Fmr. Gov. Arne Carlson reacts to Joan Gabel leaving U

A woman dressed in ceremonial robes smiles and looks left.
The University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel listens to Gov. Tim Walz speak during her inauguration ceremony at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on Sept. 20.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: April 4, 11:39 a.m. | Posted: April 3, 1:32 p.m.

On Monday morning, the University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel announced she is leaving to take the head job at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gabel, the first woman to lead the University of Minnesota will now become the first woman to take the head job at the University of Pittsburgh. She will start at Pittsburgh on July 1.

Gabel arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2019 and while she writes that it has been ‘especially humbling’ to navigate one of the most impactful and consequential chapters in the history of the University, her tenure has had challenges. Most recently, she caught fire for agreeing to a paid position on the Securian Board of Directors. It was a move that led the university to review its conflict of interest policies.

Longtime University of Minnesota booster and former Gov. Arne Carlson joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer with reaction to the news.

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Editor’s note: During the conversation, Carlson referenced a headline from a 2017 NewsCut article: Why do scandals keep happening at the U of M? Joan Gable was selected for the position at the U in 2018 and began working in 2019.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: And there's a big change coming at another Minnesota institution of higher learning. This morning, University of Minnesota president Joan Gable announced she's leaving to take the head job at the University of Pittsburgh. Gable, the first woman to lead the University of Minnesota, will now become the first woman to lead the University of Pittsburgh. She starts at Pitt July 1.

Gable arrived at the U of M in 2019. And while she writes that it has been, quote, "especially humbling to navigate one of the most impactful and consequential chapters of the University's history," her tenure has had challenges. Most recently, she caught fire for agreeing to a paid position on the Securian board of directors, a move that led to the University to review its conflict of interest policies.

Longtime University of Minnesota booster, former governor Arne Carlson, is on the line with some reaction to this news. Welcome, Governor.

ARNE CARLSON: Well, thank you. Delighted.

- By way of background for new listeners, your official state portrait has posing on the U of M campus in a Gopher letter jacket. So you are a school supporter, but you've also shown the school, shall we say, some tough love over the years. Joan Gable--

ARNE CARLSON: I think it goes beyond tough love. I think if you really like an institution, you want it to always perform to its highest levels of both good ethics, good education, and good management.

INTERVIEWER: So how would you-- let's talk about management. Joan Gable has been at the U for slightly less than four years, not a terribly long tenure. Are you surprised she's leaving? What did you think of her management?

ARNE CARLSON: No, I'm not surprised at all. She has let it be known that she really doesn't like the job. And she certainly doesn't like the social aspects of it. And if you look at the travel records, you'll find extensive travel. No, I think she was very uncomfortable here from the very beginning.

INTERVIEWER: How effective was she as a leader?

ARNE CARLSON: I think she did an excellent job of taking care of herself and her friends, and a very poor job of improving the climate for the students. I don't think we've ever had a president that was more self-serving. It was a very disappointing administration.

INTERVIEWER: And what do you mean by that? Are you specifically looking at the investigation that you called for into Gable's paid board position with Securian?

ARNE CARLSON: Well, let me start with a quote from NPR. "Why do scandals keep happening at the University of Minnesota?" But when you start to look at some data, 45% of our incoming freshmen take out a loan in excess of $8,000. And they graduate with a debt of approximately $26,000.

And the tuition at the University of Minnesota is now higher than Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota. And there's never been any focus whatsoever on what it is that we can do to lower the costs, or make life better and more affordable for our students. 37% of our students worry about going hungry. Another 48% are, quote, "housing insecure" and 8% are homeless.


ARNE CARLSON: Those are statistics we should start discussing.

INTERVIEWER: Definitely. Definitely serious.

ARNE CARLSON: What is happening to our student body?

INTERVIEWER: And are you blaming Joan Gable for some of these problems?

ARNE CARLSON: I certainly am. Her salary went from $640,000 in July of 2019 to over $1 million.

INTERVIEWER: Well, the U of M Regents approved that contract, though, governor.

ARNE CARLSON: Oh, it's not-- it's not-- they're not harmless, believe me. But that shows you what happens when you have a cozy relationship between the Board of Regents and the president. The Board of Regents is supposed to provide oversight, and that is the one thing they have not done.

If the University of Minnesota's School of Business were to do an analysis of the management at the University of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota at Morrill Hall would get a failing grade. I'm very familiar with the audit process. And I can tell you this, there is virtually no internal audit function at the University of Minnesota. It's appalling.

INTERVIEWER: You can say that is--

ARNE CARLSON: And that's why NPR put out the statement, "Why do scandals keep happening at the University of Minnesota?" And it's because there is a lack of oversight. There is a lack of accountability.

INTERVIEWER: And, of course, you would know about audits, since you were the former state auditor. The U of M, as you know, Governor, is asking for significant increases in state spending this legislative session. And DFL Higher Education Committee chair Gene Pelowski says while the U merits significant state support, he thinks the requests for taxpayer dollars should be based on responsible budgeting. So under the president's tenure, how would you grade the U's use of money?

ARNE CARLSON: Very poorly. They basically focused on increasing salaries of high paid administrators. That's where their focus-- it has not been on reducing tuition or doing anything with tuition except increasing it. They've done nothing, really, for student housing. And they've done nothing for the fact that so many students are hungry.

We have the University for the students. We don't have a University to employ high paid administrators.

INTERVIEWER: Do you-- but to be fair, Joan Gable oversaw the completion--

ARNE CARLSON: Are you kind of implying that I'm not being fair?

INTERVIEWER: No, no, no.

ARNE CARLSON: I'm being very fair.

INTERVIEWER: But I also want to say that the president, Joan Gable, oversaw the completion of this large, $4 billion capital campaign, as well as some other interesting collaborative programs between, say, Mayo Clinic and the University. Has she done anything that you would point to say, yeah, that's pretty good?

ARNE CARLSON: No, I understand where you're coming from. But you're always going to find something, some virtue in anything. But when you bring in a president to the University of Minnesota, you've got to have some very specified goals. And I think the first obligation of any president is to focus on the well-being of the student.

When Mark Yudof came to Minnesota, he spent several days and nights at our home. And we really got to know each other. And his focus was on the student experience. He went in and he taught classes. He walked the campus. He met with students. He was constantly focused on the well-being of the student.

That's totally absent. Everything you've seen coming out of this current administration of Joan Gable has been, what can we do to elevate the salaries of those who are already overpaid? Let me ask you a question. Can you explain how her salary went from $640,000 to over $1,000,000 in 3 and 1/2 years?

INTERVIEWER: I cannot, Governor, but I think the U of M Board of Regents could probably answer that question, perhaps.

ARNE CARLSON: Well, but if you enjoy putting me on the hot spot, I'm going to put you on the hot spot.

INTERVIEWER: And I'm used to that, Governor. I appreciate that.

ARNE CARLSON: But I think it is the question that should be raised. When I was governor, I made approximately-- I can't remember-- $112,000 or somewhere in there. The president of the University at that time made something like $150,000 some odd. The separation was roughly $40,000, $50,000.


ARNE CARLSON: How did it go from a separation-- you just indicated the governor makes $150,000?

INTERVIEWER: Yes, he will.

ARNE CARLSON: And so now we have a separation of $850,000?

INTERVIEWER: Definitely a story for another time. I've got a question for you. What do you think the U of M needs-- what do you think the U of M needs in a president going forward?

ARNE CARLSON: Well, I think before they get into the selection process, I think one, there should be a complete audit by the legislative auditor on all the issues that have been raised. The drug scandals at the University of Minnesota, the inadequacy of their internal audit controls, the rewarding of high paid administrators.

The whole Securian thing involves a separate investigation. Because it's not just a conflict of interest, it's a violation of a fiduciary responsibility to the people she represented at the University of Minnesota. I think all of that should be aired first.

So the people making the choice of a new president said, OK, we want to hire somebody who has the capacity to clean this up, and also to focus our energies on making the student experience better and much more affordable.

INTERVIEWER: Governor, do you think a--

ARNE CARLSON: I would want the investigation to precede any selection process.

INTERVIEWER: I see. Do you think a person like Myron Franz could be interim president, and then, as you say, go into this audit and then start a big confidence-inspiring search?

ARNE CARLSON: Well, unfortunately, he's one of the problems. He's another one that's been in the salary increase business. I think his salary almost tripled from the time he left the legislature to go to the University of Minnesota. So absolutely not. It should all be done by an outsider.

INTERVIEWER: All right. Governor Carlson, I always appreciate talking to you. Thank you.

ARNE CARLSON: [LAUGHS] Well, I hope I wasn't too subtle.

INTERVIEWER: Governor, I don't think you are. [LAUGHS]

ARNE CARLSON: I want the University to succeed. And the only way you can succeed is doing an honest assessment of what has transpired over the past 3 and 1/2 years, get somebody in to really clean up that mess, and really focus on the student experience.


ARNE CARLSON: And make us proud of the University again.

INTERVIEWER: All right. Governor Arne Carlson, thank you so much.

ARNE CARLSON: Thank you.

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