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Joan Gabel, the finalist to become the next University of Minnesota president, arrived on its Duluth campus Wednesday at a tense time.

At her next-to-last stop on a tour of all five U campuses, the University of South Carolina provost listened to students and faculty decry what they see as a yearslong pattern of shortchanging Duluth in divvying up dollars across the system.

UMD, the system’s second-largest campus, has asked for an $11 million bump in funding over the next two years. Faculty and others say they are bracing for layoffs and program cuts if the administration, which has pushed back against the idea that Duluth has gotten short shrift, balks at that request.

In closed-door meetings with campus community members and at a public forum, Gabel avoided wading into the perennial debate about the long shadow the flagship Twin Cities campus casts over campuses in greater Minnesota. But some said they were encouraged by her talk of the entire U system and her pledge to revisit how the U allocates its resources.

“I do absolutely recognize that there’s a balance to be struck,” Gabel said during the forum, adding, “Sometimes it’s a tug-of-war, and sometimes it’s a collaboration.”

Gabel, who would be the first female president of the university, will visit the Rochester campus Thursday and interview with the U’s governing board Friday.

She would replace Eric Kaler, who is stepping down next summer.

Painful cost-cutting

UMD has dealt with budget uncertainty for years. The campus experienced rapid enrollment growth in the early 2000s, but a dip in enrollment after 2010 brought a painful reckoning. The UMD chancellor, Lendley Black, has said the reasons for its unstable financial footing are complex and include some missteps made on campus.

Fernando Delgado, UMD’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said in a statement that the campus has worked hard in recent years to attain healthier finances. It’s made headway — and the system has chipped in extra, including for efforts to retain students. The budget deficit projected for the end of this fiscal year is $3.9 million, down from $9.4 million in 2013.

But this past spring brought the latest round of trimming UMD’s $155 million budget. Now, officials here have said the campus faces the loss of 60 academic positions and some program cuts.

Faculty leaders wrote Kaler and other top administrators last week to urge them to back the campus request for extra funding. They noted data showing Duluth faculty are paid below the market median and brought up a perennial point of contention: The Duluth campus gets half of the per-student funding that the Twin Cities does.

Scott Laderman, the faculty union president, said the cost-cutting has hurt. Some faculty lost their jobs. A graduate program in advocacy and political leadership, which he described as successful but expensive, migrated to Metropolitan State University. What might be next, he said, could be much worse.

“We’re not crying wolf here,” he said.

Rebecca de Souza, chairwoman of the faculty Senate, says the uncertainty is weighing on professors and staff. “There is this panic, and you can just feel it on campus,” she said.

De Souza was not invited to a closed-door meeting Gabel had with the chancellor and “faculty leaders,” which only included Laderman.

Student leaders say they feel the anxiety, too. Alexandra Ulland, a student representative to the Board of Regents, and Mike Kenyanya, the student body president, said favorite faculty have been poached by other institutions. They pointed to a campus building, long on the U’s list of facilities in need of repairs, where classes are sometimes canceled when the weather gets hot, as well as to a defunct program that helped newly arrived students on campus.

The university declined a request to comment on the faculty leaders’ letter and the concerns it raised. But officials have previously noted that comparing funding for the Twin Cities and Duluth on a per-pupil basis misses the mark: The Twin Cities budget includes dollars for systemwide services and for some of the system’s most costly programs, such as the medical school.

Faculty members such as de Souza counter that more transparent budgeting would help arrive at more meaningful comparisons.

Matt Kramer, the U’s vice president for university relations, who drove Gabel across the state, said the system’s office has worked on demystifying the budget. Brian Burnett, the vice president for finance, has traveled to Duluth twice in the past year to host Financial Academies, half-day events that explain the budgeting process.

“When you have limited resources, people say, ‘Why can’t we get a bit more?’ ” Kramer said. “But that often means someone else gets a little less.”

Gabel well received

At the public forum, Gabel talked up the Duluth campus, praising the breadth and depth of research, its global mind-set and strong athletics. She spoke about serving as the second-in-command of a system similar to the U, in which the top administrator is also the leader of the flagship campus in Columbia. S.C.

She ended by promising to listen and address concerns if she becomes president. “I am aware of the conversation that’s going on and unaware of the nuance,” she said.

Those who met with Gabel said that makes sense. They said she was prepared and stressed the importance of communicating clearly about unpopular decisions.

“Frankly, that’s not something we always have with the current administration,” said Kenyanya.

Earlier this year, Laderman and de Souza wrote the Board of Regents voicing dismay at the final pay package for Kaler, which included a year as president emeritus at his full $625,000 salary. Some lawmakers and a small minority on the board of regents argued the U’s next president should be willing to accept more modest pay than Kaler’s.

But Laderman said proposing to pay Gabel less than her male predecessor seems like a no-go on the cusp of her historic appointment.

“While I feel university administrators are overpaid and have lost track of the reality of public service,” he said, “I would feel very uncomfortable pushing the issue now.”

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781