Remembering former NAU President Eugene Hughes, 1934-2021

Eugene Hughes and President Rita Cheng

Former Northern Arizona University President Eugene Hughes died earlier this week. He was NAU’s 12th president and served in the role from July 1, 1979 to June 30, 1993; during his 14-year tenure, he made many contributions to the university.

“The NAU community has lost a great leader and champion and an important member of our Lumberjack family,” President Rita Cheng said. “I was fortunate to call Gene a dear friend and mentor. His contributions from decades of service to NAU have built the foundation we enjoy today. ”

After retiring from his post as president, he remained close friends with many former students, employees, and peers. He could always be found at football and basketball games supporting his Lumberjacks.

He helped establish NAU’s Center for Excellence in Education (CEE), engaging faculty, educators, politicians, and policymakers in conceptualizing the education of school professionals focusing on student-centeredness. As a part of the CEE, he implemented an Honorary Doctorate award to the Arizona Teacher of the Year. He also helped establish field sites on the campuses of Arizona’s community colleges, including NAU-Yuma at Arizona Western College.

As President Lawrence Walkup’s successor, Hughes continued Walkup’s campus development efforts. He added more than 20 new buildings to campus, including two dormitories, and the state-of-the-art pool facility, the Natatorium (now the Wall Aquatic Center). He enhanced the health profession programs and restructured the administration. He emphasized excellence among NAU faculty, staff and students.

Hughes developed the Southwest Center for Forestry Science Complex in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service. Its Ph.D. program gained national recognition as a leader in forestry research.

While Hughes managed extreme state budget cuts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he created the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management and worked diligently to turn the hospitality program into a nationally recognized school. He expanded other academic programs, including New Momentum, which focused on engaging Native American tribes and their members. He emphasized high-quality undergraduate education while he simultaneously increased student enrollment.

Hughes’ success was recognized by Money Magazine in 1986 when NAU was singled out as “one of 10 public colleges that had succeeded in developing and maintaining the ambience of small, private, Ivy League-type liberal arts institution that emphasizes personal attention to students.”

Under Hughes’ leadership, NAU initiated NAU-net, a satellite and microwave network that allowed NAU to offer the first courses in Arizona, via television, to off-campus sites. Gene also initiated international education programs in the 1980s by forging cooperative relationships with four higher education institutions in China.

Gene brought the Arizona Cardinals football team to NAU for training camp beginning in 1988. They continued to hold training camp in Flagstaff for 25 years. The Phoenix Suns also came to NAU for camp starting in 1986.

Hughes earned degrees in mathematics, including a B.S. from Chadron State College in Nebraska, an M.S. from Kansas State University, and a Ph.D. from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. While at Chadron, he became a National Science Foundation Fellow.

Following his time at NAU, Dr. Hughes served as president of Wichita State University, Kansas, from 1993-1999, retiring as president emeritus. He came out of retirement to lead Eastern Kentucky as interim president in 2001.

Hughes was inducted into the NAU Hall of Fame in 2014 and received an honorary doctorate from NAU in 1997. He received the Distinguished Service Award from Coconino Community College in 2016 and the Nebraska Community College Association Distinguished Alumni Award in 2014.

“Gene had a significant impact on NAU, while changing the lives of many,” President Cheng said. “His memory and legacy will be felt at NAU for many years to come.”

Details of a memorial will be shared at a later time.