MINNEAPOLIS — Weeks into her tenure, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel urged a nearly all-female audience Monday, Aug. 12, to decide for themselves what it means to succeed.

“It is very, very tempting when you are not in the majority … to then overachieve in order to represent the ability to do so,” she said at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Women in Business lunch on the university's Minneapolis campus.

Women shouldn’t feel burdened to reach a certain point in their careers, she said, and they should support and reward each other wherever they are.

“We should all be sailing over the bar, but there’s more than one bar. And that’s a good thing and one to be rewarded and congratulated,” she said.

At the same time, Gabel said women should feel they can achieve something even if no woman has done it before.

Gabel has done just that, breaking a string of 16 male presidents at the university. She said she’s “very honored” to have done so but she’s been the “first” before — first female provost at the University of South Carolina and first female business dean at the University of Missouri.

She’s been first often enough that she has a go-to refrain for the “what’s it like” question:

“I don’t know how to answer that question … because I’ve never not been a woman,” she said, to laughs.

Monday’s event was the first public speaking invitation Gabel accepted after taking the job. She gave an 18-minute speech and answered questions for 20 minutes with regent David McMillan moderating.


Gabel’s first degree was a bachelor’s in philosophy, but she got a job anyway because “someone took me under their wing,” she said.

She’s happy to see colleges today have built mentorship and hands-on work experience into their curricula.

First impressions

Gabel said that among her early observations about the university, she appreciates its balance between access and excellence.

“It can be really, really top-notch without leaving people behind,” she said.


Contrasting Minnesota with Alaska, whose Legislature cut state university funding by 41 percent this year, Gabel said she’s grateful to work in a state that values higher education.

Still, she said she senses that lawmakers, students and parents have come to expect more from their universities. She said the greatest challenge facing higher education is skepticism over its “value.”

The other college system

Gabel spent breakfast Monday with Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of the Minnesota State system of seven universities and 30 two-year colleges.

The two higher education systems historically have had little to do with each other — to lawmakers’ chagrin — but Gabel is open to changing that. She hinted at a desire to forge new relationships between the university and the state’s public two-year colleges.

“We have a lot of alignment around that,” she said of Malhotra. “I’m very optimistic.”