It'd be ‘delightful' to break glass ceiling, U of M presidential finalist says

The frontrunner for the University of Minnesota’s top job says it would be “delightful” to break the glass ceiling and become the university’s first female president.

Joan Gabel, who is currently the University of South Carolina’s provost, was on campus talking publicly with students and faculty for the first time Monday. Hundreds of people showed up to a wide-ranging public forum at Coffman Memorial Union, the first event in what amounts to a week-long job interview.

Gabel said she was the first female South Carolina provost and first female dean of business at the University of Missouri. She said her experiences make her cognizant to bring all stakeholders to the table, but that the focus on her gender will be short-lived.

“What do you do once you’re in the job, when no one’s going to care anymore? Five minutes after you start, it’s about the work,” she told the audience.

Gabel is the lone finalist for the job, something that concerned at least three Board of Regents members as recently as last week. She was the only one of three top-tier candidates to agree to be named publicly even if there were multiple finalists.

Speaking with reporters after the public forum, Gabel said she has interviewed for fewer than five university presidencies. She declined to say how long she planned to be at Minnesota if she’s hired.

“Rather than setting a time or a number of years, I really like to think in terms of the power of the contribution, and while it is a positive contribution, I would do it forever,” she said.

Gabel lacks the Minnesota connections that the past two university presidents have held. President Eric Kaler received a doctoral degree at the university, while former president Robert Bruininks had been provost before taking the top job.

She said she was drawn to the university because of its strong research enterprise, student demand, corporate partnerships and relationships with state politicians. Gabel said she has some family and longtime friends in Minnesota.

“It may not be the same level of connection but I’m not a complete stranger to the state,” she said. “What I know about the state from those relationships is part of why I’m interested.”

Gabel is scheduled to visit the Morris and Crookston campuses Tuesday, the Duluth campus Wednesday, and the Rochester campus Thursday. She’ll have a public interview with the Board of Regents on Friday. The board could vote on hiring Gabel as early as Friday, but could also call a special meeting next week to hold a vote, a university spokesman said.

Questions at Monday’s public forum addressed issues such as fostering democracy to promoting campus diversity.

On the topic of sexual assault, Gabel said a new Trump administration plan that limits the scope of university investigations was creating “uncertainty.” The rule changes under Title IX would restrict universities’ abilities to investigate off-campus assaults and those not reported to senior administrators.

Gabel said she would focus on prevention and support for victims, which she said are not governed by the Title IX changes.

“This is one of the most important operational challenges,” she said.

The questions included more lighthearted topics, such as whether Gabel, who grew up in the southeast, likes hockey. She said she was “deeply offended” by the suggestion that she wouldn’t like the sport, recalling as a child attending Atlanta Flames games. The NHL team moved to Calgary in 1980 and is now the Calgary Flames.