WORTHINGTON — Joan Gabel, the newly installed president of the University of Minnesota, stopped in Worthington Friday afternoon as she continues to meet with community and education leaders across the state to determine the goals of the university moving forward.

"There is a lot to be optimistic about," Gabel said of her first impressions since beginning her role July 1. "But there are also opportunities — rather than fixes."

Gabel said part of her reason for touring the state is that the university is part of what makes Minnesota what it is. She wants to better understand the university's role in preparing students to serve in communities.

Some of the University of Minnesota's premier academic specialties focus on areas of industry common throughout southwest Minnesota, such as agriculture, health care and bioscience. Gabel said she'd like to explore what services can be shared between the university and local educational facilities, as well as how the different institutions can work together on common concerns like student mental health and the transition to college.

In order for those relationships to be effective, she added, the university needs to know about industry concentrations and regional student concerns.

Part of her visit included meeting with local civic leaders and business leaders. District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, also contributed to the discussion. Gabel also met with Terry Gaalswyk, president of Minnesota West Community and Technical College, and John Landgaard, Independent School District 518 superintendent. Together, the parties brainstormed ways that students and the community can be better served.

Diversity

Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle told Gabel that he sees opportunities for collaboration with Worthington's diverse population.

Gabel agreed that diversity contributes to the University of Minnesota's global reputation.

Worthington City Council member Chad Cummings added that one local obstacle is "the number of immigrants in our community that are degreed to an extent that would blow your mind, but nobody knows about it, because they aren't accredited here." He suggested finding a way to have those individuals' credentials verified, possibly with help from the university.

"I would be happy to inquire about that," Gabel said.

Landgaard told Gabel that Worthington schools are 74% students of color, with 37 languages spoken throughout the total student body. He noted that while diversity is a strength, it also comes with a unique set of challenges.. For example, traditional dorm living doesn't work in some cultures, if a student is required to have an adult male escort. He expressed concern about extending opportunities to all students to get some technical or academic training for a career.

Gabel suggested that virtual learning might be part of the solution, particularly for rare subject areas or faculty with unique expertise.

Cost of education

Several participating parties noted concern about student debt due to the high cost of education. Business leaders would like to hire the best talent, but some recent graduates don't have the flexibility to relocate or invest in their careers because they're buried in student debt.

Gabel agreed that cost is an important consideration. She pointed out that at the U of Mi, 40% of undergraduates have zero debt, and those who do have a low overall amount compared with the national average.

"(For University of Minnesota graduates), it's debt that is an investment," she said. However, she acknowledged that while statistics suggest a positive trend, "for individual students, it is often still highly challenging."

Gabel added that quality is not free. She explained that determining tuition cost is much more complicated than it may seem. Administrators want to offer students the best possible education, but it comes with a price.

She also said that she and other university officials are evaluating the current use of needs-based scholarships, recruiting and philanthropy, looking for ways to decrease costs to students.

Research

Worthington is home to a number of agriculture and bioscience research firms. However, a number of meeting participants reported that they depend on the U of M's research to be effective.

For example, Dan Livdahl spoke on behalf of the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District.

"Much of my job is dependent on research and leadership that is provided by the University of Minnesota," he said. The university's carp research drives watershed actions, and erosion inspection classes are renewed through the university.

Weber pointed out the need for the whole state to benefit from University of Minnesota, pointing to wastewater treatment as an example.

"Rural Minnesota and our municipalities really need the university to step up in bioscience," he said. He called for more efficient ways to process water, which will require research.

Workforce

Several individuals noted the need to have a stronger workforce of qualified technicians, engineers and scientists.

Wayne Freese, president of Cambridge Technologies, said that of the thousands of people he has hired throughout his career, 80% have come from within 50 miles of Worthington. He suggested that locals want to stay in the area, but need training in available jobs. Some of that training is inaccessible locally, and the university could be a resource in increasing opportunities.

Landgaard shared the example of the teacher pathway program that allows students to become certified teachers through Minnesota West and Southwest Minnesota State University without ever leaving Worthington.

Brad Hellinga, general manager of JBS Worthington, and Colin O'Donnell, engineering manager at Bedford Industries — representing two of Worthington's largest employers — said their companies need help networking in order to recruit U of M students. They have jobs available, but need connections in order to fill the positions.

All organizations represented at the gathering agreed that they are open to partnering together to better serve students and communities.