President Cheng honored among 100 notable alumni by Temple University

Rita Cheng and Ronald Anderson

April 26, 2019

President Rita Cheng has been honored as one of 100 notable alumni by her alma mater, Temple University’s Fox School of Business, as part of its centennial celebration.

Cheng, who received her Ph.D. in business management from the Philadelphia university in 1988, came to Northern Arizona University five years ago with a goal of making a college education accessible and affordable for any student who wanted to receive one. She cited her early experiences—being the first in her family of Wisconsin dairy farmers to go to college, going to five institutions in seven years to earn her bachelor’s degree, raising toddlers while balancing her doctoral work—as her motivation.

“Temple was founded on the idea of raising a community by making quality education affordable for everyone,” said Ronald Anderson, interim dean of the Fox School of Business and School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management. “Dr. Rita Hartung Cheng is a shining example of someone striving to meet that ideal through her tireless work to elevate the lives of thousands of students at Northern Arizona University. We are proud that she has been a part of our first 100 years, and we believe her impact will be felt for many years to come.” 

In her 30-year career as an educator and administrator, she has seen those opportunities get increasingly expensive, pricing many potential students out of an education or saddling them with crippling debt.

Cheng, who has spoken frequently with the governor, state legislators and other elected officials about the importance of investing in higher education, worries the financial burden of tuition and fees keeps some would-be students away from college, especially first-generation and other underrepresented groups. As a nontraditional and first-generation student, she understands the need to make higher education accessible to all.

“I wanted to devote my career to higher education because it transformed my life, and I see how it changes lives every day—not just for the students but for their families,” she said. “I am grateful for the opportunity I had to pursue an education and all who supported me along the way and am privileged to be working hard to give others the same opportunity. I am especially grateful for the faculty at the Fox School of Business and the support, encouragement and mentorship they provided. I am humbled to be counted among this group of leaders.”

During her tenure at NAU, Cheng has overseen the expansion of NAU’s international collaboration and notable increase in research funding and output; in 2018, the National Science Foundation ranked NAU at No. 96 in national research rankings for universities without a medical school, and grants, patent applications and publications have increased as administrators made a concerted effort to identify and recruit top researchers from throughout the world. The university has seen substantial growth as well, with the creation of the Honors College and the College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences and the introduction of more than 10 new degree programs across all fields, including four new doctoral programs.

Cheng was one of 25 honorees for the Phoenix Business Journal’s Outstanding Women in Business list. She recently was one of five higher education leaders appointed as commissioner to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and in 2018, the Arizona Capitol Times named Cheng leader of the year in the education category.

The advice Cheng offers now is the same advice she was once given when she was working full-time at the University of Minnesota. A supervisor pulled her aside and told her, “Make sure you finish your degree.” He also mentioned that she should consider a career as an actuary or accountant; she didn’t know what either of those jobs did. But, she said, that moment was pivotal; she finished her degree in accounting and then finished two more.

Cheng and the other honorees, which include renowned medical doctors, business executives, the chief information officer for Facebook, university board members and entrepreneurs were recognized at a ceremony Thursday at Temple.  

Tom and Rita Cheng and Alan Kerzner
Tom Cheng and President Rita Cheng with Alan Kerzner, director of Temple University’s Entrepreneurship Academy, at the Fox School of Business Centennial celebration on April 25. Above: Fox School of Business Interim Dean Ronald Anderson and President Rita Cheng.
Photo credit: Lou Caltabiano
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Carly Banks | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications