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Lone finalist could be first female president of University of Minnesota

On Dec. 5, 2018, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents named Joan T. A. Gabel as the sole finalist for the position of 17th President of the University of Minnesota. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota Board of Regents is poised to hire its first female president.

University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel will visit all five campuses next week and participate in a public interview with the board Dec. 14. A vote to hire her could take place days later.

Regents voted 11-1 during a special meeting Wednesday, Dec. 5, to make Gabel the lone finalist to succeed Eric Kaler next summer.

Two others being considered refused to let the board name them publicly unless they were going to be the only finalist. That effectively took them out of the running.

Regents awkwardly discussed the three semifinalists Wednesday without naming them. Gabel was called Candidate A until soon after the vote.

If hired, she’d be the University of Minnesota’s 17th president and the first woman to serve in the position.

“I’m thoroughly excited about that,” said Regent Abdul Omari, who led the 23-person search committee that recommended the three semifinalists. “We know that there’s a different level of thinking when diversity comes to the table.”

Regent Steve Sviggum, who served on the search committee, said Gabel can “command the room,” easily engage with a wide range of constituents and become a “great advocate” at the Legislature.

Ken Powell was not on the search committee but briefly met all three semifinalists.

“It’s clear to me that (Gabel) is the candidate. That candidate has very strong academic credentials, a history of strategic engagement and a history of success across multiple assignments,” he said.

Powell also cited her experience in academic medicine and a commitment to inclusion and student success. She has “admiration” for the university and called succeeding Kaler “the premier opportunity in higher education” today, Powell said.

No Minnesota ties

However, none of the three semifinalists had any particular connection to Minnesota, Regent Michael Hsu lamented.

Hsu supported Darrin Rosha’s motion to invite Candidate No. 41, who does have a connection to the state, for interviews along with Gabel.

But Sviggum said No. 41 was not a strong candidate and did not get serious consideration from the committee.

Rosha said he doesn’t doubt Gabel is “exceptional.” But he voted against making her the lone finalist, saying the process puts the university “in great peril.”

Multiple regents complained that the full board would not get to meet more than one candidate.

Randy Simonson said the board should have been clear during the search that it wanted to bring multiple finalists to campus for public interviews.

“Being able to just talk to one gives me concerns,” he said.

Richard Beeson suggested the Legislature change the state’s open-meeting law to enable the full board to privately interview candidates for president. He noted there would have been four semifinalists but one withdrew.

The unwillingness of two semifinalists to be named without front-runner assurance clearly played a role in the board’s action Wednesday.

Omari made the motion early in Wednesday’s meeting to advance Gabel.

He said he was doing so “simply on the basis that that candidate is willing to go public with other finalists.”

Thomas Anderson said Candidates B and C, in his mind, eliminated themselves from consideration by their refusal to be named along with other finalists.

Peggy Lucas said Gabel’s “willingness to go public indicates a real desire for this job, and I take that really seriously.”

Attorney, dean, provost

As provost, Gabel holds the No. 2 job at the University of South Carolina, where President Harris Pastides announced his retirement plans in October.

Local reporters called Gabel a likely candidate to succeed Pastides, but that school hasn’t yet begun its search.

Gabel, 50, was raised in Atlanta, worked there as an attorney and taught law for a decade at Georgia State University. She went on to teach at Florida State University before the University of Missouri hired her as business dean in 2010.

She became South Carolina’s provost in 2015.

Omari said Gabel’s experience outside of higher education should serve her well if hired.

“If we don’t take her, then she’s going to be a president somewhere,” he said.

Some regents have expressed an interest in hiring someone willing to work for substantially less than the $625,250 salary they pay Kaler. Regents chairman David McMillan said regents haven’t discussed that idea with Gabel.

Gabel reportedly earned $400,400 as provost last year, which was somewhat less than her predecessor was paid.