Joan Gabel has her snow boots lined up in her closet, ready to take on her first Minnesota winter. She's also ready to take over as University of Minnesota president.
Gabel officially stepped into her new role Monday, following Eric Kaler’s 8-year tenure. As the 17th president and the first woman to hold the position at the University, she said she hopes to hit the ground running.
“I’m very aware of how important it is to other women particularly, but not exclusively, our students and some of our female faculty and the idea that this is absolutely doable," she said. "So, it's very important for me to represent that well, and to make sure that as the person who carries that through the first time, that there's no question that every other woman who would want to do this, every other person who would want to do this has absolute opportunity to do it and every expectation of doing it as well as anyone else."
Most Big 10 universities have presidents that are men.
Gabel has previously served as the provost at the University of South Carolina and the dean of the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business. A world traveler and a mother of three, she’s also held positions in higher education in Florida and Georgia, and previously worked as an attorney.
Since being selected as the next president, Gabel has been traveling from South Carolina to Minneapolis once or twice a month to meet with University leadership to ensure a smooth transition.
She will meet with the University’s Board of Regents next week during their annual retreat, where she and regents will discuss what goals and actions should be implemented.
The systemwide strategic plan was a major talking point at last year’s board meetings. Gabel has been charged to ensure that the plan is created and implemented during her presidency. The plan will focus on how to support students and faculty and will also include efforts to improve diversity and inclusion and ways to uphold the school’s mission. Gabel will work with the board to establish the plan’s priorities.
To better orient herself with her new position, Gabel will be attending a seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education this month.
Those who have worked with Gabel in the past say she is well-prepared for the role as president.
At the University of South Carolina, Gabel prioritized diversity and inclusion, and enacted a requirement that there be a diversity officer in every academic unit, said John Dozier, chief diversity officer at the University of South Carolina.
“She wanted to make sure that we were doing all that we can to recruit and retain underrepresented minority faculty across the university and across disciplines,” he said.
Taylor Wright, former student body president at the University of South Carolina, said he met with Gabel while she was provost about once a month, and that she wanted the interests and concerns of students to be addressed.
“Everyone was just absolutely blown away by how poised and how really personable she is and how down-to-earth and intelligent she is at the same time,” Wright said. “She got along really well with students.”
Wes Hickman, the former chief communications officer at the University of South Carolina, knew Gabel professionally and personally while she served as provost. During her time there, Gabel established living learning communities where students could meet and live with others who have similar career interests. He said she was also involved in the university’s strategic planning efforts.
“She’s a visionary leader, she’s somebody who understands big picture strategy and knows how to put a team together … she is student-focused all the way,” Hickman said.