University of South Carolina provost attends meet-and-greet, Q & A session at UMN Crookston

    The sole finalist named last week by the Board of Regents to succeed the retiring Eric Kaler as University of Minnesota president is visiting all five system campuses this week leading up to her final interview with the full board on Friday.

    The whirlwind tour from one corner of Minnesota to the other brought University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel to the University of Minnesota Crookston campus Tuesday afternoon, where she was the star attraction at a meet-and-greet in Kiehle Rotunda. Gabel then joined UMC Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause on stage in Kiehle Auditorium for an hour-long open forum with an audience in excess of 50, mostly UMN Crookston faculty and staff but also several community members.

    In the auditorium, members of the audience wrote their questions on note cards, which were collected and brought to Holz-Clause, seated along with Gabel in two facing chairs, by Matt Kramer, U of M vice president of university and government relations. Question topics ran the gamut, from Gabel’s thoughts on the importance of college athletics and online learning, to her views on overseeing a university system with a large, urban campus that extends to smaller, rural campuses across the state, to her thoughts on sexual assault on campuses.

    UMN Crookston has more online degree programs than the other system campuses, and Gabel said she’s amazed by how far online learning has come, both in technological advances and enrollment growth. She said she taught her first online class in 1998, when communication with students was still conducted via email, and sometimes clunky chats that scrolled on a computer screen. It’s become abundantly clear, Gabel said, that online learning opens up doors to the advancement of education for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such opportunities.

    “At the end of the day, there’s a demand for it, so when you’re looking at capacity and enrollment management, it makes perfect sense to explore (further growth in online education) as part of your strategy,” Gabel said.

    Gabel was also asked about the value of higher education, with the tone of the question being, is it worth it, especially considering soaring student debt. Aside from people furthering their education having an opportunity to advance their careers and earn more money, Gabel said it’s difficult for anyone who works within higher education to grasp how anyone can not think it’s worth it.

    “We have the luxury of being in it and we know what it can do for people,” she said. For one thing, Gabel articulated, enhancing their education makes people more aware and more able to understand what’s going on in the world around them, and react to it critically, constructively, appropriately and strategically.

    “Part of what makes this whole world work is to be able to understand what’s going on around you,” Gabel said.

    Asked point-blank on a note card if she envisioned keeping the U of M coordinate campuses open, Gabel said that, although she’s only been provided a brief glimpse so far of what each campus brings to the system as a whole, she can already see how important each campus is. “The good news is that it’s easy to explain here, and there’s a clear contribution by every campus,” she said. “There are unique locations, unique things each can do, with very close partnerships with Extension, and a very clear set of goals for ‘system-ness’ that are clearly articulated.”

    Asked to articulate her “best moments” as a college educator of higher education administrator, Gabel said her collection of memories most likely involve students, which she said more than once are the “reason we’re all here.” Gabel said that even with all the negative things embroiling so many aspects of society these days, there’s no better pick-me-up than being around college students.

    “There is no substitute for seeing a student when the light goes on, when they have that moment,” Gabel said. “If you’re having some tough times, spend some time with a few students and you will find yourself fulfilled.”

    The forum in the auditorium wrapped up with not another question for Gabel, but an invitation written on a note card from someone in the audience for her to attend Crookston’s Ox Cart Days festival in August 2019, and even participate in the parade. Gabel seemed to like the idea.

    “Thank you to whomever invited me to your party!” she said.