Regents told of NAU budget challenges, high performance and partnership success

The Suites on a busy afternoon

On a day when budget cuts set a somber tone, Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng, supported by top administrators and university partners, delivered a confident yet measured operational and financial review to the Arizona Board of Regents.

The board gathered in Flagstaff to hear a presentation scheduled well before the Arizona Legislature announced a $99 million budget cut to the state’s universities. But only five days after the news, the regents and the university began setting strategies to move forward.

Cheng portrayed NAU’s $17.3 million share of the cuts as the latest challenge for a university that has long used partnerships, academic quality and strategic growth to leverage success. She emphasized NAU will rely on those same elements—now in a context of rapid changes in funding, student composition and technology—to continue the university’s momentum.

“I can assure you it is a future that honors our most basic commitments and keeps us all well aware of why NAU matters to so many,” Cheng told the regents.

Cheng described NAU as “willing to defy convention” if needed to serve students better. “At a time when higher education is experiencing a major transition, we’re big enough to steer resources toward taking risks, and agile enough to pivot when we see an opportunity or face an obstacle.”

Establishing a theme that would be recurrent throughout the day, Cheng emphasized NAU’s economic impact on Flagstaff, Coconino County and the state, also warning of the negative impact of budget cuts. For the county alone, that impact could be a loss of $170 million.

“Under such circumstances, maintaining and establishing relationships will become crucial,” Cheng said.

The full presentation detailed how NAU approaches academic success, student recruitment, research expansion and budgeting. All phases of those operations, Cheng and several vice presidents explained, are geared toward meeting or exceeding performance metrics established by the regents.

In line with the tone of operating as a person-oriented institution, Provost Laura Huenneke said NAU remains committed to understanding and addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse student population that may be involved with the university on the Flagstaff campus, at a community campus or online.

“It isn’t just about the numbers,” Huenneke said. “It’s about the quality of the educational experience. That’s true no matter who the students are or where they are.”

The regents heard from four key partners of the university representing education and research. One of them, Dave Engelthaler of TGen North, summarized the spirit expressed by each of them: “We just keep building each other up.”

Before the NAU presentation began, board President Eileen Klein clearly established the stakes in a rapid-fire rundown of the state’s changing relationship with higher education. She noted that of all the cuts in the state’s FY 2016 budget, the universities’ share is 63 percent.

“More and more the universities have become the solution set for the state’s budget woes,” Klein said.

Cheng closed by reminding the audience of NAU’s ongoing success despite funding challenges over the past eight years.

“There is no other NAU,” Cheng said. “We are not a franchise or just another university. The truth is, we serve the state as only we can. We’re No. 1 on that list, and we intend to stay there.”