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President Gabel: Alumni Make the Difference

From the Homecoming parade to the State Fair, President Gabel has been enthusiastically making the rounds as she settles into her new job.

Photo Credit: Eric Miller/ ©2019 Regents of the University of Minnesota

When Joan T.A. Gabel took office as president at the U of M on July 1, she hit the ground running—literally.

If there’s a hand she hasn’t shaken in the state since assuming office, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. A fully booked schedule has taken her from the top of the state to the bottom, and on multiple trips to all of the U of M System campuses. She’s met faculty, students, and residents. She’s inspected research projects, courted industry, addressed crowds, and perhaps even kissed babies, although the latter may be apocryphal.

Photo Credit: Eric Miller/ ©2019 Regents of the University of Minnesota

To date, Gabel’s ebullient personality, combined with her leadership smarts, have stood her in good stead as she builds goodwill among the many constituencies she must serve as leader of the U of M. Although still in relatively early days, she’s already begun to grapple with complex issues such as future funding for the University, headwinds facing higher education as a whole, and meeting her stated desire to find more opportunities for the    U of M to partner with outside entities.

Minnesota Alumni recently sat down with Gabel to inquire about her first days, and to ask her to describe the role she sees alumni playing in ensuring the University remains vital.

“Active and engaged alumni are the cornerstone to everything that we do,” Gabel says, leaning forward over the polished wooden table in her still spare office. She adds that when alumni find ways to stay truly involved with the U, the institution benefits in significant ways. She ticks points off one by one: Alumni can engage with current students, or provide advice to the institution, whether on formal advisory boards or by offering anecdotal observations about how their education has served them. Alumni can also share what they’re hearing and seeing in their workplaces so the University can continue to meet the future needs of industry through instruction or beyond-the-classroom activities.

And then, Gabel says, alumni can stay involved by simply coming back.

“There are these moments that are amazing when you work in higher ed,” she says. “Watching freshmen walk into their dorm room and [knowing] this incredible new chapter is about to start. And then you blink and you’re handing them their diploma as they walk across the stage. I’m getting chills even saying it. And then they come back and you run into them at a football game and they say, ‘[My education] was everything I needed and here’s why.’ Those are the conversations where I go home and say, ‘This is why I do what I do.’ And of course, financial support is wonderful, and we deeply appreciate it, but it’s [the alumni] perspective and voice and advocacy for the value of the University” that count, she says. “Our alumni tell us why we do what we do.”

Starting this issue, President Gabel will be penning a personal column in Minnesota Alumni.

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