Northern Arizona University is at a time of exciting time of opportunity, transition, and growth in its academic and research mission. It seemed like a great time to talk with its president, Dr. Rita Hartung Cheng, who has led the university since 2014.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin with a population of about 770 people. My father was a farmer and my mother worked as a schoolteacher in a one-room school, so agriculture and education are embedded in my DNA. As the oldest of six children growing up on a farm, I learned the value of hard work, doing what say you are going to do and being authentic.
Q: What was your own education like?
When I was growing up, opportunities for women were not what they are today. Most of the women in my high school class, if they were planning to have a career, decided to become secretaries or maybe pursue a college degree in order to be a teacher. It was just reflective of society’s artificial limitations at that time. But my mother really pushed for her daughters to have an education. It was very important to her.
Q: You were a nontraditional college student in many ways, weren’t you? Absolutely! I was following my husband [Thomas Kwan Cheng, faculty at NAU’s Center for Business Outreach] as he pursued his career, which meant that I attended five universities in four states before earning my degree. After that came an MBA from the University of Rhode Island and then I entered the doctoral program at Temple University while I was raising our children.
Q: How did your academic career begin? I ultimately decided to devote my career to higher education because it transformed my life and I see how it changes lives every day. I started at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee as a faculty member. I was there for more than 20 years and ultimately became Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. After that, I served as Chancellor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Q: What brought you to NAU? I wasn’t looking for a new position, but the university had been on my radar for some time. During the years that it was led by [former president] John Haeger, it earned a well-deserved reputation because of its dedication to research, its commitment to diversity and its strong partnership with the community.
Q: You’ve been president for more than three years now. What are you most proud of during your tenure? How our team has grown an already strong academic and research mission. Our 30,000 students throughout the state of Arizona and 4,600 employees have a tremendous economic impact – nearly $1.6 billion every year. Our research expenditures have grown by 25 percent to $40 million and our overall enrollment has jumped by about 10 percent. We’re quickly moving toward our goal of becoming the leading university serving Native Americans.
Q: Why is it important for you to be part of ECoNA? Part of that is personal and part of it has to do with the unique role Northern Arizona University plays in the region. On the personal side, I truly believe it is important to give back, whether that means volunteering or serving on community boards, and I try to live by that value. On the institutional side, Northern Arizona University fits naturally with the goals of ECoNA. As a regional economic driver and a center for creative expertise, NAU enthusiastically embraces its role as a partner in producing innovative research and highly skilled graduates that benefit our community and our state.
Q: You’ll be launching a president’s special speakers starting this week. Tell us about that. The goal of the distinguished speaker series is to bring intellectual leaders, people who have in-depth knowledge on a particular topic, to our campus to share their insights. The speakers series is free and open to the public, which was very important to me. We wanted to make sure that everyone in our community would have a chance to hear these experts, not just those who can afford a ticket.
Q: Whose the first speaker? Steve Pemberton, who is the chief diversity officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance, will be coming to the campus on Friday. In addition to being the first diversity officer in Walgreens history, he also wrote an amazing and very moving memoir, A Chance in the World, about overcoming a very difficult childhood.