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This year was one of growth and change for Northern Arizona University, as it acquired more than $14 million in properties throughout the city for future development as well as updated various internal policies.

The Arizona community felt the sting of change late in the year as John Wettaw, a former NAU chemistry professor and the longest-serving Republican state legislator in Arizona history, died Dec. 16 at age 79. He taught more than 15,000 students at the university throughout his 47 years there and became the namesake of the NAU Biology and Biochemistry building in 1999.

One thing that is not slated to change soon, though, is university President Rita Cheng, whose contract was extended until 2021 by the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) in September. Cheng has held the position since 2014. The contract extension was paired with $35,000 in at-risk compensation, pending fulfillment of several ABOR goals related to the creation of comprehensive plans and analyses.

Campus expansion

In August, NAU received approval from ABOR for the first of three major land purchases: the former Granny’s Closet property, located just across West Butler Avenue from campus and adjacent to the Hub, a student housing complex that opened this fall. NAU purchased the four combined parcels from Northern Arizona Real Estate Holdings, which works on behalf of the NAU Foundation, for $4,914,000 plus 5 percent interest over the next 20 years.

NAU acquired the land that previously housed Super Pawn and Mandarin Buffet off Milton Road a month later. The land is already bordered on two sides by the university and will serve as a valuable direct access point to Milton Road. The purchase totaled $7.9 million.

The largest purchase, a 120-acre parcel at 1301 South Fourth Street, was approved for purchase at $3 million last month. The previous landowners, interested in using the parcel for educational purposes, contacted the university about the property earlier this year. With the Proposition 419 transportation tax the week prior, the extension of J.W. Powell Boulevard – to connect it to South Fourth Street – will pass through this property. The plans for each of the three properties are still undetermined; however, NAU will now be able to make the decision of what to do with the properties on its own and will not need additional approval from ABOR.

Additionally, the board approved NAU’s capital improvement plan for the 2020-22 fiscal years, which includes the creation of a $139 million multi-discipline/STEM academic/research building, which will be funded with system revenue bonds and is scheduled to begin in 2020. The plan also includes $21.2 million of state appropriations to be used in the renovation and expansion of existing university structures.

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Student safety and recognition

Student safety was a priority this year, especially as 2017 results revealed that sexual assault reports on NAU’s campus increased for the third year in a row, at 34 percent more reports than in 2016. NAU Police Department representatives said the increased reports were likely due to additional students on campus and improved awareness about reporting, though these reports still do not comprise all accounts of sexual assault occurring.

To increase safety of university students, families and visitors, NAU instituted a clear bag policy starting at its May graduation ceremonies. All bags are now searched prior to entering the Walkup Skydome. Guests are limited to one approved clear bag each – including drawstring bags, totes or a one-gallon resealable plastic freezer bag – plus a small clutch purse. Flagstaff Unified School District adopted the policy for its ceremonies as well.

As in other schools throughout the state, numerous NAU students found themselves in limbo following the Arizona Supreme Court ruling in April that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program students are no longer eligible for in-state tuition at state universities and community colleges. President Cheng released a statement saying that the university is partnering with other institutions to ask Congress for legal clarity for DACA students.

Family and friends of student Nick Acevedo protested when the university declined to mention him posthumously at May’s graduation ceremonies. Acevedo, who was a senior psychology major on track to graduate, committed suicide in March. He witnessed the October 2015 shooting where Colin Brough was killed and three other NAU students were injured, an incident that family members say devastated him. The university agreed to honor Acevedo with a posthumous degree in a private ceremony with his family; however, it held firm that recognition at the public ceremonies is not within the school’s policy.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 


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