University of Minnesota president finalist Laura Bloomberg told students and faculty Friday that she was having a "pinch me moment" as she interviewed for a chance to lead the university where she earned her doctorate and worked for decades.

"It's been the tour of a lifetime," Bloomberg said as she took the stage at a forum in the Twin Cities, her last stop on a three-day whirlwind trip to all five campuses.

Bloomberg is one of three finalists in the running to become the university's next president and the only one who has worked at the U before. Also up for consideration are Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan, and James Holloway, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Mexico.

The University of Minnesota president oversees a system that enrolls about 68,000 students and employs more than 27,000 people. The next president will take over at a time when the U is trying to reverse declining enrollment at some locations, chart the future of its medical programs, convince lawmakers to provide more funding and figure out how to best navigate cultural conflicts on campus.

Bloomberg, former dean of the university's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has been working since 2022 as the president of Cleveland State University in Ohio, which has about 14,000 students.

In interviews before the event, Bloomberg described herself as, perhaps, "an insider-outsider."

"A lot of the things, the experiences, the emerging wisdom I think I have as a presidential leader don't come from the University of Minnesota, they come from a different place," she said.

During the forum Friday, Bloomberg fielded questions about how she would try to reverse enrollment declines and convince others of the value of higher education.

"There's this part of me that has had a love affair with higher education forever, for almost all of my adult life, that wants to just bristle at that," she said.

But she added that her views changed on the matter after she spoke to a single grandmother who was spending "her last dime" on her relative's education and wanted to know: "Can you promise me that it is worth it?"

Bloomberg said she's working with the provost and others at Cleveland State University to offer 19 new majors that aim to combine the liberal arts with more technical fields. For example, instead of trying to double major in mechanical engineering and English literature, students will be able to study both in one program.

She also fielded questions about how she would handle free speech questions on campus. When social media posts appeared to be inflaming tensions, Bloomberg said she gathered Cleveland State student leaders from various groups for an emotionally raw meeting.

Near the end of the forum, a handful of people in the audience interrupted to ask her if she would condemn "the genocide of the Palestinian people."

Bloomberg sat quietly as they shouted, said she doesn't condone genocide, and offered to meet with them afterward.