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NAU and the Knowledge Economy

ChengThere’s a lot of talk about the “knowledge economy,” much of which is presented as if it’s something new; as if knowledge hasn’t always been the differentiator between the average and the exceptional, the special sauce that makes one enterprise succeed while others falter.

The railroad was a knowledge economy breakthrough, providing a far superior mode of transportation for people and freight than an ox team, and railroad development was based on what we now call STEM professions: science, technology, engineering and math. In the transportation field, the railroad as people-mover gave way to the automobile and the airplane, and air travel itself went from short-hop prop planes to jumbo jets – all driven by advances in knowledge.

Flagstaff’s very existence is in part a result of this knowledge-driven transportation economy, with the railroad and Route 66 allowing people to put down roots and businesses to grow. And grow they have. In fact, the four largest employers in Flagstaff – Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff Medical Center, Flagstaff Unified School District and W. L. Gore & Associates – are all in the knowledge business, either as generators of new ideas, products and processes or as organizations that are “all in” on the discovery, use and advancement of knowledge.

At heart, NAU is all about the knowledge business: developing new ideas that translate into jobs, providing energy and guidance to businesses throughout the region through the work of our faculty and staff, and awarding more than 6,900 degrees annually to skilled and eager graduates ready to propel enterprises in Flagstaff, Coconino County, Arizona, the nation and the world. And these are not your average college students. They consciously made the choice to come to a university that’s a bit different from other institutions in the state, a university that emphasizes close interaction between faculty and students in order to accelerate each student’s intellectual development. They have tackled coursework challenges ranging from computer science to tourism management, from finance to applied geospatial sciences, from community planning to biotechnology. They graduate as confident contributors to our evolving future, ready to succeed.

Tomorrow’s good jobs will require intelligence, adaptability and innovation – all qualities that NAU encourages in our classrooms and laboratories, in our field work and internship programs, in our student organizations and extracurricular options. Our students make their own experience; from the Action Group for Water Advocacy to Ultimate Frisbee, we have more than 300 student-organized, student-led, issue- or activity-focused organizations, all of which allow our students to follow their own passions and create their own opportunities. After all, that’s what our economy needs – new generations of enthusiastic, skilled self-starters. And that’s what we’re producing at NAU.

I was trained as an accountant, and I love a good balance sheet. By any measure, NAU’s impact on the Flagstaff economy shows a healthy profit. FBN

Rita Cheng, Ph.D., is the president of Northern Arizona University.

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