The University of Pittsburgh’s Board of Trustees voted Monday to elect Joan Gabel, president and chief executive of the University of Minnesota system and Twin Cities campus, as its 19th chancellor. Gabel, who is expected to start in July, is the first woman in Pitt’s 236-year history to hold the position.

She succeeds Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, who announced last April that he would step down this summer after nine years in the role. He intends to join Pitt’s faculty as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. 

Gabel has served as president of the five-campus University of Minnesota system since 2019. In that capacity, she oversaw the completion of a decade-long, $4 billion capital campaign and the creation of the system’s first comprehensive strategic plan. That plan resulted in “record-setting” graduation rates and a growing number of startups and patents, Pitt said in a press release. The system has also forged industry partnerships – including one with the Mayo Clinic and Google – during her tenure.

“I am excited and filled with optimism when I think of leading this institution into its important next chapter — to taking leaps when needed, and incremental steps as necessary, to ensure that every step we take, however large or small, moves us forward,” Gabel said in the release.

A 26-person committee of trustees and campus community members, aided by executive search firm Storbeck Search, embarked on a nearly eight-month search for Pitt’s next leader. Douglas Browning, chair of the board, said Monday that thousands of students, faculty, staff and alumni participated in an online survey and attended forums this fall to inform the search. 

Gabel will receive an annual base salary of $950,000, compared to Gallagher’s base salary of $698,202 this year. Browning said during the board’s Compensation Committee meeting Monday afternoon that consultants found that Gallagher’s base salary had fallen below the 50% level of Pitt’s public university peers in the Association of American Universities

“We as a board are also aware that many of our faculty and staff salaries need to be adjusted to remain competitive with our AAU peers, and we are committed to supporting the ongoing efforts of the administration to close the gap as soon as possible,” Browning said. 

After the vote passed, the chancellor-elect fielded questions from the media about unionization, controversial campus speakers and the University of Minnesota’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. Here are key takeaways from the conversation:

Temporarily limiting the role of city police

About a year after Gabel took the helm at the University of Minnesota, the murder of George Floyd by a city police officer ignited a national reckoning on racism and policing.

The system, which has a Twin Cities campus, decided that it would no longer rely on the Minneapolis Police Department for supplemental services – used for speakers or other large campus events – until it felt comfortable with the department’s training and disciplinary processes, she said. The system reinforced its commitment to co-patrolling campus neighborhoods with the department to support the safety of campus community members.

“It was a tenuous balance to strike, but one that we thought was important to strike in the aftermath of what were some obviously very difficult events and very challenging times for all of our community,” Gabel said. 

The system has restored its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, which appointed a new chief in November, “with a shared commitment to having public safety and policing respect the values of our entire community,” Gabel said. 

Stance on controversial speakers

Students have slammed Pitt in recent weeks over its decision to allow student organizations to host three events featuring “anti-trans” conservative speakers. One speaker, far-right commentator Michael Knowles, said in March that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” 

Pitt would face legal liability if it tried to cancel the upcoming events, as universities that receive public funding can’t discriminate against speakers under the First Amendment. Gabel said the university must follow the law, but she added that it can also provide support and counter positions to ensure the campus community receives balanced information. 

The university can make “very clear that, while we respect and follow the law, we don’t endorse, as a community, what people sometimes say,” Gabel said, “and that it is very difficult for those things to coexist, but that’s part of what we’re committed to as an institution of learning and exploration.”

Board seat controversy

The Minnesota governor and state attorney general expressed concern in January over Gabel’s paid position on the board of financial services firm Securian Financial, which had more than $1 billion in business with the university, according to the Star Tribune. Gabel, who was required to recuse herself from any decisions involving both parties, resigned from the position that month. The university then announced it would review its conflict management policies.

Browning said the search committee vetted the issue and felt it received a satisfactory response. Gabel said during the press conference that her contract permitted service on for-profit boards, and she had received approval from the university’s conflict management process and board to take the position. “But people didn’t like it,” she said.

“I wouldn’t call it a controversy. I would say they didn’t like it, and it became a distraction,” Gabel said. “So I stepped down.”

Perspective on unionization

Graduate student organizers at Pitt are seeking to unionize after an initial effort failed by 39 votes in April 2019. And while faculty members at the university successfully unionized in 2021, they’ve yet to reach an agreement on a full contract and have protested the pace of negotiations.

Gabel said she believes deeply in shared governance, meaning that faculty play a role alongside administrators in shaping the operations of colleges and universities. Those involved in shared governance should be able to “come to the table,” she said. “Then our job, as the administration and in the governance, is to meet people where they are…

“I will come to the table, in whatever form is ultimately asked of us, and we’ll work together, because I know we have the same goals.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.