Rita Cheng forum 101817

Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng spoke about the state of the university at a town hall meeting with faculty, staff, students and the public Wednesday.

Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng announced Wednesday afternoon that a new community liaison and a new diversity officer will be coming to the university soon. Cheng made the announcement at a town hall meeting she holds at least once every semester.

NAU’s first diversity officer, Carmen Phelps, resigned in March after being on the job for about seven months. The office was part of a list of 22 demands made by NAU students in December 2015 to increase the school’s diversity awareness and to make students of diverse backgrounds and races or from the LGBTQ community feel more welcome. Phelps’ position was part of Cheng’s cabinet and was supposed to bring student concerns directly to Cheng.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Cheng said that many improvements have been made in services for diverse students in the university’s Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Student Services. Students now not only have access to study space and mentoring/counseling programs in the IMSS office but a new organization, NAU Cares. The organization is supposed to be a team of facility, staff and students that can mentor and counsel students and collaborate on making NAU a more diversity-friendly campus, she said.

Cheng added that university officials plan to meet in a special session with the Flagstaff City Council in January on problems and concerns between the city and the university. They will also discuss plans for a new city/university liaison the university and city hope to have hired before the end of the school year.

The city and university have been negotiating possible changes to the job description for the liaison position since the first person hired for the position, Karissa Morgan, resigned in May. Morgan was hired to fill the position in August 2016.

The position was created and funded jointly by the city of Flagstaff and NAU last year as a go-between for students living off-campus and their Flagstaff neighbors. It came in the wake of complaints of rowdy parties in Southside and at The Grove, leading the council to pass a tougher party ordinance. One party in the fall of 2015 on Franklin Avenue spawned a fight that involved the shooting of four NAU students, one fatally.

In May, city spokesperson Meg Roederer said that the vacancy was to be filled by an internal search involving only city of Flagstaff and NAU employees.

Cheng also answered a handful of questions from the public and students online and in person.

One student asked about protections for students who were part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as Dreamers.

“It’s a big deal,” Cheng acknowledged.

She said she has signed on to a letter from more than 400 other universities and colleges in the U.S. asking President Donald Trump and Congress to reinstate the program. She also said that she has signed on to a letter from the Arizona Board of Regents and other Arizona Universities to Arizona’s congressional delegation asking them to support the program.

In the meantime, ABOR and the state universities are planning to fight a lawsuit filed by the Arizona Attorney General that challenges the universities’ right to charge in-state tuition for DACA students, Cheng said. While preparing for that fight, NAU is seeking outside help to gather funds that would cover the difference in tuition for DACA students should the universities lose the lawsuit.

A Flagstaff resident who didn’t identify herself asked if the university planned more student housing projects for the south side of campus.

Cheng said the university recently opened one new dormitory, Sky View Hall, this year and that the new honors college dorm should be open in fall 2018. The university doesn’t currently have plans to build more student housing.

“We’re letting the dust settle on our current construction so we can make sure that we don’t overbuild,” Cheng said.

She also pointed out that the south side of campus doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure for water, sewer and other utilities yet.

Cheng said NAU couldn’t force all of its students to live on campus even if it wished. Students need to make their own decision.

She added the university currently has more than 9,000 beds on campus, and with new projects like The Hub and Fremont Station adding thousands more beds off-campus, there should be more than enough supply.

Another student asked about the increase in minimum wage for student workers on campus and if students at all wage levels could expect an increase.

Cheng announced a change in the lowest paid student and temporary employee minimum wage levels from $8.05 to $8.50 an hour last month. The university also increased the wages of at least 100 regular full-time employees from $10.50 to $12 an hour.

Cheng said most student jobs pay more than the minimum wage already and pointed out that Social Security benefits are not deducted from most student jobs on campus.

Jane Kuhn, the university’s vice president of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, said her office was working on a review of student employment positions across all of the university’s departments. The review found a number of discrepancies in wages, titles and skills called for in similar student jobs in different departments. The Student Affairs Office is working on a plan that would make sure that similar positions in different departments, such as office assistants, require the same skill sets and are paid the same wage.

A third student asked about traffic control on campus. Staff said that the university was working on a multi-modal study of traffic on campus to determine how to improve streets and traffic flow.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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