Gabel’s UMN legacy

After nearly four years as president, Joan Gabel leaves behind a history filled with both praise and backlash.


University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel. Photo courtesy of Eric Miller.

by Maya Marchel Hoff

On Sept. 20, 2019, crowds of University of Minnesota students, faculty, alumni and community members gathered on the Northrop Mall to celebrate the inauguration of the University’s first female president: Joan Gabel.

A sea of maroon and gold, the University’s marching band and all five of the University campus’ mascots welcomed Gabel in anticipation for a fresh chapter in the institution’s history.

“I see this emerging story as a chapter in a book and our University’s story advances,” Gabel said in her inaugural address. “I’m filled with optimism when I think of leading the University of Minnesota into this important next chapter, now let’s get started.”

Nearly four years later, Gabel is currently in her last months at the University as she prepares to serve as the new chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh starting in July. She announced her resignation April 3, which sent University administration into a hurried effort to quickly elect an interim president after a year of shifting administrative roles.

Gabel cited her connection to Pennsylvania, including her attendance at Haverford College and her son’s enrollment at the University of Pittsburgh, as one of the reasons she accepted the new position. Her departure from the University is bittersweet for some and long-awaited for others as her legacy is marked with both accomplishments and controversies.

Although her time at the University is coming to an end, Gabel said she is honored to have navigated the last few years of both difficulties and celebrations.

“Serving as President of the University of Minnesota has been the greatest honor of my career,” Gabel said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “I will never be fully able to express my sincere appreciation for the best colleagues and friends one could hope to know; the overall path we’ve traveled; and this community’s spirit of generosity.”

Gabel’s early days

In December 2018, the University Board of Regents unanimously approved Gabel’s selection for the presidential position after a lengthy search process. With leadership experience under her belt, including her time serving as the executive vice president and provost at the University of South Carolina, the board was confident with its choice, according to former regent and head of the presidential search committee Abdul Omari.

“As I reflect back, we were extremely fortunate to have found a match,” Omari said.

Gabel started with a base salary of $640,000, which was a 2.4% increase from the University’s previous president, Eric Kaler’s, salary.

In her first year as president, Gabel adopted the University’s systemwide strategic plan, MPact 2025, from Kaler’s administration, which had been in development since 2016. The University’s Board of Regents approved the plan in the summer of 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic came months after Gabel’s inauguration, bringing a wave of unprecedented University administrative decisions, including the transition to virtual learning and mask and vaccine mandates.

Gabel’s mark on the University

During her University presidency, Gabel cited advancements in research, improved University rankings and the crown jewel of her administration, MPact 2025, as some of her biggest accomplishments.

MPact 2025 is a systemwide strategic plan that establishes a framework for the University to hit goals focused on student success, community and belonging, sustainability, innovation and fiscal stewardship.

Under MPact 2025, the University achieved more than $1 billion in research expenditures, record-setting graduation rates and placed 23rd among the nation’s top public schools, according to Gabel.

The University also made advancements with the establishments of the Future of Advanced Agriculture Research in Minnesota (FAARM) program and NXT GEN AG, which aim to increase agricultural research and prepare students to work in rural areas.

“If you look at all the rankings and research, if you look at the things that really matter, it will go down as a great presidency,” Omari said. “She did it all during the global pandemic and George Floyd’s murder.”

Backlash on salary and potential conflicts of interest

Alongside her accomplishments, Gabel’s presidency has been laced with controversy over the past two years, including concern over administrative salary increases and conflicts of interest.

In December 2021, the board approved a new employment contract and salary raise for Gabel that surpassed $1 million with benefits, more than any University president had ever made. University faculty and staff criticized this decision because they believed it was unfair to increase Gabel’s pay while their wages were not enough to keep up with the cost of living.

The contract also allotted the board’s chair sole power over the president’s annual goals and metrics and ultimate financial bonuses following the president’s annual performance review.

Less than a year later in July 2022, Gabel and the board received criticism for the board’s decision to appoint former regent David McMillan the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s interim chancellor.

McMillan resigned from the board after Gabel announced Duluth’s chancellor search failed and they would be hiring a two-year interim chancellor.

Many University community members, including Regent Darrin Rosha, former Minnesota governor Arne Carlson and University law professor Richard Painter, criticized this appointment because it seemed like a potential conflict of interest. McMillan was the board’s chair when Gabel was hired and was one of the regents who approved her salary increase in 2021.

Omari said while all University presidents receive criticism, he believed the amount Gabel received was heightened because she was the University’s first woman president.

“She dealt with the gender dynamics of being treated differently than other male predecessors,” Omari said.

During Gabel’s presidency, Rosha frequently disagreed with her administration’s proposals but has been able to produce constructive outcomes, according to Rosha.

“It has been cordial, lively and speaking for myself, it has been characterized by opinion differences on philosophies about accessibility and affordability, in particular for Minnesota students at a land-grant university,” Rosha said.

Regents James Farnsworth, Doug Huebsch, Ruth Johnson, Tadd Johnson, Ken Powell and Bo Thao-Urabe declined the Daily’s requests for comment prior to publication.

Regents Mary Davenport, Mike Kenyanya, Janie Mayeron, Steve Sviggum and Kodi Verhalen did not respond to the Daily’s interview requests prior to publication.

Rosha was one of three regents who voted against approving her conflict of interest management plan in December 2022 during her appointment process to the Securinan Financial Board of Directors.

The University contracts with Securian to oversee life insurance policies for University employees and has an annual contract renewal that the president is involved in. Gabel’s position on its board would have paid $130,000, which she later said she declined.

After outcry from state legislators, the public and University community members, Gabel resigned from the position.

Gabel’s relationship with Securian was one of many things former regent Michael Hsu spoke out against during her presidency. Hsu recently applied for the interim president position.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of excitement, but over time, it waned and I’m not sure why,” Hsu said. “She is using the U as a stepping stone and moving on to greener pastures.”

With the approaching change in leadership, Gabel said the University’s legacy will continue after her departure.

“While departing this incredible community of scholars, leaders and discoverers is bittersweet, it is because of what we have accomplished that I am confident that the U’s good work and upward trajectory will continue in ways to serve the state in even more impactful ways,” Gabel said.