ABOR announces Rita Cheng as Northern Arizona University presidential finalist

Rita Cheng

Rita ChengEditor’s note: The campus address and welcome reception time has changed to 3-4 p.m. on Thursday, June 12A live feed of the address will be available.

A six-month, nationwide search for the next president of Northern Arizona University culminated today in the announcement of Rita Cheng, chancellor of Southern Illinois University, as the finalist. Cheng has previously served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her previous accomplishments include serving as associate vice chancellor and interim dean of the School of Continuing Education at UMW, and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at UMW.

Rick Myers, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents Chair and co-chair of the search committee, along with Regent LuAnn Leonard, made the selection public at the beginning of today’s ABOR meeting on the NAU campus.

“Dr. Cheng has a distinguished record of innovative and transformational leadership while consistently demonstrating a deep commitment to academic excellence,” Myers said. “She has left a lasting impact with each position she has held and we are extremely fortunate Dr. Cheng has agreed to pursue the presidency at NAU. Her impeccable credentials uniquely posture her to continue NAU’s success, and we are confident in her ability to do so.”

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 as the presidential finalist to replace NAU President John Haeger. The NAU and Flagstaff communities will have an opportunity to meet Cheng on Thursday, June 12, at Ashurst Auditorium, where a campus address and welcome is scheduled from 3-4 p.m.

The selection still must be approved by a formal Regents vote. Haeger’s contract expires in June 2015, although he has said he would step aside and return to teaching before that date if the ideal candidate were identified.

“I said from the beginning that NAU would be best served by a visionary and dynamic leader from a peer institution, and Dr. Cheng is that person.” Haeger said. “She understands and appreciates the values that motivate our success at NAU. She is an excellent choice.”

Cheng has served as chancellor at SIU since June 2010. She oversees an operating budget of more than $750 million at a university of about 18,000 students. The 2013 freshman class at SIU was the largest in 20 years, including double-digit percentage increases in undergraduate international enrollment. Cheng implemented the “Mobile Dawg” initiative, which provided pre-loaded computer tablets to all new on-campus freshmen, and she established a distance learning program that powered a 36 percent increase in online course enrollment from 2012-13. Also under Cheng, a University College was created to centralize and coordinate support services for incoming freshmen and transfer students.

In addition, Cheng stabilized the university’s financial condition during a period of declining public support, developed a strong university fund-raising team and strengthened partnerships with the university’s foundation and alumni association. She has also overseen the development of a new strategic plan for the university, improvements to academic and research facilities, and construction and opening of a new student services building. Cheng also has extensive experience working effectively with public and private business and industry partners to align her strategic plan to support economic development.

“I am pleased and honored to have this opportunity at NAU, an outstanding university,” said Cheng. “NAU’s record of achievement, especially given the challenges facing higher education institutions across the country, is truly impressive. I would look forward to building new opportunities on the great successes of President Haeger and working with the tremendous talent at NAU to expand the vision for its future. I am inspired by the university’s commitment to students, research and service to the region and state and am energized by the positive and progressive energy on campus.”

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.

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.

Regent Leonard said Cheng is ideally suited to accentuate the attributes and meet the challenges presented by NAU.

“As regents, we have come to appreciate the role that NAU fills in our university system, particularly when it comes to first-generation and underrepresented students,” Leonard said. “This is a university committed to making higher education possible for more people. We look forward to prospering under Rita Cheng’s leadership, and we have President Haeger to thank for getting us here.”

Under Haeger’s leadership, enrollment at NAU has grown by more than 40 percent and the campus has undergone a physical transformation that is ongoing. He leveraged public-private partnerships and implemented efficiencies that resulted in 24 new buildings and 16 major renovations at a time of steep declines in state appropriations. His commitment to accessibility and affordability brought about innovative programs that benefit transfer students, bolster online education and open the door to higher education for students at NAU-Yavapai, NAU-Yuma and other branch campuses. Haeger’s 13-year presidency leaves NAU ideally positioned to maintain its status as a premier undergraduate institution with a promising foundation in research.