President Cheng discusses five years of outreach, accomplishments and student success in Campus Forum

President Cheng and others at campus forum

April 19, 2019

President Rita Cheng discussed the progress she’s seen in the last five years and how the strategic plan is helping to move Northern Arizona University forward at the spring 2019 campus forum on Thursday. She also talked about faculty, staff and student accomplishments, discussed increased community outreach and was joined by a special guest—a Starship delivery robot, representing one of the more visible changes to campus.

“The more successful we are, the more Flagstaff, Arizona, the nation and the world succeed,” she said. “This is evident in our accomplishments in just the last five years, ensuring that as higher education changes, NAU remains competitive and viable for our students, employees, community and state.”

NAU has come far in the last five years, President Cheng said, taking actions that have helped the university become more of an academic and research leader. Efforts such as updated IT infrastructure and upgraded classrooms that meet new technology standards have helped to recruit and retain students and faculty members alike, while the implementation of multi-term enrollment and centralized scheduling has helped students map out their degree plans and stay on track to graduate in four years. Reorganizing the advising team has led to increased consistency and more access for students, while One NAU brought online and community campuses under one umbrella that includes a robust support system, advising, academic collaboration and efficient business processes.

The university has taken steps to meet the needs of a rapidly changing workforce in Arizona and beyond, including creating the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Security. Creating the separate College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences and the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences also provides students and faculty in those fields with opportunities for more focused research and study. Additionally, NAU has created a number of new degree programs, including three new Ph.D. programs and the just-approved programs in Indian Country criminal justice and building sciences.

In the last five years, NAU has increased diversity among students, faculty and staff; added more student clubs than ever before; witnessed the unprecedented success of a number of athletic teams; experienced national recognition for dozens of academic programs; and for the first time reached out to alumni to identify strengths and challenges and seek ways to improve student outcomes.

In her speech, Cheng also announced that Gabe Montaño, a professor of applied physics and materials science, will be NAU’s diversity fellow. He was selected following a lengthy and thorough process.

“Diversity is a fundamental aspect of the learning experience, and I am proud of our ongoing commitment to diversity in our NAU community,” she said.

Increased communication

Looking forward, President Cheng said she and her team are eager for feedback from all corners of campus. She discussed the efforts she and her team have made to have conversations with community leaders and members, faculty and students, including more than 50 listening sessions in the last five years. These are intended to solicit feedback that can then be used to help NAU improve, and she thanked everyone who has participated in such sessions.

Student feedback has been particularly beneficial. Because of information based on students’ diverse lived experiences, NAU recently expanded space for the Office of Inclusion: Multicultural and LGBTQIA Student Services and created a student advisory group to review and recommend priorities for how to spend the athletics fee revenue. Collaboration between ITS and ASNAU created more affordable printing opportunities for students and provided information about the need for improved wireless Internet access across campus. The university’s bandwidth also will increase this summer.

Student leaders, along with faculty and staff, also noted the need for greater resources to treat student mental health, a challenge universities throughout the nation are facing. An increase to the Health and Learning Center fee will help fund mental health counseling and support services, including six new care providers.

President Cheng discussed the university’s move to the Prosci/ADKAR method of change management, which outlines a clear process for change that incorporates extensive participation and communication. It has been used in several new initiatives, including a recently launched Strategic Space Utilization Assessment that provided a comprehensive study of NAU’s internal spaces.

She also focused on outreach with the community, having recently invited elected and appointed leaders from the city to campus for an orientation and a discussion about NAU operations and the strategic plan. She highlighted a recent joint public meeting between NAU, the City of Flagstaff and the County Board of Supervisors that enabled NAU leaders to share the value NAU brings to the community and discussing collaborative issues like the 2020 Census, transportation and planning and forest restoration.

Student success

Student success remains high on the priority for NAU, Cheng said, and administrators are looking at admission, enrollment and retention rates as well as ways to increase access to higher education for both traditional and nontraditional students and those who can’t enroll in the Flagstaff campus. The university has teams that evaluate and coordinate the effectiveness of NAU’s programs in order to help students on their educational journey. The focus is on organizational linkages, improving pedagogy and reducing the rates of students who drop, fail or withdraw from a class. Universities throughout the country are on the same journey.

A big part of those efforts is improving the experience for students throughout the state. More than a quarter of NAU’s students attend classes in Phoenix, Yuma, Yavapai or at one of 20 community college campuses throughout the state or they take online courses while living and working in other parts of the country and world.

Many of these degree programs are delivered in flexible formats with an emphasis on affordability and in partnership with the community colleges. They allow for the transfer of up to 90 credits in several degree options so students don’t have to retake courses.

 “Offering students a distinct choice between experiences, locations, academic program options and costs is a critical element of NAU’s mission of access to a university education for all Arizonans,” Cheng said. “NAU is addressing both student and workforce demands to assist local families and communities meet their individual needs within their economic abilities.”

President Cheng also talked about NAU’s partnerships throughout the world. In March, an NAU delegation attended the opening of a joint Forest Biosecurity Research Center with the University of Tyumen in Siberia, Russia, where forestry professor Rich Hofstetter has done research for years. Almost a fourth of the world’s forests are in Siberia, so this relationship gives Hofstetter and his students, as well as other professors interested in doing research there, strategic access to these environments.

NAU also has increased the number of student and faculty exchanges opportunities with various universities in Mexico and is building a greater presence in South Asia, Latin America and Europe at a time when international enrollment is down at universities throughout the U.S.

Budget questions

President Cheng addressed the budget, reiterating her team’s desires to ensure NAU’s financial status is strong. NAU is facing similar problems as many institutions of higher education, including the challenges of lower birthrates; fewer students graduating from high school; less money from the state; and large populations of first-generation and underrepresented minority students who face unique barriers to education.

She credited not only her team but also administrators throughout the university who responded by tightening budgets when tuition revenue was less than expected this year and said NAU looks to end the fiscal year with a balanced budget while ensuring an excellent educational experience for students. Making those adjustments, while also ensuring NAU is enrolling and retaining students, is critical to the long-term health of the university.

Administrators also are looking at ways to diversify revenue sources, including through philanthropic donations, research and public service grants and indirect cost recovery revenue. President Cheng shared that she has met with Gov. Doug Ducey and leaders in the Arizona Legislature to advocate for NAU. Ducey is particularly invested in the Teachers Academy; NAU’s academy saw its enrollment double in its second year, and it continues to grow at locations throughout the state. The additional funding budgeted this year for the Teachers Academy should allow NAU to implement this program at the Flagstaff campus.

NAU has seen an increase in research money flowing into the university; in 2017-18, NAU exceeded the research funding goal ABOR set with $52.9 million in research and development expenditures. Faculty and staff at NAU have 50 invention disclosures, 15 patents issued and $88.2 million in research and public service expenditures in the last year. All of that contributes to the educational experiences of NAU’s students.

“We want to provide answers, create solutions and empower our students to be innovative and overcome obstacles,” she said. “You are elevating NAU’s reputation, connecting our students to work that expresses, and answers, the world’s greatest challenges.

Tuition remains top of mind; ABOR approved the smallest increase in the pledge rate NAU has ever proposed, as well as the elimination of more than 300 class fees and the reduction of another 300 fees. This will not only save students money but also increase transparency and help students see for what they are actually paying.

President Cheng announced an up to 3 percent salary increase for eligible faculty and staff, effective July 1. It’s a first step in addressing the challenges NAU faces with market competitiveness, she said. Her administration also is working to raise the lowest level student salaries from $8 to $10 an hour. That increase will affect 28 percent of student workers.

Community relations and the economy

A recent study from the Alliance Bank Economic Policy Institute estimated that NAU contributes more than $2.6 billion to Arizona’s economy every year, an increase of 25 percent from just two years ago. More than 100,000 NAU alumni live and work in Arizona.

NAU has many partnerships with organizations in the county and state to help improve the lives of Arizonans. Partnerships with the community including the Museum of Northern Arizona, NAIPTA, United Way, the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County and Northern Arizona Healthcare. Nursing and dental hygiene students serve thousands of patients annually, education students provide more than 100,000 volunteer hours in local schools each year and the Civic Service Institute has more than 1,500 volunteers who provide close to half a million hours of community service to almost 300 agencies.

Additionally, student groups contributed more than 20,000 hours of volunteer service to the community, and community members came to campus for more than 400 performing arts and 75 athletic events in the last year. President Cheng reminded the audience of how important these relationships are to all of the participants. NAU is proud to be part of the Flagstaff and Arizona communities.

“At our campuses throughout the state, NAU’s economic impact is growing,” she said. “We create jobs, intellectual property, technology transfer and business incubation, and we educate and develop the sophisticated, high-level workforce that meets the demands of today’s industry. An increasing percentage of Arizona students choose NAU for their education, and the increasing number of those Lumberjacks who live and work in Arizona after their graduation positively affect the quality of life, health, education and economic outcomes of our communities and our state.”

The entire forum is available for viewing from NAU-TV.