Rita Cheng’s recent speech delivered to a standing room only crowd left little room for doubt about the kind of president she will be for Northern Arizona University.
“I have always believed I have a responsibility to help others through service,” she said. “I firmly believe we have an obligation to give back, and I try to live by that value.”
Cheng was unanimously appointed by the Arizona Board of Regents to be the next NAU president when John Haeger steps down later this summer. Her three-year contract begins Aug. 15 at which time Haeger will return to the faculty.
Cheng, who is chancellor at Southern Illinois University, opened her speech Thursday saying she was “humbled and honored” to be considered for the presidency, acknowledging that NAU’s upward trajectory—much to the credit of President Haeger—was no secret nationally and had been noticed by her from afar. Visiting in person only confirmed that view, she said. “At the heart of it all resides a talented faculty and staff that makes it possible.”
The incoming president spent a recent whirlwind day June 12 meeting with campus administrative and faculty leadership. Throughout an engaging presentation in a jam-packed Ashurst Auditorium, Cheng laid out the vision and values that define her, and offered glimpses into the early life experiences that drive her to succeed.
During a 17-minute presentation to hundreds in Ashurst and hundreds more watching online, Cheng explained how growing up on a farm in Wisconsin taught her “the value of hard work and doing what you have committed to do—being authentic and true to your goals.”
Cheng’s own journey through higher education, raising a family and negotiating a steadily rising career reinforced beliefs she exudes as a university leader today, with an appreciation that she moved into expanding horizons for women and first-generation students. “I have always believed I have a responsibility to help others through service,” she said.
Candidly, Cheng simply posed the question she correctly presumed was on everyone’s mind: “What kind of president might I be?”
In answering, Cheng shared “the values I bring to all I do.” An accountant by training, she acknowledged the role of data in making informed decisions, but said “numbers alone cannot answer the human questions. To answer those questions, a leader needs to hear from all the very human stakeholders in the university’s future.”
Themes of shared governance, transparency, communication, accountability and inclusiveness followed. She noted her support for a strong, academically focused athletics program, but also emphasized, “music, art, theater, distinguished speakers, and other cultural and recreational activities that contribute to the vibrancy of our campus.”
Cheng turned to the citizens of Flagstaff by saying the university must define communities broadly rather than narrowly. “We must view ourselves as part of something much greater than ourselves. We cannot isolate, we must invite people in, we must go outside our walls.”
Before moving to SIU, Cheng spent 22 years in teaching and administrative roles at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, including five years as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Cheng, who is also a professor of accounting at SIU, earned her Ph.D. in management from the Fox School of Business and Management at Temple University. She earned her MBA degree from the University of Rhode Island and a bachelor of business administration degree with honors from Bishop‘s University in Quebec.
A 28-member search committee of ABOR members, NAU faculty and staff, and community, business, tribal and educational leaders contributed to the decision to choose Cheng.
The new NAU president also will be part of the ABOR Enterprise Executive Committee, comprised of the presidents of Arizona State University, NAU, the University of Arizona, and ABOR as the executive leadership of the Arizona public university enterprise system responsible for driving achievement of statewide goals.
“Dr. Cheng’s impressive career in higher education and her transformative leadership will advance NAU to even greater heights, enable the achievement of the university’s ambitious goals, and foster enhanced student success,” said ABOR chair Rick Myers, who served as co-chair of the hiring committee. “This is the beginning of a legacy that will serve the entire state.”