What is the role of a public university in today’s business world? In the community? Questions like these come up often when I visit with representatives in the private sector and with community leaders who are active in- and-outside of economic development. But as there are multiple business worlds and many communities, depending on which industry, geography or social circles we operate in, the role of the university is multifaceted and complex and intertwined with its educational, research and community engagement commitment.
It’s no secret that NAU is an important economic engine in the community and that one in five jobs in Coconino County is directly or indirectly linked to the university. Additionally, with more than 3,000 employees, an active civic service agenda, and more than 29,000 students, the university’s contribution of volunteer hours to improve health, economic and social outcomes throughout Arizona is substantial – far exceeding the officially reported 400,000 hours. Nearly 500 faculty and staff members dedicate their leadership skills to service on boards, commissions and in professional associations – in a quest to give back, share knowledge and advance professional fields and communities. These efforts reinforce our core mission to serve and prepare students for the workforce and for life, knowing they are the ones who will carry these strong values into the future.
Less visible, but no less impactful, is the cumulative effect of the university’s research and public service agenda. Annually, our research and public service expenditures approach $65 million, supporting initiatives like air quality programs, natural resource management, Native American cancer prevention, preparation of high school students for college and careers, research on infectious diseases, and many others. The impact of these initiatives is real, timely and often transformative to the individuals and our society.
While our successes can’t be tracked through quarterly earnings reports and many, especially research investments have long-term returns, we are an integral part and a result of a prosperous community. Because of the university’s complex mission, infrastructure and expertise capacity, we also act as a catalyst or facilitator in creating partnerships that advance goals transcending any individual organization. Phoenix Biomedical Campus, High Country Conference Center, CCC2NAU, EcoNA are just a few such examples in the recent history that were created as a result of collaboration and willingness to experiment and, yes, even to risk.
It is, however, the people who are the power behind the engine and there are only a few places that inspire creativity, innovation and action as much as Flagstaff and Northern Arizona University. Together, we truly make a difference.
By Rita Cheng
Rita Hartung Cheng is the president of Northern Arizona University.