Northern Arizona University’s Young Democrats, College Republicans and several other student organizations called for university President Rita Cheng’s resignation Thursday after a state audit revealed in October that she used more than $40,000 from the university for travel expenses without proper documentation.
Aside from Cheng’s improper documentation of university funds, the students cited in a letter how their president has created a toxic work and learning environment, protected her own interests, increased tuition, reduced funding for counseling and health services and has displayed a disrespectful attitude toward faculty.
“Our grievances with her are not new,” Calli Jones, NAU Young Democrats president, said, explaining how the club did surface-level research in order to find a list of sources for their letter.
Their letter has been shared on social media over 70 times and has widespread support on NAU’s campus, Jones and NAU College Republicans President Robert Bean said.
But Kimberly Ott, Assistant to the President for Executive Communication and Media Relations, said Friday the letter has not been sent to Cheng directly.
“We are disappointed that none of the groups . . . listed on the letter, who represent a collective membership of approximately 90 of the more than 30,000 enrolled students of NAU, asked to meet with President Cheng to air their views and engage in a dialogue,” Ott wrote.
Young Democrats and College Republicans joined together to publish the student body’s grievances, making the campaign to get Cheng to step down bipartisan and widespread on NAU’s campus.
The partnership between the clubs was “nothing dramatic,” Jones said.
“We’re all students and we are all suffering,” she said.
The partnership is the university’s first, but won’t be the last, Jones and Bean said.
“I want our campus and other campuses to know that two sides can come together on things that are wrong,” Bean said.
NAU students have seen discrepancies in Cheng’s leadership throughout this entire year, when “tuition was raised with no benefits for us,” Jones said.
The state audit, released in October, reported that the lack of documentation of funds broke rules at both a university and state level which put public funds at risk for misuse, in turn making students question Cheng’s ability to run the university.
“It’s the misuse of funds” that hurts students the most, Bean said.
The results of the audit have reached a state-wide level too, prompting Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, to propose legislation that would require public employees and officials to pay the difference in airfare upgrades if they accumulate one.
Bean explained that it’s not just the “misuse of funds” for travel expenses but the “extravagant expenses” elsewhere around NAU’s campus. Students, like Bean, are upset that Cheng’s focus on new university developments, like a new sports complex, without complete funding leaves the remainder of payments on students and their families.
In response to the audit’s conclusions, Bjorn Flugstad, NAU’s Vice President for Finance, Institutional Planning and Analysis, wrote that the university “appreciated the guidance […] and the opportunity this audit provided to examine and improve documentation practices.”
Ott wrote in an email that the conclusions of the audit “revealed a need for training to strengthen business processes and practices to ensure that transactions related to travel are properly documented,” which the university is doing.
Student leaders at NAU said they would be surprised if Cheng decided to resign, but they hope that their letter is an effective message to the Arizona Board of Regents not to renew her contract in 2022, Jones said.