U of M presidential finalist Rebecca Cunningham visits Twin Cities campus

Two women speak
Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, a finalist for president at the University of Minnesota, speaks with a student after a public forum on Wednesday. Cunningham, the vice president of research and innovation at the University of Michigan, is one of three finalists.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The University of Minnesota has finished up its public campus visits from presidential finalists.

The final candidate, Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, visited the Twin Cities campus on Wednesday. She participated in a media interview, a public forum and an open house after.

The three finalists visited all of the university’s five campuses over the last two weeks.

Cunningham is the vice president of research and innovation at the University of Michigan.

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“I’m passionate about public higher education. It’s what lifted me and my family out of economic hardship. And I’m really excited about the vision and the mission of this university in this state, which also is so important to me and my family for so long,” she said.

“And what a tremendous opportunity and a gem the University of Minnesota is for the state of Minnesota. And I just see tremendous opportunity in how the university can just soar even higher at serving its public land grant mission in the next decade or two.”

Cunningham has a bachelor’s degree from Fairfield University in Connecticut and a medical doctorate from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. She completed her medical residency at the University of Michigan Health System. She’s been at the University of Michigan since 1999, where she’s both taught and held administrative positions.

Cunningham said her in-laws are from St. Paul and have strong ties to the University of Minnesota. She said she visits the Boundary Waters each year and was married in Ely.

Cunningham was asked how her background in health care might shape the way she’d approach the University of Minnesota’s future with Fairview Health System and its academic health system.

“The University of Michigan has also been adopting and taking on other health systems across the state of Michigan, and I’ve been involved with many of those conversations in understanding how to balance the clinical missions and the research and academic components when you do that,” she said.

“And so it’s going to be really important for the university to get this right with Fairview. And there’s every indication that it’s possible to do so and a lot of excitement around this recent announcement. And I'd be just delighted to work with the great people that are in place here.”

She was asked how the university should address issues of free speech on campus.

“The time that it’s most important to protect free speech is exactly the time when we don’t agree with the person who’s saying it or what they’re saying. Because somewhere down the road, we’re going to be saying something that somebody else also doesn’t agree with. And that’s when free speech is most important,” she said.

“With that, we have to couple our strong focus on protecting free speech with good policies that provide clarity for when that free speech crosses into threats and harassment, and even safety concerns and violence. And we need to have clear and swift policies and consequences for that, that we all understand.”

She said there should also be support and acknowledgement for people hurt by speech.

Cunningham and the other two candidates, Laura Bloomberg, the president of Cleveland State University and James Holloway, provost and the vice president of academic affairs at the University of New Mexico, will be publicly interviewed by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents on Monday. A president-designate may be chosen later that afternoon.