Rebecca Cunningham, one of three finalists in the running to become the next University of Minnesota president, told students and staff Wednesday that the U's top job "really just feels like a natural fit."

The vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan — another Big Ten school in the Midwest — said she developed an affinity for Minnesota after meeting her in-laws. Her father-in-law worked at the U, her family frequently vacationed in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and one of her daughters lives in the Twin Cities.

But she said she was also drawn to the idea of serving the state and felt her experience working as an emergency room physician could help the U as it works to determine the future of its medical programs.

"I'm particularly excited about how, potentially, my experiences and the skills I bring could help Minnesota at this pivotal time," Cunningham said at a forum held on the Twin Cities campus, the last stop on a whirlwind three-day tour of all five U campuses.

Regents will meet Monday to select the next U president. Also in the running are Laura Bloomberg, president of Cleveland State University and a former dean of the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs; 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, convince lawmakers to provide more funding, and figure out how to best navigate cultural conflicts.

The University of Michigan enrolls more than 65,000 students. As its vice president for research and innovation, Cunningham oversees a unit that stretches across three campuses and a health system, employs more than 13,000 research staff and faculty, and reports about $1.8 billion in research expenditures.

During the hour-long forum, Cunningham fielded questions about how she views the liberal arts and what she believes a university's role is in protecting academic freedom.

"Research is not in competition with our educational mission. It is deeply linked," she said, adding that while working in Michigan she fund-raised to help provide paid research experiences for students and intentionally reached out to people working in literature, arts and music to talk about how grants could better support them.

She said a university should protect free speech — especially when it's difficult — while acknowledging that protected speech can feel hurtful. She compared it to a scenario she saw in emergency rooms, when two people would come in injured from a fight. Someone started it, someone finished it and "it's complicated."

"My role, as a physician, is not to figure out that conflict but to look at the two human beings that are in front of me and to figure out how I'm going to take care of both of them so they can live long, optimal lives and to do that with deep compassion," she said.