An Interview With NAU President John Haeger: Looking Back...And To The Future

Oct 7, 2013

At the end of this summer, Northern Arizona University President John Haeger announced his plan to retire at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year. During his presidency, Haeger has helped grown NAU into a research-based campus with an emphasis on brining in first-generation college students and retaining them through graduation. Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris recently spoke with Dr. Haeger about the changes he's seen at NAU during his 12 years as president, and what he imagines the university's future will look like.

Dr. John Haeger, President of Northern Arizona University
Credit NAU

JH: We had been through 8 years of declining enrollment. As an institution we had a structural deficit of $5,000,000.00. And I said, 'Hmmm, we need to make some changes'. And so the first part of the vision was that I thought the institution may have strayed a bit from its core mission. And its core mission is undergraduate residential education. And if we're the best at that, that's our niche and we build everything on top of it: Graduate programs, research. But undergraduate residential education has to be the best. So, we set about doing that. And it took us several years to make the changes we needed and 3 or 4 years, really, to change the enrollment pattern. By the time we got to, maybe, about 2005, we had stabilized enrollment. By the time we got to 2007 we started to see increases. And then there's this year which is 4,700 freshmen. We're really excited about that, and I think Northern Arizona University is known now as one of the best undergraduate residential campuses for students.

GF: I'd like to talk about science and NAU because it seems like NAU is sort of this burgeoning research hotbed, specific to climate change research and ecological restoration.

JH: Those were a planned set of events going back to the end of Governor Jane Hull's administration when the decision was made that Arizona as a state needed to get into the biosciences in a very big way. And that's when the state put money on the table to go out and get T-Gen. So they built T-Gen in Phoenix first; then each of the universities as part of this whole move, there was a research infrastructure built, which built research buildings on the campuses, particularly in the biosciences. So our applied research building was built in that period of time. And then we began to attract faculty - especially the biology and chemistry departments - but also environmental science who could carry forward this research mission. In the case of the Ecological Restoration Institute, it's been very important in terms of research for the public service part of the university. In a sense what we do is help Arizona and the entire West help fight these terrible crown forest fires. But also, we have national and international reputation: And there I go to look at Paul Keim and T-Gen North which now has its own scientists and post doctoral appointments. At the time, when I came, I think Paul Keim's operation was probably Paul and 4 or 5 other people. He must have 60 or 70 employees now, all doing research, getting federal grants and spreading the reputation of the university.

GF: Dr. Haeger, within the university system in the U.S., NAU has one of the highest percentages of first-generation college students. Was that a mission of the university? Was it accidental, or did it happen organically?

JH: First-generation college students have a greater challenge; they tend to look for a campus that is friendlier and has more services to help them make the transition from a high school to a university. And so, that's always been an aspect of the university that we would have more Pell Grant recipients that would come to our campus. And we want to retain those students. And we're doing a much better job of retaining them.

GF: What do you attribute that to?

JH: With the dawn of performance funding, which we're under a system of in Arizona, it doesn't make any difference what your enrollment is at the university. It used to be we were funded based on enrollment. But the reality is enrolling a student is easy. Educating that student and getting them through to a B.A., that's were the performance has to come. And so once performance funding kicked in, student success became an absolute necessity.

GF: In that student success, technology is really changing the face and landscape of higher education. How has that played out at NAU, that technological change?

JH: I was interviewed when I first came as provost, and I said, 'technology is what's going to take over'. Here we are 13 years later and it really has. It is going to change, fundamentally, how we deliver academic programs. And it's not just online. The first generation of online courses is faculty members would often take what they did in the classroom - such as a lecture - and put it online. What we can do today...we know how students learn now. And they don't learn very well by just somebody standing at the front of the room talking to them. How do they learn? They learn by doing.  And sometimes it's their own technologies, or other times it's a faculty member helping them sort through the technologies that are available. So, faculty today don't have to deliver content: Content is everywhere. What they do have to do is work closely with students to get them to interpret and analyze the content that is so readily available. That changes the nature of the classroom. What's really exciting about 21st century universities is, they're so diverse. We have a Flagstaff-based, research-based campus. But, we can reach students anywhere now. We can reach our Chinese students in China. We can reach students in New York. I mean, it's a different age.

GF: You've announced that you'll be stepping down at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year. What are you most proud of in regard to your presidency at NAU?

JH: We are really an excellent university with great faculty and really high-level students. And I think we consciously went about creating that kind of vision for the university. So, that's really nice to see. And along with that came a lot of things like buildings that you had to have if you increased enrollment. And so we've had an incredible spur in the number and types of buildings we've put up on campus. I think we're leading the way in some of the technological innovations that are occurring in higher education. I think, as an institution, we're quite nimble. We take actions pretty fast and that's very unusual. And I think we've really raised the profile of Northern Arizona University in this state.

GF: On the other there anything in particular you feel you might regret, or wish had been done differently during your presidency?

JH: There are all sorts of things! You go back and say, 'I could have done better with this or that particular effort'. When I first came as provost, I was interviewed by The Lumberjack. And, at that time I said technology is going to overwhelm higher education. Here we are 13 years later...I should have pushed that much more aggressively. I wasn't sure that I was right in 2002 or 2003. I'm really sure now. And so I probably could have pushed that along much, much faster.

GF: What do you see as the future of higher education? State funding? Tuition increases? Performance funding? What do you see the future of all that sort of melding together as it relates to NAU?

JH: I think everybody on the campus really has to become fundamentally comfortable with the pace of change, and be willing to lead it, not wait for it. I think that in the future, because of the changing delivery system and the changing way students learn, there are some institutions that are not going to survive. There have been some institutions that have already closed in some states. And so you have to say, alright, we're really healthy right now. Financially, we have people watching our money very carefully. And so we have to make investments, always be making investments in the future. And so right now, we are making those investments. I have a President's Technology Fund: Faculty come to me with a great idea for improving their classroom, their course, their degree...they're going to get supported by the President's Office. And we're investing in personalized learning - that's competency-based education - it's likely the wave of the future. But, you know the one thing NAU can never lose is when the students come to us for undergraduate residential education, they want faculty, and they want them close. And so we have to somehow meld the technology with one of our core missions which is our relationship with students. One of the ways the university has thrived is because we became so much a part of the Flagstaff community. That wasn't always the case. But, we've thrived based on partnerships. We wouldn't have a conference center if it wasn't for the city of Flagstaff. We wouldn't have T-Gen North. Our partnerships with the Flagstaff Medical Center are absolutely critical to what we do. The Flagstaff Unified School District. So, this notion that universities stand, kind of, alone is passe'. If we didn't have those partners, we wouldn't have been successful.