unified force in higher education.
Each of the system’s five main campuses has its specialties and strengths, but they all work together toward the same goal.
Gabel, 51, is two and a half months into her new job as the University of Minnesota system’s president, succeeding Eric Kaler, who had held the post since 2011. An official inauguration is planned for 9 a.m. Friday, which will be streamed online.
The Atlanta native is the system’s 17th president overall, and the first woman to serve as president. She and her husband, Gary, have three children. Before coming to Minnesota, she served as provost at the University of South Carolina.
Gabel will be at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Oct. 1-2 as part of a systemwide campus tour.
She recently sat down with Forum News Service to talk about her vision for the university and the system’s relationship with its nonmetro.
Can you give us a CliffsNotes version of your background and your path to this position at the U of M?
My undergraduate degree is from a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia called Haverford College. I majored in philosophy and was recruited into a development program at the equivalent of a bank. I decided a couple of years later that I wanted to go to law school, and then I practiced law for a few years.
But it didn't feel like it was exactly where I was supposed to be, so I sought counsel from mentors, one of whom was one of my professors in law school, and he suggested that I might really be well-suited to the academic side. There was a position open at Georgia State University, a research university right downtown Atlanta, where I was living and working. So, he nominated me for the position, and in a great twist of good fortune, I got the job.
I was tenured, became an interim department chair, was recruited to another university to be a chair of a much bigger department, went from there to being a dean of business at the University of Missouri and then was recruited to be the provost at the University of South Carolina.
What from your background and experiences have you kept as you come into this new post?
I have, I think, a very deep understanding for the faculty experience, what it means to be engaged in research, what it means to be in front of a classroom and maximize the opportunity for the students in that classroom. I taught undergrad and master’s-level students. I sat on dissertation committees. So, I have that experience and understand its power, what good it can do and what the needs of the faculty are to be in a position to do that good work.
I also understand what our community partners need, how corporate engagement can be an incredible resource for students across campus, how that advocacy and insight and support can help.
So, the way I would describe my spectrum of experiences — I feel like it makes me bilingual, that I understand the way the world beyond campus walls needs us, the ways we can serve them and the ways that we can be partners. But I also very much understand what happens inside the house, too, and why not everybody understands each other. I feel like I translate that very well.
What’s your overall vision for the University of Minnesota system? What do you want to focus on?
There are a few things we’ve always focused on that aren’t as glamorous to talk about but are really important to not lose sight of: statewide student success, outreach to all corners of the state, discovery — scholarship, solutions, cures, the outcomes of research, broadly. We want to make sure we're good stewards of our resources.
We also want to be inclusive. Inclusion is something that ebbs and flows depending on what's happening in society, and the inclusion conversation is very different than it was even five years ago, and certainly than it was when I began my career. So, "We want to create a sense of belonging" means different things now.
We're all very focused on the well-being of our students. What they need to stay well, and therefore be successful, has changed. Their hopes and dreams, needs, expectations change, and we need to meet them where they are.
So, right now we have a very high emphasis on their mental well-being. We know that 18- to 24-year-olds in general are experiencing higher-than-historical levels of mental health challenges, and we have a concentration of 18- to 24-year-olds. They’re our cornerstone. So, we want to be good servants to them in every way that makes them successful.
How do you see the relationship between the University of Minnesota system and its outlying campuses — Duluth, Crookston, Morris and Rochester?
We’re one university. One of the things that really attracted me to this position is that there are a lot of university systems that have the same underlying mission, but within their system, they're competing.
For our system, each of our campuses has a signature that's unique. So they're really not competing; they're collectively elevating. No one is subordinate to anyone else. We have size differences, but no one does what each of the campuses does uniquely well.