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New University of Minnesota President Rebecca Cunningham — a medical doctor with experience as a higher education administrator — brings a rare combination of skills as she takes over at a pivotal time for the U's health programs.

When she begins work this summer, the university will be deep in talks that will outline how its teaching hospital will run. It also still might be working with lawmakers on funding for programs aimed at boosting research and reducing worker shortages in the health care industry.

According to a survey by the American Council on Education, only 20 college presidents — about 2% of the total — reported having a medical degree. And some regents said Monday, when they selected Cunningham, that they believed her medical expertise would be an asset.

"I think she's the right person to advance our state and advance our university right now," said Doug Huebsch, co-vice chair of the Board of Regents. He added: "We have a big medical vision that we're trying to push forward. I think that's really important to the next dozen years or so."

Since 2019, Cunningham has been working as the vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan, overseeing a unit that reports roughly $1.8 billion in research expenditures each year and employs more than 13,000 people scattered across three campuses.

She worked for decades as an emergency room physician and also has served as director of the U-M Injury Prevention Center in Michigan and associate chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine for Michigan. During much of that time, she worked as a professor.

Cunningham declined an interview request, noting that she's still working to negotiate a contract and transition plan with the Board of Regents.

"What I can offer today is that I couldn't be more excited to get started at the U of M, and this is a topic I will be happy to dive deeper into with you in the future," she said in an email.

Health care at Minnesota vs. Michigan

There are differences between the health care models set up at the U and the University of Michigan.

The University of Michigan's health system includes a large teaching hospital in Ann Arbor plus another 10 owned or affiliated hospitals stretching across the state. Annual revenue is about $7.8 billion, slightly larger than the U's partner Fairview Health Services.

"It's a pretty successful system," said Allan Baumgarten, an independent health care analyst in St. Louis Park who publishes health care market reports on both Michigan and Minnesota.

But it would be difficult for Minnesota to duplicate the Michigan model, Baumgarten said, if only because Michigan has a 10-year head start on leading efforts to acquire and affiliate with other hospitals.

During an appearance on the U's Twin Cities campus last month, Cunningham said that as the University of Michigan took on other health systems, she was involved in "many of those conversations in understanding how to balance the clinical missions and the research and academic components when you do that."

She said her work experiences had allowed her to understand the finances of both a medical practice and academia, making her "sort of bilingual."

"I speak a native tongue of health but have been on the campus side for quite some time," she said.

The University of Minnesota and Fairview Health Services are in negotiations that will determine the future of the U's teaching hospital, pictured here.
The University of Minnesota and Fairview Health Services are in negotiations that will determine the future of the U's teaching hospital, pictured here.

A more active role in talks?

When interim President Jeff Ettinger took over last year, he designated then Vice President for Finance and Operations Myron Frans and medical school Dean Jakub Tolar as the point people for talks with Fairview Health Services.

But he noted that Cunningham will have the prerogative to decide how she wants to handle the issue.

"She's clearly going to be a benefit to the team," Ettinger said. "If she wants to take an even more active role, given her background, I would certainly understand."

The U last month signed a nonbinding letter of intent that outlines a timeline for buying back its teaching hospital from Fairview with a goal of closing the deal by 2027. The University of Minnesota Medical Center is the primary teaching venue for the state's largest and only public medical school. About 70% of physicians practicing in Minnesota trained at the U, either in medical school or through residency-fellowship programs.

Representatives for Fairview declined to comment.

The U also has asked the Legislature for $80 million in ongoing annual funding to support its academic health programs. Just over half that amount would go to efforts to improve "access to care for underserved communities" and to funding new medical discovery teams researching topics such as mental health and cancer. The remainder would go toward workforce development and efforts to improve primary and rural health care.

But lawmakers have signaled that the U might not get the money this session, leaving the issue for Cunningham's administration. The legislative session ends in May, and Cunningham is likely to start in July.

"The likelihood of any significant funding is remote, at best," said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chair of the House Higher Education Committee. He noted that it's not a budgeting year.

DFL and Republican lawmakers have said they want to see additional detail on how the U would spend that money and how much, if any, would go toward efforts to reacquire the teaching hospital. Some also have said they're eager to see how Cunningham approaches the issues.

Rep. Marion Rarick, R-Maple Lake, the lead Republican on the committee, said: "I was very excited to see that she was their pick, I'll be honest with you. Because I believe that she will have the skill set needed to move the University of Minnesota in a better trajectory."