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Rita Cheng Settles into New Role as NAU President

Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University started classes this week with thousands of new students and a new president. Rita Cheng is the former chancellor of Southern Illinois University. She replace former NAU president John Haeger, following his retirement. Arizona Public Radio's Aaron Granillo recently spoke with Cheng about her new role.

Rita Cheng: Certainly John Haeger left the campus in very, very solid shape. Part of the reason I believe that I was selected as the next president for NAU was because I also have spent my career focused on student success, growing enrollment, and connecting very deliberately student success with the faculty research and activities that are being done on a campus. The faculty on this campus are very talented and we need to leverage that talent to strengthen our academic programs and build some new interdisciplinary programs on the campus.

Aaron Granillo: The high-quality faculty and administration that you do have here. How do you plan on retaining them?

RC: Certainly we need to look at opportunities for professional growth. Certainly compensation always comes into the conversation as well. Flagstaff is a very beautiful place. The faculty and staff that I’ve talked to are very happy here, and we want to make sure that they have the opportunities to excel and grow professionally.

AG: Prior to coming to NAU, you spent time as the president at Southern Illinois University. You spent over 20 years at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned in your past that you plan on brining here to the university?

RC: I think the most important thing that I think about a lot is the power of education. It’s the most important investment that any young person can make for their future. So there’s nothing more contributing to deep learning than for a student to engage in undergraduate research. For a graduate student to be mentored by a faculty member, and for a faculty member to coach and mentor an undergraduate student. I’ve always been connected with institutions that serve undergraduate students of all walks of life, and connect them to the power of discovery and innovation through research.

AG: There was a recent report by Money Magazine looking at roughly 1,500 four-year degrees. It ranked schools based on educational quality, affordability, and career outcomes. NAU came in at 562. How do you plan on improving the value of a degree from this university?

RC: There are a whole host of organizations that rank universities. A lot of the ranking depends on assessment by peers or success of alums after they’ve graduated from the institution. So as we keep our costs down and our students graduate and go on to do wonderful things with their lives, the recognition that we get will only grow. So I think until I look deeply into the Money Magazine ranking  I can’t give you much more than that.

AG: We’ll stay on the topic of money because you alluded to keeping college affordable. It’s a big concern for parents and students, and tuition is going up way faster than the rate of inflation. What’s NAU going to do to make college affordable?

RC: We’ve already addressed a lot of opportunities to have more efficiencies on the Flagstaff campus. We also want to look for alternative resource opportunities other than tuition. Is that to ask supporters for donations to support student scholarships or faculty programs? Is that the ability to look at our extended campus and online learning to expand the revenue from that alternative source?  Or is there another way to connect our research with community partnerships to draw additional resources in to support the campus?

AG: Where do you see the university in the next ten years? What do you want Northern Arizona University to be known for?

RC: We definitely want to improve the retention of our undergraduate students, and then effectively the number of students that we graduate. We are already going down the path of being recognized for innovative efforts to increase student learning and student success. I think we’ve got a ways to go and we really can be challenged to be a leader in that field. We also have incredible opportunities to showcase our research and scholarly activity. I believe with some proper planning and support we can really expand the research and creative activity that’s done on this campus. And finally that were about economic development in the region. We’re the powerhouse economic engine along with several others in Northern Arizona. And if we can link our research and creative activity to the cultural and business aspects of northern Arizona we can strengthen everything.