FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- The chancellor of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale has been named the sole finalist in a months-long 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 using technology to boost online enrollment at the university that has a $750 million operating budget and nearly 18,000 students. She also weathered cuts in funding from debt-ridden Illinois while public support for the 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 whittled down hundreds of resumes to 60 potential candidates. It chose three finalists but only Cheng agreed to meet with a quorum of regents. The board is expected to approve her hire later this month to succeed John Haeger, who planned to retire when his contract expires in June 2015.
The 28-member 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 freshmen with computer tablets pre-loaded with materials needed for classes, established a distance-learning program that increased online course enrollment by 36 percent in the 2012-13 school year and ramped up recruiting efforts, 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 education key to their missions and serve large percentages of students who, like her, 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.
Overall enrollment at Southern Illinois University has declined since Cheng became chancellor in mid-2010. The fall 2010 enrollment topped 20,000, but it was fewer than 18,000 in fall 2013. Officials believe the turning point was in the fall 2013 freshman class - the university's largest in 20 years.
Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University system, lauded Cheng as an effective administrator, crediting her with improving the Carbondale campus' enrollment and expanding its research.
"I think as we see from her record, she's made good investments and gotten things accomplished that I believe can pay dividends for us in the future," Dunn told The Associated Press.
Cheng spent 22 years in teaching and administrative roles at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before she became chancellor and a professor of accounting at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
She oversaw bargaining that resulted in new contracts for the staff in 2011 after the faculty went on strike for a week seeking better wages and flexibility in curriculum. Cheng changed the school's oversight process after a former employee was charged with stealing $33,000 from the Student Health Center this year.
Cheng is scheduled to be in Flagstaff on Thursday to hear from students, faculty and the community at a public forum.
The faculty 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 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 students.
"Sounds like she's got a lot of good experience," student body President Jillian Zuniga said. "We're really excited to build a relationship with her."
Haeger, whose yearly compensation package as NAU president totaled $462,000, plans to return to NAU as a professor in higher education leadership and governance.
Associated Press Writer Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.
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