At Campus Forum, President Cheng discusses how NAU is helping to shape the future of Arizona

President Rita Cheng speaking

Northern Arizona University is stronger than ever, President Rita Cheng told faculty, staff, students and members of the Flagstaff community at the fall Campus Forum Tuesday at the High Country Conference Center. Getting that foundation, however, requires adapting to a constantly changing world, and remaining strong will require the collaboration of all stakeholders in this exciting time for higher education.

“NAU stands on a strong foundation that allows us to address the challenges that come our way,” she said. “Though economic conditions and expectations of higher education may shift, our focus on students remains constant.”

Contribution to the economy

NAU contributes more than $2.5 billion to Arizona’s economy annually, a 25 percent increase from the estimated impact in 2016. This impact comes from the 22,000 jobs NAU supports throughout the state as well as the number of Arizona students who come to NAU and remain after graduation. Cheng highlighted one statistic from a Gallup poll done of NAU alumni: 85 percent of physician assistant graduates stay in Arizona to work after graduation, compared to 7 percent of PAs from other states.

Responding to the state’s changing workforce needs

NAU created the College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences to put a greater focus on academic degrees and industries that are increasingly in demand. In addition, the Teachers Academy is preparing educators to work in rural areas without the burden of student loan debt after graduation.

“Now more than ever, NAU is essential to Arizona’s success,” she said. “Our rigorous programs are enhancing the state’s educated workforce. Our high-quality research and public service programs are improving the lives of Arizona residents. Our community engagement and partnerships are building new bridges.”

Strategic plan

Cheng discussed the two-year process of creating a strategic plan, which included input from more than 1,700 students, faculty, staff members, alumni, members of the Flagstaff community and other stakeholders, all with the purpose of developing a plan that would move NAU forward. She went over the five pillars of NAU’s strategic plan:

  1. Student success and access
  2. Research and discovery
  3. Commitment to Native Americans
  4. Engagement
  5. Stewardship

Focusing on enrollment and retention, providing in-demand degree programs and mentoring, offering a good learning environment, and meeting students where they are all are part of the plan to help students complete their degrees at NAU and help in AchieveAZ60, a statewide initiative to have 60 percent of Arizona adults finish a bachelor’s degree by 2030. She also discussed the need to keep college affordable and the resources NAU provides to make it possible for students from all financial backgrounds to succeed.

There is a tremendous amount of research happening in every department on campus that results in groundbreaking studies, patents, inventions and national publications. This work is both responding to and defining the world and, importantly, graduate and undergraduate students are participating alongside faculty and gaining first-hand, experiential knowledge. NAU continues to work toward being in the top 200 research universities, as measured by the National Science Foundation, with research expenditures and collaborations growing every year.

The third tenet in the strategic plan, commitment to Native Americans, has been a focus of NAU for much of the university’s history. NAU recruits Native American students and provides robust resources and support to help them succeed and also works directly with Native American tribes, many of which are a critical part of Northern Arizona’s economy and culture, to collaborate on research and public service opportunities. A recent survey found that almost half of NAU’s Native American students come from legacy families, following a parent or grandparent who is an NAU grad.

Audience listens to President Cheng
Members of the administration listen to President Cheng during her Campus Forum speech, Oct. 16, 2018.

Cheng highlighted the university’s engagement with its home communities, outreach to the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County and the work toward seeking the Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement in 2025. This process will include data collection and documentation of the institutional mission, identity and commitments to the greater community.

“Engagement is enjoyable for us—we all love our community and our opportunities to blend the university we love with our daily lives outside the campus,” Cheng said. “Engagement also helps us prepare educated, engaged citizens and strengthens the values of civic responsibility.”

Finally, Cheng spoke on stewardship and the responsibility to continually improve in all aspects of university operations, including better educational opportunities, taking care of employees, managing financial resources and infrastructure and remaining a leader in sustainability efforts.

“Every student that enrolls, every graduate that builds a career on their NAU degree, every member of our alumni that enhances Arizona’s economy and community—they are the reason we do what we do,” she said. “They are the reason we work together, why we adapt and expand high-demand programs. Every day that we are here and everything we do comes down to this: we make it possible for our students to achieve success in a changing world.”

Watch Campus Forum at NAU-TV.


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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 |

NAU Communications