Regents announce sole finalist for NAU president

FLAGSTAFF, AZ - The chancellor of Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus has been named the sole finalist in a monthslong search for the next president of Northern Arizona University.

The Arizona Board of Regents announced the selection of Rita Cheng at its meeting Friday in Flagstaff. The regents praised Cheng for her innovation in using technology to boost online enrollment at Southern Illinois, a university with a more than $750 million budget and nearly 18,000 students. She also weathered cuts in funding from debt-ridden Illinois while public support for university declined.

"Her impeccable credentials uniquely posture her to continue NAU's success, and we are confident in her ability to do so," board Chairman Rick Myers said.

A search committee looked at hundreds of resumes, narrowing the list of potential candidates to 60. In the end, it chose three finalists but only Cheng agreed to meet with a quorum of regents. Her selection is expected to be approved by the board later this month. She will succeed John Haeger, who planned to retire when his contract expires in June 2015.

The 28-member presidential search committee set its sights on someone who would strengthen the university's research, graduate and professional programs, and come up with new ways to serve students far from NAU's main campus in Flagstaff. NAU has a budget of $460 million and serves more than 26,000 students at dozens of campuses statewide and online.

At Southern Illinois, Cheng implemented a program that provided incoming freshmen with computer tablets pre-loaded with materials they would need for classes and established a distance learning program that increased online course enrollment by 36 percent in the 2012-13 school year, the universities said.

Cheng told The Associated Press that Southern Illinois and Northern Arizona are similar in that they have diverse student populations, make distance learning a part of their missions and serve a large percentage of students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Cheng, 61, said she looks forward to building on the successes under Haeger's 13-year tenure, which include a 40 percent rise in enrollment and a guarantee to keep tuition flat for incoming freshman for four years.

"I've been aware of the significant, growing stature of NAU over the years," she said.

Enrollment at Southern Illinois University has declined since Cheng became chancellor in mid-2010. Enrollment that fall was more than 20,000 and dropped to fewer than 18,000 in fall 2013. However, the freshman class in fall 2013 was the university's largest in 20 years, marking what officials believe is a turning point.

Southern Illinois spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said Cheng has focused on selling the university's brand and marketing the school in major cities like Chicago and St. Louis, outside Illinois and in the international community.

Cheng spent 22 years in teaching and administrative roles at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before she started at Southern Illinois as chancellor and a professor of accounting.

She is scheduled to be in Flagstaff on Thursday to hear from students, faculty and the larger community. Myers said Cheng has undergone an extensive background check and doesn't believe anything would come forward to make the board reconsider.

The faculty at NAU will be looking to Cheng to promote the development of educators outside the classroom and put faculty salaries on par with peer institutions.

Faculty Senate President Astrid Klocke, an associate professor of humanities, said Haeger was a great listener who personalized education for students and promoted NAU's long history of distance education.

"I hope the new president will continue the trajectory we've been on," she said. "It's a much better place than it was in 2002 when I came on."

Student leaders say they are impressed by Cheng's drive and passion to advocate for student voices.

"Sounds like she's got a lot of good experience," said student body president Jillian Zuniga. "We're really excited to build a relationship with her."

Haeger, whose yearly compensation package at NAU totaled $462,000, plans to return to NAU later as a professor in higher education leadership and governance. He said the new president will be challenged by enrollment that has slowed at the main campus, a backlog of maintenance projects and trying to increase salaries at the university.

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