President’s Forum: NAU succeeding at business of student success

President John Haeger

Of all the information conveyed by Northern Arizona University President John Haeger at Tuesday afternoon’s public forum, the preface of an audience member’s question best summarized the underlying message: “All of us in this room would agree you’ve been an exceptional leader for this institution.”

The hearty applause that followed at the well-attended High Country Conference Center event confirmed what Haeger had just presented during “The Year Ahead.” NAU is in sound financial condition and performing well academically, and has positioned itself to excel on both fronts.

Haeger stressed how closely business and classroom success are intertwined as NAU advances toward 2020 goals established by the Arizona Board of Regents. Pointing to the strategic guidelines set by the board, Haeger said, “The language in both areas is about promoting student success.”

Throughout the presentation, Haeger tied NAU’s accomplishments and outlook to the university’s core mission as an undergraduate residential institution, and said the model will work “only if we’re one of the best in the nation.”

Haeger also repeated NAU’s commitment to one-on-one contact between students and faculty as a distinctive characteristic that will only be enhanced, not diminished, by the rapid introduction of advanced educational technology. As an example, he touted the launch of Personalized Learning, a competency-based online program that upends long-held notions about credit hours and semesters while offering university access for a flat fee.

“Personalized Learning changes everything about delivering programs,” Haeger said, noting that faculty play a role as guides and mentors rather than delivering content. “That’s the NAU piece,” he said.

On another front, the expansion of University College demonstrates the university’s resolve to increase retention, which in turn benefits the balance sheet. “We’re trying to drive support and money to the freshman year,” Haeger said. At today’s enrollment levels, he noted, each 5 percent increase in retention equals an additional $6 million in annual tuition revenue.

Looking at developing trends in higher education, Haeger said that NAU must continue to challenge the “very expensive delivery system” of traditional course development and delivery, which is highly individualistic. “What’s going to happen to universities is that it’s now about teamwork,” he said.

Haeger closed the presentation by discussing the plan for leadership succession that was set in motion nearly a month ago by his announcement that he will leave the presidency no later than the conclusion of his contract in June 2015. At last week’s Regents meeting, guidelines for initiating the search for NAU’s next president were established.

“They’re going to start sooner rather than later, partly at my urging,” Haeger said. He added that the board sees this process as “its most important responsibility,” and that it is solely responsible for the interviews and final selection.

While the search committee, yet to be established, is scheduled to begin its work in January, Haeger offered a hint as to how the timing of succession might play out.

“I’ve told the board that as soon as you get a president, then I’m ready to leave.”