New University of Minnesota president is University of Michigan research head

A woman stands at a mic
Dr. Rebecca Cunningham is announced as the new president of the University of Minnesota after a vote by the university’s Board of Regents on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 7:53 p.m.

Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan, was chosen Monday to be the next president of the University of Minnesota system.

One of three finalists for the job, university regents chose Cunningham over University of New Mexico provost James Holloway and Laura Bloomberg, president of Cleveland State University and former head of the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“I really just want to say how excited I am. What a privilege and an honor it is to be here today and how excited I am to look forward to serving the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota,” Cunningham said shortly after the regents reached a consensus vote.

The university began its search for a new president in April 2023, shortly after former President Joan Gabel announced her departure to become the chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Board chair Janie Mayeron said Cunningham’s administrative background at Michigan, a university with a strong academic and research reputation, helped her edge out other candidates.

“Dr. Cunningham is a person who will not only work to ensure that the university does not lose ground on its current status and endeavors, but I believe she has the ability and the drive to tackle the challenges of the future,” Mayeron said, pointing to Cunningham’s ability to raise research funds.

Soon university leadership has to figure out the future of its academic health programs and partnership with Fairview Health Services. Cunningham described herself as a “physician with boots on the ground” with “academic medical health system expertise.”

The University of Minnesota has been led by former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger as the interim president.

The three finalists visited each U of M campus in turn over the past couple of weeks. During their visits to the Twin Cities campus, each was asked questions about free speech on campus.

During public interviews for the job, Cunningham, who has family ties to St. Paul and said she visits the Boundary Waters each year, emphasized protecting free speech on campus while also supporting and acknowledging those hurt by speech.

“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,” she said.

This was the first time in years that the University had more than one finalist, and the first time they interviewed all finalists publicly. Regent Penny Wheeler called the transparency “unprecedented” and praised the finalists’ willingness to participate in it.

“It was largely because of your courage and transparency that each of you owned that allowed us to have such an amazing process,” Wheeler said.

Cunningham is expected to begin her U job July 1, following compensation negotiation with the board.