MINNEAPOLIS — Joan Gabel sees the University of Minnesota system as a unified force in higher education.

Each of the system’s five main campuses has its specialties and strengths, but they all work together toward the same goal.

Gabel, 51, is two and a half months into her new job as the University of Minnesota system’s president, succeeding Eric Kaler, who had held the post since 2011. An official inauguration is planned for 9 a.m. Friday, which will be streamed online.

The Atlanta native is the system’s 17th president overall, and the first woman to serve as president. She and her husband, Gary, have three children. Before coming to Minnesota, she served as provost at the University of South Carolina.

Gabel will be at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Oct. 1-2 as part of a systemwide campus tour.

She recently sat down with the News Tribune to talk about her vision for the university, the system’s relationship with its nonmetro campuses and why she considers UMD to be a “sweet spot.”

News Tribune: Can you give us a CliffsNotes version of your background and your path to this position at the U of M?

Gabel: My undergraduate degree is from a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia called Haverford College. I majored in philosophy and was recruited into a development program at the equivalent of a bank. I decided a couple of years later that I wanted to go to law school, and then I practiced law for a few years.

But it didn't feel like it was exactly where I was supposed to be, so I sought counsel from mentors, one of whom was one of my professors in law school, and he suggested that I might really be well-suited to the academic side. There was a position open at Georgia State University, a research university right downtown Atlanta, where I was living and working. So, he nominated me for the position, and in a great twist of good fortune, I got the job.

I was tenured, became an interim department chair, was recruited to another university to be a chair of a much bigger department, went from there to being a dean of business at the University of Missouri and then was recruited to be the provost at the University of South Carolina.

News Tribune: What from your background and experiences have you kept as you come into this new post?

Gabel: I have, I think, a very deep understanding for the faculty experience, what it means to be engaged in research, what it means to be in front of a classroom and maximize the opportunity for the students in that classroom. I taught undergrad and master’s-level students. I sat on dissertation committees. So, I have that experience and understand its power, what good it can do and what the needs of the faculty are to be in a position to do that good work.

I also understand what our community partners need, how corporate engagement can be an incredible resource for students across campus, how that advocacy and insight and support can help.

So, the way I would describe my spectrum of experiences — I feel like it makes me bilingual, that I understand the way the world beyond campus walls needs us, the ways we can serve them and the ways that we can be partners. But I also very much understand what happens inside the house, too, and why not everybody understands each other. I feel like I translate that very well.

News Tribune: What’s your overall vision for the University of Minnesota system? What do you want to focus on?

Gabel: There are a few things we’ve always focused on that aren’t as glamorous to talk about but are really important to not lose sight of: statewide student success, outreach to all corners of the state, discovery — scholarship, solutions, cures, the outcomes of research, broadly. We want to make sure we're good stewards of our resources.

We also want to be inclusive. Inclusion is something that ebbs and flows depending on what's happening in society, and the inclusion conversation is very different than it was even five years ago, and certainly than it was when I began my career. So, "We want to create a sense of belonging" means different things now.

We're all very focused on the well-being of our students. What they need to stay well, and therefore be successful, has changed. Their hopes and dreams, needs, expectations change, and we need to meet them where they are.

So, right now we have a very high emphasis on their mental well-being. We know that 18- to 24-year-olds in general are experiencing higher-than-historical levels of mental health challenges, and we have a concentration of 18- to 24-year-olds. They’re our cornerstone. So, we want to be good servants to them in every way that makes them successful.

News Tribune: How do you see the relationship between the University of Minnesota system and its outlying campuses — Duluth, Crookston, Morris and Rochester?

Gabel: We’re one university. One of the things that really attracted me to this position is that there are a lot of university systems that have the same underlying mission, but within their system, they're competing.

For our system, each of our campuses has a signature that's unique. So they're really not competing; they're collectively elevating. No one is subordinate to anyone else. We have size differences, but no one does what each of the campuses does uniquely well.

News Tribune: What do you see as the Duluth campus’ “signature”?

Gabel: Duluth really offers all of the benefits of scale, in terms of instruction and research, with a real ability to maintain the personalized touch of a smaller campus. They sit right in that sweet spot.

Surrounding them, a vibrant community with its own unique portfolio of industry opportunities and health and research partners, but also research catalysts — like the lake, just as one example. So, that allows them to develop some real depth and research expertise, but never at the expense of the instructional opportunity.

News Tribune: What were your first impressions when you visited UMD?

Gabel: I’ve been up there two times, officially. The first was for my interview, and it was winter, and it was snowing sideways and, you know, was cold. But it was also beautiful. So, you go inside, and there was sort of the visceral shock of students in shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops, because they're underground. It felt quite warm — and not just the temperature.

I think the way in which the campus physically responds to the weather creates a really tight sense of community. I felt very comfortable in that, and I liked seeing how the students felt very comfortable. It was a very warm welcome.

So, then, I was just back a few weeks ago for the HCAMS ribbon cutting, and of course it was summertime, so it was beautiful in a different way. It was a happy day, and you could feel it coming off people's skin, that there's a lot of pride in how the community pulls together to create these wonderful opportunities for our students and our faculty to do what they do best.

News Tribune: How do you see the university’s role as it relates to Northeastern Minnesota and the communities here?

Gabel: That's a great question. So, we have (the College of Pharmacy) and the med school up there, and a particular commitment in the med school to serving our indigenous population. That's a cornerstone of one of the uniquely Duluth things that we can only do there.

We also have very opportunistic research that we can do by virtue of the natural landscape that surrounds that part of the state — water, in particular, and the (Large Lakes) Observatory and the (research vessel) Blue Heron — and then the Natural Resources Research Institute, around material sciences and the environment and forestry.

We have this incredibly fertile collection of opportunities in Duluth, so we can cluster scientists there who do their research, answer questions, and they're also doing a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship there that then can go out wider.

News Tribune: You held a listening session with students at UMD. What were some of their concerns?

Gabel: They want to make sure that Duluth remains top of mind in the overall planning for the system. They want to know that there's a commitment. So, that means: Is the right attention coming in terms of resources? Is the right attention coming in terms of capital improvements? Is the right attention coming in terms of the ability to plug in the research that students can participate in?

News Tribune: So, what did you tell them?

Gabel: I told them that we were very committed to the Duluth campus, that I intended to be there frequently and that we wanted to make sure we had regular conversations so that we don’t lose sight of their unique perspective on the challenges, opportunities, hopes, dreams, expectations of that student population.

(I told them) that we have constrained resources but that we were committed to trying to get over time to where we need to be fiscally, that it’s a conversation we have within the system, with our legislative partners, and that (the students’) advocacy is helpful.