University of Minnesota regents on Friday narrowed their president search down to three candidates, all higher education leaders working at other universities, and two of whom have ties to the state.

Remaining in contention are: Laura Bloomberg, the president of Cleveland State University and former dean of the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs; 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.

It's the first time in recent memory that U regents have considered multiple finalists for the president job in the last, public sprint of the search process. Many of them signaled that they expect to face a tough decision when they meet Feb. 26 to interview contenders and decide which one to hire.

"Having a hard decision is a really great place to be at," Mike Kenyanya, vice chair of the Board of Regents, said during Friday's meeting.

The U president is responsible for overseeing five campuses that enroll about 68,000 students and employ more than 27,000 people. Regents have called this a consequential moment in the U's history and said they expect choosing a new president will be among the most important tasks of their tenure.

The search is unfolding at a critical time for the U, which is negotiating deals that will shape the future of its medical programs, trying to convince the state Legislature to give hundreds of millions in additional funding, and attempting to reverse the enrollment declines that stressed finances at some of its five campuses.

The final three candidates

Two of the finalists — Cunningham and Holloway — overlapped briefly while working at the University of Michigan, another school in the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

Cunningham works as the University of Michigan's vice president for research and innovation, overseeing more than 400 people working on projects at three campuses and a health system. She wrote on her resume that she launched a pandemic relief program for faculty members, helped secure an investment to support diverse faculty hires, and took on additional roles while the school navigated the "turbulent administrative transition" of three presidents and three provosts in the past two years.

She has a medical degree and also worked as the associate chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine and director of the U-M Injury Prevention Center. She said in an interview Friday that she has family in Minnesota, including some with connections to the U.

"I'm passionate about public education, about the Midwest and about what a great public university can do to serve the people and the citizens and really advance both the academic as well as the discovery missions," Cunningham said.

Holloway works as the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Mexico, another public research university. He wrote on his resume that the role requires him to oversee 11 deans, four branch campus chancellors and a slew of other university administrators.

Before that, Holloway spent 12 years working in leadership roles at the University of Michigan, serving most recently as its vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs, a role that involved working to support "learning across the university, including sustainability, poverty alleviation" and other topics. He has degrees in nuclear engineering and engineering physics.

Holloway said in an interview Friday that he visited the U multiple times while on work trips and "one of the things that super impresses me is the focus of the university on service to the state."

Bloomberg couldn't be reached Friday. She has been working for nearly two years as the president of Cleveland State University, a public research school in Ohio. She wrote on her resume that she secured support for a 10-year campus master plan design, helped to remodel research labs, and worked with a community college to launch an apartment complex for students who are single parents and have young children.

She wrote: "No University president achieves success without strong partnerships. The accomplishments listed above were initiated by me, but their success reflects the collective work of the entire CSU senior leadership team."

Bloomberg held leadership roles in the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs from 2012 through 2021, ultimately serving as its dean. She has degrees in special education, educational psychology, and educational policy.

'We want to get it right'

Many student and faculty leaders said Friday that they were still learning about the finalists.

Gabriel Richardson, president of the Professional Student Government, said he didn't yet have a strong preference for one candidate but did think having contenders with U connections was "a positive sign." He noted that while they had different areas of expertise they "seem to have substantial experience in the classroom."

Lisa Lewis, president and CEO of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, said she was pleased that the candidates have diverse skillsets, adding that she thought that would "spark robust conversations" as the finalists visit each campus.

"This is a pivotal time in the university's history," Lewis said. "This is a big hire, so we want to get it right."

The U began searching for a new president last year, after then-President Joan Gabel announced she would be leaving to take a job at the University of Pittsburgh. Former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger has been serving as interim president since June

The position drew 46 applicants, a decrease compared to other presidential searches. The search that led to Gabel's selection in 2018 drew about 60 applicants, and the search that led to Eric Kaler's selection in 2010 attracted almost 150 candidates.

Zach Smith, an executive partner for WittKieffer, the search firm the U hired to help with the process, said several factors appeared to contribute to the decrease. He said the job has grown more complex, some of the university's rankings have risen, and many leadership searches have seen a "slight decrease" in candidates since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith described the U's pool of candidate as "normal and healthy," and regents leading the search efforts said they were pleased with the caliber of people who applied.

Finalists will appear at public forums on each of the U's five campuses, details of which can be found at

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this article.