President Cheng focuses on achievements, investments in NAU’s future in fall Campus Forum

President Cheng speaking

Oct, 17, 2019

At the semiannual Campus Forum Tuesday, Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng talked about highlights from the university’s 120-year history and the exciting programs, investments, research and innovation that are hallmarks of the university’s promising future.

“Increased research, creative scholarship and public service activity directly benefit our students and their preparation for excellence in their future endeavors,” she told a crowd of hundreds at the High Country Conference Center, with hundreds more watching online. “It is an essential part of how we impact the state by creating a more qualified workforce for Arizona, providing answers to big questions and future challenges and inspiring new inventions.”

Cheng also discussed the changing environment in higher education nationwide, which plays a role in NAU’s retention and recruitment efforts and also affects curriculum and pedagogy decisions. She highlighted NAU’s diverse online programs and our presence on community colleges campuses, making education more accessible to nontraditional students than ever, and realigning or creating new programs to help meet the needs of industry in Arizona and beyond.

“Today’s universities are challenged with redesigning programs to meet workforce needs and those of student interests,” she said. “NAU has not been caught off guard by the changes taking place in higher education today. We have talented teams throughout our campuses focused on the vision that assures our strong future.”

She acknowledged that NAU, along with universities throughout the country, is seeing lower enrollment numbers as there are fewer high school graduates, a booming job market and an unpredictable international environment. Although enrollment growth is lower now than it was five years ago, NAU is addressing that through concerted and creative recruitment strategies to encourage potential college students to consider the university.

Cheng highlighted the new brand campaign that is raising NAU’s profile throughout the state. It is a product of a research-based marketing plan that focuses on NAU’s strengths and highlights what differentiates the NAU experience from that of other universities. She encouraged faculty, staff and students to make the slogan “Bring Your Aspirations” personal as they talked with peers throughout the state and country about their experiences as a Lumberjack.

As the first of NAU’s strategic goals, student success and access continues to be a top priority for NAU programs and employees, both in and out of the classroom. NAU is working on enhancing the student experience, including providing students who are struggling with mental and emotional issues. In partnership with the American Council on Education, Campus Health Services has implemented a four-tiered approach that addresses student needs, the accessibility of clinical services and proactive messaging, norm-setting and communication. This new approach includes six new counseling positions, five of which have already been filled (one of whom is a culturally and language-competent Latinx specialist); developing Kognito, an online program that helps to identify students in distress; creating peer networks and offering additional group therapy; and introducing a workshop to help students learn healthy ways to cope with anxiety.

Other programs to help NAU students include:

  • Louie’s Cupboard, an on-campus food pantry for students who are struggling
  • Louie’s Leftovers, a program ITS created and advertises through the NAUgo app to let students know when leftover food is available after campus events
  • Enhanced gathering and study space for multicultural and LGBTQIA student services and programs, opened last year in the IMQ Center
  • Jacks Online, which provides peer mentoring for online students

Cheng discussed the budget the Arizona Board of Regents proposed to the Arizona Legislature last month, which includes $32 million for NAU. If approved, $22 million of that funding will go toward expanded investments in graduate and undergraduate health care programs, including behavioral health; supporting and expanding pathways and expedited degree programs in partnership with community colleges, career and technical education districts and business partners; and investment in cybersecurity programs.

The other $10 million will support NAU’s unique undergraduate mission through investment in enrollment, undergraduate faculty and quality education and additional marketing efforts.

NAU administrators are hopeful this budget proposal will allow the university to regain the balance in the overall mix that disappeared in 2014. Right now, state appropriations make up about 18 percent of the total budget, down from more than 22 percent in 2014. NAU has continued to grow and provide a quality education despite that funding loss, Cheng said, but she hopes to see an uptick in investment from the state.

This is especially critical for an institution like NAU, which serves a significant number of Arizona residents and does so in communities throughout the state and through programs like the Arizona Teachers Academy.

“State funding will help NAU continue to support student outreach, quality instruction and student services while increasing access to higher education for a diverse population of students contributing to Arizona’s attainment goals,” she said.

Cheng discussed the accomplishments NAU is making in its sustainability efforts and education, which were recognized last month by Arizona Forward.

“NAU is well-positioned to lead in the practice and study of sustainability, and it is a core part of who we are as an institution,” she said. “With the Colorado Plateau as our backyard and laboratory, our location has given us a legacy of climate research, leadership and solutions that set us apart from many other universities. We continue to be leaders in environmental and sustainability-focused education.”

She also announced that next semester NAU will have an inaugural class of diversity fellows, a program aimed at recognizing faculty, staff and students who show a commitment to diversity and inclusion initiatives. This semester, NAU has celebrated Latinx Heritage Month, is in the middle of Disability Heritage Month and in November will recognize Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the programs, partnerships and relationships that connect the university to Indigenous communities throughout the world.

“We are a distinctive university focused on helping our students realize their aspirations, strengthened by the supportive environment fostered by our faculty and staff,” Cheng said. “As we face an increasingly competitive higher education landscape, we must embrace the fact that we are the NAU brand. Personal connections are foundational to this university’s history and are as strong today as they were 120 years ago.”

Watch the Oct. 15 Campus Forum on NAU-TV.