Higher education facing serious challenges, Haeger says

It’s time for higher education to stop asking what the country can do for it and ask what it can do for the country.

NAU President¬†John Haeger¬†told the NAU community Tuesday that the mood of federal and state governments is that they are tired of higher education asking for things. “They want to know what universities are doing for the state,” he said.

Addressing a full house in Ashurst Auditorium and statewide sites across Arizona, Haeger said one of the major challenges facing higher education today is public perception, and, he warned, universities had better pay attention, whether they believe public perception is right or wrong.

On the federal and state levels, serious questions are being asked about the role of higher education in the country, Haeger explained. State legislatures are examining graduation rates; Congress is proposing performance measures; and elected officials and business leaders are questioning the amount of teaching done by professors and the relevance of research at the university level.

Further, tenure has come under the microscope, and accessibility and affordability have become rallying cries.

“This is brought about by the public’s view of higher education,” Haeger said. “The public has become more critical.”

As a result, the American Council on Education and 400 colleges and universities have launched a nationwide public outreach campaign to raise awareness about higher education’s role in the future of the country. The campaign will include TV, newspaper and radio ads.

It will be especially prominent during CBS’s broadcast of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“Universities are going on the offensive at national levels to make the case of higher education being critical for our country,” Haeger said.

On the national level, universities will be judged on enrollment growth, number of graduates and the speed at which students graduate. On the state level, Haeger said, the Legislature is examining student contact with professors, speed of graduation and tuition increases.

Haeger said that his proposed across-the-board tuition rate increase of 3.6 percent is in keeping with the governor and Legislature’s desire of continued affordability to higher education. “It’s about as low as we can get,” he said.

The growth of NAU’s distance programs is addressing the Legislature’s desire for statewide accessibility to higher education. Haeger pointed to the “NAU Promise” as an important part of bringing higher education to rural Arizona.

The NAU Promise states that the university will deliver an in-person program anywhere in Arizona there is a cohort of 25 or more students.

Haeger’s 90-minute presentation covered a variety of topics and included a question-and-answer session.

Responding to a question from a student, Haeger said diversity among faculty, staff and students remains a top priority for NAU. “I want to tell hiring committees that diversity in and of itself is an important criterion when judging candidates,” he said.

He also said creating an on-campus Native American Center also is a priority, though the project lacks funding. The university is searching for federal and state sources to complete the center.

Other topics included:

  • The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s revision of the classification of U.S. colleges and universities. The institution among NAU’s peers that is the most similar is University of Southern Mississippi.
  • NAU expansion in Pima, Maricopa and Yavapai counties. Haeger discussed the growth at NAU-Yuma and construction projects in Tucson and Prescott and a new building in Yuma.
  • Academic freedom in light of proposed legislative measures to force universities to offer alternative course materials for students who may be offended. “Arizona is not alone,” Haeger said. “We have to be vigilant, but we have to be aware of the public’s feelings.
  • Construction and signage. The president presented updates of building projects, including the proposed NAU Conference Center, as well as the updated traffic and pedestrian signs that will begin appearing across campus.
  • Faculty and staff housing. “It’s extremely important issue when hiring, especially when the average home price is around $350,000,” he said. “Once we’re passed the conference center, faculty and staff housing comes next.”