Dr. Rita Cheng knows the transformative power of higher education. Born in a small Wisconsin town, the daughter of a farmer and a schoolteacher, she grew up where opportunity was limited. She also came of age at a time when the options for women were few and professional ambition was seen as a man’s domain. Hemmed in by rural borders and social norms, Dr. Cheng knew that she couldn’t wait for opportunity to find her, she needed to seek it out and create her own success.
She pursued it tirelessly. She attended college as a first-generation student while traveling with her husband as they began building their life together. Ultimately, she attended five universities in four states before earning her first degree. After that she earned an MBA from the University of Rhode Island and entered the doctoral program at Temple University while raising their children. She persisted throughout it all, driven by the value of education instilled in her by her mother and the unshakeable work ethic of small-town America.
Apart from giving her more opportunity, her non-traditional degree path had another impact—it demonstrated how higher education can lead to social mobility. She knew she wanted to play a greater role in bringing that change to people’s lives.
“I ultimately decided to devote my career to higher education because it transformed my life and I see how it changes lives every day.”
From career to calling
Her career began at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee as a faculty member. She was there for more than 20 years and ultimately became Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. Following those successes, she served as Chancellor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she oversaw a complete turnaround in enrollment decline.
When the opportunity came to bring that transformative energy to Northern Arizona University, she knew it would be a great fit. NAU’s devotion to students and dedication to research combined to form an academic and professional home where she could lead more opportunity for more students in more ways.
Pushing NAU to climb higher
Since 2014, Dr. Cheng has brought her personal and professional experiences to bear, creating results that have driven the NAU mission to new heights: expanding the community to include 30,000 students throughout the state of Arizona and 4,600 employees, generating tremendous economic impact – nearly $1.6 billion every year, growing research expenditures by 25 percent to $40 million, boosting overall enrollment by about 10 percent, and making progress toward a goal of becoming the leading university serving Native Americans.
She is thrilled to be part of NAU, inspired by the opportunity to bring change into people’s lives, and driven by her vision for NAU’s future in Arizona and beyond.