Dr. Rita Cheng cherishes the expected and unexpected. She serves as the 16th president of Northern Arizona University and is internationally recognized for her research and her government and non-profit accounting.


NAU President Dr. Rita Cheng at September’s Professional Women’s Alliance luncheon.

Recently, Cheng was the featured keynote speaker at the Chamber’s Professional Women’s Alliance luncheon, where she shared her personal journey in academia, the challenges she faced, and the opportunities in higher education today, all while inspiring attendees to embrace the unexpected.

Growing up in a rural part of the Midwest, Cheng was expected to marry young and continue on the family farm. Cheng would go on to defy expectations. She attended college, studied accounting and finance, and became a college professor. She’s traveled extensively, worked with people from all over the world, and has played a role in the evolution of higher education.

From day one as president of Northern Arizona University, Cheng has placed an emphasis on making higher education accessible and affordable for all students. Overseeing an operating budget of more than $500 million and 4,600 faculty and staff for the university’s 27,000 students, her top priorities are enhancing students’ success, promoting effective teaching and learning, supporting the research environment, and expanding community engagement.

“Northern Arizona University and my career share certain principles of success: adaptation, hard work and the high value placed on people and relationships,” said Cheng. “My own personal career path is not that different from the evolution we have seen at Northern Arizona University.”

Cheng’s dedication and passion for higher education were apparent as she discussed her focus on the university’s core values and commitment to the student experience.

“It’s important for me to keep the student experience central to my own goals by helping them realize their own dreams,” she added.

Some might say that Northern Arizona University is a small, rural college.

“I would say that’s an expected perception,” Cheng countered. “And I would encourage anyone to consider the unexpected and argue that we are a large university with a large impact within the region we serve and we are an economic force for the state, generating $2 billion annually. Furthermore, 61 percent of NAU graduates stay in Arizona, who collectively tribute $1.65 billion to the economy each year.”

She also touched on the impact of education cuts as well as the overall value of higher education. Northern Arizona University is dealing with a $17.3 million reduction in state funding this academic year, which dropped its per-student funding below 1995 levels, Cheng explained.

And of course, the debate continues on whether education is worth the investment and if college graduates fare any better in tough economic times. Cheng is quick to note that the ongoing question of college affordability weighs heavy on administrators and students alike.

“Those with a college degree earn more, live longer and are healthier. At Northern Arizona University, the cost of a college education is almost the same price as a new car,” Cheng said. “The car will depreciate in value and will ultimately be replaced. A college education is a value proposition for a lifetime.”

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