Rebecca Cunningham's experience as a doctor and a senior administrator overseeing research at another Big Ten school put her over the edge as University of Minnesota regents chose her Monday to serve as the next U president.

"I'm feeling very excited, and a fair amount of relief, and just really honored," Cunningham said during a news conference shortly after the vote Monday.

Regents selected Cunningham, the vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan, from a pool of three finalists, all with deep experience in different facets of higher education.

Also in the running were Laura Bloomberg, president of Cleveland State University and 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 vote Monday cleared the way for the U to begin contract negotiations with Cunningham, who is expected to begin her new role July 1. As U president, Cunningham will oversee a system that includes five campuses that together educate more than 68,000 students and employ more than 27,000 people.

Her hiring comes at a time when U leaders are trying to determine the future of U medical programs, reverse enrollment declines at some locations, and repair strained relationships with the state lawmakers who play a crucial role in determining funding. University leaders across the country are also increasingly asked to weigh in on contentious cultural issues, such as the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Each of the finalists participated in public interviews Monday. During hers, Cunningham said she hopes to "really be here in a firm way, to put down roots."

"I'm serious and purposeful when I make a decision to take a new position," she said. "I take that position because I think I can help create impact and advance the priorities that you have and that I'm able to do so in service."

Wonderful and gut-wrenching decisions

Regents on Monday described their decision as both wonderful and gut-wrenching, saying the final pool of candidates was so strong it was difficult to turn down two people they felt were qualified for the job. While they ultimately voted unanimously to select Cunningham, the initial conversation broke down with seven regents supporting Cunningham and five favoring Bloomberg.

"The question is what do we need right now ... where do we need strength?" Regent Tadd Johnson said. "And, for that reason, as we're in the midst of some quandaries around academic medicine, Dr. Rebecca Cunningham comes up slightly ahead."

Regents who leaned toward Bloomberg said they valued her humility, her leadership style and her experience working as president at another school. They also said they appreciated the relationships that she had built in her roughly 30 years working for the U.

"It's important to think about who really cares for this institution because that is something that I think is an incredibly important thing, given how hard this position is," Regent Bo Thao-Urabe said. She added: "Oftentimes, it's hard to stay when things are hard at an institution that you don't love."

Some regents who favored Cunningham noted that Cleveland State University, where Bloomberg works, is smaller than the U, operating with a roughly $350 million budget. In her current job, Cunningham oversees a unit at the University of Michigan that reports about $1.8 billion in research expenditures each year. The U has a budget just over $4 billion.

"I just want to acknowledge I understand the draw about the interpersonal relationships, but I do believe there is nothing to suggest to the contrary, that Dr. Cunningham doesn't have those attributes, too," Board Chair Janie Mayeron said. "We just don't have the ability to see them in the same way as we do with Dr. Bloomberg, who is homegrown, from the state."

Bloomberg couldn't immediately be reached. Holloway said he was grateful for the chance to visit the U and to be considered for the job.

"The Regents have more information than any of us and they best know the immediate needs of the University of Minnesota, so I can only be optimistic for the future of your great public university," Holloway said in a text message.

'Highly qualified candidates'

In her interview, Cunningham sought to portray herself as someone who could both understand the intricacies of complex medical systems and efficiently care for other aspects of the U.

"You don't need to make a choice between whether you're supporting your health system campus or whether you're supporting your main system campus enrollment," she said.

Among other things, she said she's worked with students on mental health issues, overseen large parts of the University of Michigan's response at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and supervised the unit that is working to return remains to Indigenous people.

In interviews Monday, the leaders of several student, employee and alumni groups said they looked forward to working with Cunningham.

"I don't think I could have picked a favorite between the two of them," said Niko Vasilopoulos, a junior who serves as student body president of the Carlson School of Management. "To have multiple highly qualified candidates says a lot about our university. I am really happy with the outcome. I think it is a really great time to be at the university."

Gabriel Richardson, president of the Professional Student Government, said, "We are excited that the university went with a candidate who is forward looking."

Lisa Lewis, president of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, said their focus now will be on rallying support for Cunningham.

"It was an extremely thorough and inclusive process that ended with three fantastic candidates where we couldn't go wrong," Lewis said. "And I think you saw that in the deliberations today, where it was like an embarrassment of riches of really qualified people who want to come and lead here. I think that says a lot about our state and it says a lot about our university."

Staff writers Mara Klecker and Jeffrey Meitrodt contributed to this report.