Making History in Minnesota
This past December, Joan Gabel '88 was named president of the University of Minnesota, making her the first woman to be appointed to that post in the university's 167-year-history.
In her career in academia, Joan Gabel ’88 is used to making history. She was the first female dean of the business school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the first female provost at the University of South Carolina. This past December, she was named president of the University of Minnesota, making her the first woman to be appointed to that post in the university’s 167-year-history.
While some may call it a trailblazing moment, Gabel doesn’t think of her latest accomplishment that way. “It’s OK to acknowledge that you’re the first woman,” says Gabel, “but five minutes after you start, it’s about the work. I want to be a really good president.”
Gabel, who is married and the mother of three, will take over the 67,000-student University of Minnesota system on July 1. The university’s five campuses are closely connected to the communities where they’re located, which is why Gabel’s three-month job interview was a widely-reported-on process. She traveled across the state, stopping at each campus, in Morris, Crookston, Duluth, Rochester, and the Twin Cities, and meeting with everyone from elected officials to students, staff, faculty, and local business owners. She fielded questions in crowded auditoriums about the value of higher education, preserving each campus’s character, her commitment to diversity, and even her knowledge of Minnesota culture. In the end, she convinced both the Minnesota Board of Regents and Minnesota residents that she would serve them well.
Born in New York and raised in Atlanta, Gabel came to Haverford at age 16 after skipping kindergarten and graduating early from high school. She was planning on a pre-med major, but after a class with Professor Kathleen Wright, she was smitten with philosophy and changed focus. “I’d never been challenged in that way. I’d never read primary source materials that way, and [been] asked to reflect and contextualize and relate it back that way. The class was eye-opening and brain-opening, and I loved it.”
She went on to the University of Georgia School of Law, practiced commercial litigation for several years in Atlanta, and then was invited to teach business ethics and business and insurance law at Georgia State University.
Gabel, whose husband, Gary, is a K-12 educator, went from the classroom into administration when she was asked to become an interim department chair while still teaching. She was recruited in 2007 by Florida State University’s College of Business as a professor and chair of the Department of Risk Management/Insurance, Real Estate & Legal Studies, and director of international relations for the College of Business.
Her next step up, in 2010, was serving as dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business. There, she started an innovative executive MBA program, became known as an effective fundraiser, and was named a “Shining Star” among women business school leaders by The Wall Street Journal. She took on the provost’s post at University of South Carolina (USC) in 2015.
Within a few months of her arrival in Columbia, students staged a peaceful demonstration demanding that discrimination and diversity on campus be addressed. Gabel spoke to the crowd and went on to develop a team of diversity officers, one for each of USC’s colleges and schools, and according to USC faculty, she worked hard to promote, retain, and hire a more diverse faculty. She also effectively dealt with state budget cuts to higher education, and was considered a candidate to replace the outgoing USC president. “She’s just a down-to-earth, highly knowledgeable, and well-spoken person,” said John von Lehe Jr., chairman of the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees. “People like her.”
Gabel, who is spending the next few months learning as much as she can about her new job and the university system she takes over, points out that she won’t be the first Haverford graduate to hold a leadership position at Minnesota. She’ll join Garry W. Jenkins ’92, a professor and dean of the Law School (since August 2016). “And there are lots of Fords in the Twin Cities,” she says.
And she’s looking forward to what can be accomplished. “It’s hard to imagine a leadership position where you could have a greater multiplier effect,” she says of being president. “If you get it right, you can really do some very good things for a lot of people."