U’s first female president says she’s ‘incredibly excited and humbled’ to be chosen

December 18, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota’s governing board voted unanimously Tuesday morning to hire the first female president in the U’s 167-year history.

Joan Gabel, the provost at the University of South Carolina, will make $640,000 in base salary under a contract regents also backed unanimously. She will also receive a $150,000 retirement contribution in 2020 and could fetch a performance bonus, to be negotiated at a later date.

The Board of Regents chose Gabel as the lone finalist from a pool of 67 applicants earlier this month, after two other front-runners balked at being publicly named unless they were the only finalist. She has a track record of shattering the academia’s glass ceiling: She was the first female provost on her current campus and the first female dean of the University of Missouri’s business school.

As the U’s 17th president, she will lead an institution serving roughly 66,000 students and oversee a budget of almost $4 billion. She will start July 1, the day after President Kaler steps down.

“It is not because she is a woman that I’m voting for her but because of her tremendous capacity to lead this university,” said Regent Linda Cohen.

Gabel cast herself as a collaborative, no-nonsense leader and touted efforts to increase campus diversity, find alternative sources of revenue and cultivate ties with the business world. Although the U placed being a visionary leader at the top of its job description, Gabel largely declined to discuss her vision for the university before starting on the job -- and, Board Chair David McMillan said, that was “wise and prudent.”

Gabel, a mother of three, said she is “incredibly excited and humbled” to land the position. She said while it’s important to recognize her appointment marks a first for the U, she should be judged on her work.

“It’s hard to call yourself a trailblazer at an institution with such tremendous legacy,” she said.

Regents offered mixed reviews on the plan to include a performance incentive in Gabel’s contract, but they largely praised the agreement. Even Darrin Rosha, who along with a couple of fellow regents had pressed earlier this fall for a salary lower than Kaler’s, said he was backing the contract. He did criticize a process in which the university negotiated with a single front-runner -- and with “the handicap of members having already declared their support.”

Echoing the argument that rising administrator pay is an inevitable reality of a competitive market, he asked, “Is this really a market approach?”

President Eric Kaler negotiated a salary of $610,000 when he started on the job in 2011 and received a $50,000 supplemental retirement contribution starting the following academic year -- pay that landed him in the middle of the Big Ten. Also a sole finalist, Kaler had served as provost roughly the same amount of time as Gabel, about three years; he had a Ph.D. to her juris doctor degree.

His salary, now at $625,250, has remained flat, but the university is chipping in significantly more for his retirement, with a $225,000 contribution next year and $325,000 the following year.

Women remain underrepresented in academia’s top job. They make up about 30 percent of college and university presidents, according to a recent American Council on Education study -- and less than a quarter at doctorate-granting institutions such as the U. That’s up slightly from 2011, when the council last surveyed campus presidents. But with more than half of presidents nationally slated to retire or step down in coming years, and more women coming up through the ranks of provosts and deans, female leaders stand to make further gains in the top job on campus.

In Minnesota, Gabel joins three out of four greater Minnesota U campus chancellors and half of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s 30 presidents, who are women.

Although women made up roughly a fifth of the U’s application pool, five of the nine people the search committee interviewed for the position were female.

Female higher education administrators earn roughly 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources; on average, they make slightly less than $100,000 to about $120,000 for male administrators. But that gap narrows significantly for top executive positions.

Only nine of the 50 public university presidents with the highest salaries are women in a list compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education, with the highest -- Margaret Spellings at the University of North Carolina -- coming in at No. 12. Eric Kaler ranked 28th on that list.

In a news conference Tuesday, Gabel spoke of the varied opportunities online learning offers, the importance of student safety on campus and the high standards she plans to have for the U’s scandal-plagued athletics department.

A key challenge would be reining in the rise of tuition while keeping up education and research quality on campus.

“Striking that balance is very difficult and something I see us working on very actively,” she said.

The almost four-month search for Kaler’s replacement trained a renewed spotlight on the push-and-pull between candidate privacy and transparency in U presidential searches. With faculty and others calling for multiple finalists, the university drew fresh criticism for only putting forth one front-runner for public vetting -- the only applicant for the job a majority of the regents got to meet and interview.

Some of them argued the U should lobby lawmakers to allow it to interview finalists behind closed doors. Others on the board and beyond insisted the solution is to clearly communicate to applicants they will have to go public if chosen as finalists, even if that means some contenders sit out the search.

Other perks for the president include living in St. Paul’s Eastcliff mansion, which is slated to undergo almost $1 million worth of renovations next summer before Gabel and her family move in, primarily to its heating and electrical systems.

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