Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Speaking to the news media on Monday shortly after the University of Minnesota Board of Regents selected her to be the university's next president, Rebecca Cunningham, an emergency-room doctor and vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan, said that she felt "very excited," had "a fair amount of relief," and was "just really honored."

The U — and the state of Minnesota — should feel the same way.

First, because Cunningham has such an impressive background from such an impressive institution — but one that has enough similarities to the University of Minnesota to make the transition smooth.

And second, because the search process was a testament to transparency that resulted in three exemplary finalists, including Laura Bloomberg, the former dean of the university's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and current president of Cleveland State University, who was initially favored by five of the 12 regents. (In the end, they voted unanimously to select Cunningham, who was initially favored by seven regents.) The third candidate, James Holloway, the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Mexico, did not receive any votes but was a highly credible candidate in his own right. This accomplishment comes after the Board of Regents previously did an admirable job in selecting as interim president Jeffrey Ettinger, who will serve until Cunningham begins the job July 1.

Cunningham's experience will be especially beneficial for the most pressing issue facing the U: discerning the future of its medical program in the context of the competition among academic health centers across the country. As a physician and key leader at the University of Michigan — one of the top institutions of higher education in the country, if not the world — Cunningham is uniquely suited to help lead the U in determining its approach. But as she stressed in multiple forums, she'll endeavor to build teams, and consensus, around this and other key challenges facing the state's land-grant institution.

Such challenges include reversing enrollment declines at some of the five U campuses that are integral to the university's mission and mandate to serve the entire state. Other immediate needs will be to build on efforts to address safety on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods as big-city crime scars Dinkytown, threatening the trust necessary for parents to send their kids to study at the U's flagship campus.

The perennial question of funding and gubernatorial and legislative relationships will need to be addressed, too, although perhaps not in time for the current legislative session, since Cunningham doesn't start until after lawmakers adjourn. And beyond the enduring questions of funding and college costs comes a more recent and profound one: the value of higher education, as well as the role of colleges and universities in public life. As with much of American life, the examination is splitting sharply among partisan lines.

That's where telling the U's story more effectively is critical. Minnesotans and prospective students from around the nation and world need to be reminded of the university's cutting-edge research and innovative programs that create future leaders and lead to economic growth.

And as with any president, new and unexpected challenges will arise, like the pandemic and the turmoil in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020, as well as more recent upheavals and upsetting episodes of campus rancor nationally over international issues like the war between Israel and Hamas.

In explaining her choice of Cunningham among three finalists she believed would all have been good fits for the U, Regent Board Chair Janie Mayeron said that "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."

The university — and the universe of people who benefit from the U's educational, research and outreach missions — all have a stake in Cunningham's success in tackling those challenges.