Students and faculty across campus called for NAU President Rita Cheng to resign in a letter two weeks ago.
Cheng responded to the letter, which was published on social media Jan. 22.
“I’m not resigning,” Cheng said in an exclusive interview. “The issues that are raised are either old or not factual.”
The #RitaResign Coalition
At the start of the semester, NAU Young Democrats began a campaign calling for Cheng to resign following an audit, which revealed approximately $40,000 of improperly documented travel expenses. Ultimately, this campaign culminated in an open letter being circulated on social media, officially establishing the group as the #RitaResign Coalition.
The bipartisan letter addressed to Cheng was signed by the Young Democrats club, College Republicans club, congressional candidate Eva Putzova and a few other NAU organizations, including the Associated Students for Intersectional Feminism and Civic Engagement Club.
The letter not only addressed concerns related to the state audit, but cited an assortment of other concerns including increased tuition cost, reduced funding for counseling and health services, and Cheng’s dismissal of university “safe spaces.” The students brought up that these issues have resulted in a toxic and deceitful environment.
“The Flagstaff community, students, faculty and staff of NAU continue to experience unsustainable expansion, tuition hikes, pay cuts and overall degradation of our beloved academic institution,” the letter states.
Following the release of the letter, a number of other groups on campus undersigned the letter via a Google survey released by the NAU Young Democrats. As of Jan. 30, the number of signatures was close to 150.
Cheng held a meeting for student leaders Jan. 27, which members of the aforementioned clubs were invited to, but none accepted. Although the #RitaResign Coalition believed they were the only people invited to the meeting, nearly 40 student leaders, including those from ASNAU, attended.
“We expected to be threatened in that meeting, and the administration wasn’t open to changing the time of the meeting so we could bring a lawyer and some adult advocates,” NAU Young Democrats Vice President Sage Taylor wrote on NAU’s public Reddit forum.
A total of seven students from the coalition were asked to meet with the president but responded with a letter that demanded an open forum, not a closed-door meeting.
“Open dialogue is a necessary part of change. While we understand why this invitation was extended, the seemingly closed-door nature of the proposed meeting, to which the #RitaResign Coalition was invited, is clearly an attempt to silence the movement,” the letter stated.
NAU Young Democrats President Calli Jones said the trust between Cheng and students is beyond repair. Jones also said she will continue to unify the campus in opposition to Cheng’s leadership.
Addressing Cheng’s travel, Jones said she is concerned about the amount of money that was called into question, referring to the $40,000 as “a lot of money to misuse.” She is also unhappy with Cheng choosing to fly business- and first-class, arguing that Cheng should only purchase coach tickets when flying on state dollars.
“There’s a lot of questions on transparency,” Jones said. “Students want to know where their money is going.”
Jones described the decision to organize the letter as a simple process. The NAU Young Democrats decided on the day the audit was released that they wanted to advocate for answers on behalf of students.
Jones said the group was happy to have the NAU College Republicans support the letter because Cheng’s leadership concerns transcend politics and affect all students equally.
“I hope that I can sit down with the leaders that sent that letter. I have not had the opportunity yet,” Cheng said.
The coalition continues to demand Cheng’s resignation. If Cheng does not resign, the letter asks that the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) conducts a “full and complete” audit of Cheng’s expenses for the last 5 1/2 years.
Faculty Senate President Gioia Woods called for an external audit of the NAU Foundation to “restore confidence in the institution” during a Jan. 27 Faculty Senate meeting.
In the wake of the viral letter and formation of the #RitaResign Coalition, Cheng addressed individual concerns in an attempt to clear the air.
One of the primary concerns raised by students is Cheng’s recent trip to Russia, as noted by the audit. NAU reimbursed Cheng $30,641 for both business- and first-class tickets used over the course of the trip, as well as two replacement business-class tickets.
Cheng said international travel incurred by the university president is expensed through the Center for International Education (CIE). The CIE exists to “promote all things international,” per NAU’s website, encompassing international admissions, education abroad and incorporating a global perspective into university programs.
Cheng contends that the trip to Russia was advantageous to long-term university relations abroad. The purpose of the trip was to visit Russian universities to discuss opportunities for various schools across the NAU campus.
“We identified right away that the audit didn’t question the intentions of the trip; it was questioning the documentation,” Cheng said.
The trip to Russia included visits to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tyumen and Sochi, where Cheng attended meetings at The State Duma, U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Russia, Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, Sochi State University and the Rosa Khutor, according to an itinerary released by NAU to The Arizona Republic.
The itinerary detailed a number of persons Cheng met with, including former United States Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Russian congressional leaders and Moscow city officials.
Cheng detailed a number of benefits that resulted from her trip to Russia, which included the opening of a joint lab in Tyumen, negotiations for a Russian center at NAU, a potential agreement for an exchange program with Moscow State University and internship opportunities for Hotel and Restaurant Management students in Sochi.
Cheng said the Ponderosa pines in Tyumen, which is in Siberia, closely resemble trees of the Coconino National Forest, which has led to the opportunity to establish a joint-lab for the forestry program. Cheng said this lab qualifies NAU to apply for a $2.5 million grant for the forestry program.
Cheng said international staff has been working diligently to establish relationships in Russia.
“With NAU’s relationship with Moscow State University, Sochi State University and specific Russian government offices, we are seeing significant growth of NAU’s influence in the realm of Russia’s higher education,” Cheng said. “We look forward to a long and fruitful partnership with our Russian counterparts.”
Following the audit’s release, Cheng donated an undisclosed amount to the NAU Foundation — specifically, the President’s Fund for Excellence. The fund is an unrestricted source of money used for expenses incurred by the president deemed not appropriate for state funding. Cheng said this type of fund is not unique to NAU and has existed in a similar fashion for the last three NAU presidents.
“To clarify, I did not reimburse the foundation. I made a donation to the fund,” Cheng said. “The board [of the NAU Foundation] told me they have no problem reimbursing the travel.”
Foundation CEO Rickey McCurry called for a similar distinction, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.
“I would not use the term ‘repay’ because you only repay something that you owe,” McCurry said. “Those dollars that were used to support this trip were in line with what the donors intended those dollars to be used for. There were no dollars that were taken from some other area to support this.”
Cheng said this is not the first donation she has made to the foundation.
In the past, the President’s Fund for Excellence has been used for a variety of different causes. Cheng shared a few notable examples, such as financing a marching band trip to a football game at UA and hosting retirement parties for departing professors.
Cheng also addressed other travel concerns mentioned by students, such as her husband accompanying her on trips. Cheng argued that, in many ways, having her husband along saves the university money, contending that she is able to travel with a smaller staff than other presidents because of her husband’s ability to translate, drive and keep an itinerary.
“It’s quite common for a president to have a spouse there because most of our donors also have their significant others with them,” Cheng said. “So, it would be awkward for me to be alone with a couple asking them for support for the university.”
Thomas Cheng, Cheng’s husband, is the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the university’s W. A. Franke College of Business. ABOR gave Cheng permission to travel with her husband when he is beneficial to the cause, although, in the travels noted in the audit, proper documentation was not provided that proved he added value.
The president also addressed the letter’s claim that “unhealthy” enrollment goals have been set, funded and then not met. Cheng called for students and faculty to consider that she does not set the enrollment goals.
Cheng is not concerned that NAU’s large population of students is creating negative effects on the City of Flagstaff. As a result, she has not discussed lowering enrollment goals with ABOR but did explain that she expects enrollment to plateau in the coming years.
“I feel really bad that the letter was put together without checking the facts,” Cheng said.
Jones is aware of Cheng’s justifications for her travel but still believes that the audit is indicative of larger issues. Jones maintains that there is more to the funding than Cheng is disclosing.
“[Students] just want transparency. We shouldn’t have to pressure [Cheng] like this in order to find out where our money is going,” Jones said. “The way the university is operating is unsustainable.”
ABOR addresses state audit
ABOR released a statement from Chair Larry E. Penley, who addressed the state audit Jan. 10.
Arizona’s public universities are expected to “engage in both national and international travel,” according to the statement Penley wrote. ABOR appreciates Cheng’s strategic engagement in Russia and recognized the School of Forestry as “one of the best in the nation.”
However, Penley’s statement did not entirely absolve Cheng’s travel practices.
“Foremost, the board holds itself accountable to ensure compliance with the law and policies at the highest level,” Penley wrote. “Strengthened policies and procedures in NAU’s travel documentation are critical. The board is working closely with NAU to take every precaution to prevent any future lapses.”
ABOR takes the oversight of public dollars seriously, insisting that Cheng complies with travel policies moving forward. The board will “vigorously” oversee the process the university takes to ensure future compliance.
Cheng said NAU has already started to take action in an attempt to embrace the Auditor General’s recommendations.
“We have had 140 people that have been trained [on travel policy], with more coming our way,” Cheng said.