Three finalists for the University of Minnesota presidency are dashing around the state as they try to convince regents they're the best person to lead the U through a series of upcoming challenges.

The public forums — one per person at each of the U's five campuses — are designed to serve as a test of the candidates' stamina and to give them a preview of what it's like to oversee a system that enrolls about 68,000 students. The person who ultimately lands the job will be tasked with reversing enrollment declines at some campuses, navigating budget constraints and helping to shape the future of the university's medical programs.

"We fully understand that one of the most important decisions, if not the most important decision, we make is the hiring of a president," Board of Regents Chair Janie Mayeron said in a meeting last week.

The full schedule of the candidates' appearances are on the U's presidential search website,

Here are some of the issues they've tackled before:

Laura Bloomberg

Current job: President at Cleveland State University, which has about 14,000 students

Highest degree: Ph.D. in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota

Challenges faced: Ohio lawmakers are debating a bill that would "prohibit political and ideological litmus tests" in hiring and admissions, ban many diversity trainings, and publicly release course syllabi. The bill hit on national debates about academic freedom and diversity.

Bloomberg said she worries provisions limiting diversity work could hamper efforts to support a wide array of students. She said she's open to ideas that promote transparency and increase confidence in higher education but isn't yet sure whether posting syllabi is the right solution.

When she worked as dean at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Bloomberg oversaw discipline for two professors accused of sexual harassment. Her initial decision to suspend them both drew criticism from some in the U community who wanted to see harsher punishments.

The school reached a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that required actions to prevent sexual harassment.

"I am aware that some people might think that we should have taken a different path, and I am aware that some people think we were too transparent," Bloomberg said. "I stand behind the approach that we took, which was rooted both in clear accountability but also in restorative practices."

Rebecca Cunningham

Current job: Vice president of research and innovation at the University of Michigan, which has more than 65,000 students and more than 13,000 research staff and faculty

Highest degree: Medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia

Challenges faced: The University of Michigan reports roughly $1.8 billion worth of research expenditures, one of the largest portfolios in the nation. Cunningham oversaw the efforts to ramp down research operations when the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person interactions in 2020 — and then to build them back up again when it waned.

Cunningham didn't respond to a message Tuesday, but cited that experience on her résumé as one example of her ability to handle "crisis management."

In an interview with the Michigan Daily, the university's student newspaper, Cunningham said she sought to distinguish between critical and noncritical research projects. "The safety and the health of our communities and the folks in our lab is paramount, so the decisions we made to really minimize the activity down to critical and essential research that's going on in our labs had to be done," she told the paper.

Some of Cunningham's own research focused on gun injury prevention. She was part of a group that in 2018 launched a website aimed to outline what researchers know — and don't — about guns and people under the age of 19. That type of work drew criticism from groups like the National Rifle Association, which urged doctors to "stay in their lane."

Cunningham said in a university announcement: "Safety is what we do for our patients. This is just one of another type of safety that we need to engage in. So it's not controversial at all."

James Holloway

Current job: Provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Mexico, which has nearly 27,000 students and about 14,000 employees

Highest Degree: Ph.D. in engineering physics from the University of Virginia

Challenges faced: The University of New Mexico was facing enrollment declines when Holloway took a job there in 2019. After hiring a new leader to help oversee enrollment strategies, Holloway said the school reported an increase in new students each year. Still, a decrease in state funding and multimillion-dollar revenue drops during the COVID-19 pandemic required tough financial decisions. Holloway said he committed to not doing furloughs or layoffs — promises he felt comfortable making because of the enrollment gains.

When the U.S. Supreme Court this summer overturned affirmative action and limited the consideration of race in college admissions decisions, Holloway said he sought to convey to students and faculty that diversity was still important.

"What the Supreme Court has done is said this tool that one might use is not available to you," Holloway said. "All that says to me is, we need to use and find other tools."

He had previously worked at the University of Michigan, where state voters in 2006 had prohibited affirmative action. Holloway said that while he was working in the university's engineering college, they sought to boost programs that attracted diverse students, including efforts to support transfer students.

Star Tribune staff writer Jeffrey Meitrodt contributed to this story.