Published: February 8, 2013
By Jane Stancill — firstname.lastname@example.org
DURHAM — Debra Saunders-White’s career has taken her from one of America’s giant computer corporations to two university administrations and ultimately the U.S. Department of Education. All along, she has blended technology with the classroom.
Now, N.C. Central University is counting on Saunders-White’s unique background to catapult the campus to the next level.
On Friday, Saunders-White, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, was elected NCCU’s 11th chancellor by the UNC Board of Governors. She is the first woman to be permanently named to the chancellor’s role at the 8,100-student historically black university in Durham.
Saunders-White, 57, is a former IBM systems engineer, high school math teacher and technology administrator at both Hampton University and UNC Wilmington. In announcing her appointment, UNC President Tom Ross said Saunders-White will be “a forceful and effective leader” for NCCU. She will start the job June 1 at an annual salary of $285,000.
She will succeed interim chancellor Judge Charles Becton and former chancellor Charlie Nelms, who stepped down last summer.
Wearing an Eagle lapel pin and a suit in the school colors of maroon and gray, Saunders-White called NCCU “one of the jewels” in the UNC system. She pledged to be “a servant leader.”
“The stars kind of collided for me when I saw this opportunity emerge,” she said. “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful people at North Carolina Central University. A rich history. The opportunity to really make a difference for the citizens of North Carolina. And to be a part of Tom Ross’ team. Who would pass that up?”
Saunders-White was celebrated at a packed reception in her honor Friday afternoon, where the university’s jazz ensemble played and well-wishers waited in a long line to greet her. The women in the room were smiling and snapping photos.
“I think it will be a really powerful message to have her be our first woman chancellor,” said junior Krysten Sessoms. “To give the women on our campus a bigger voice.”
NCCU leaders said Saunders-White brings a mix of skills that will guide a university rooted in the liberal arts tradition but yearning to make its 21st century mark in science and technology.
Harold Epps, chairman of NCCU’s search committee, said Saunders-White has a diversity of skills that was hard to beat, as an information technology professional in business and in higher education, with experience in both minority- and majority-serving universities. She has both a knowledge of North Carolina and national contacts, he said.
“I am ecstatic,” Epps said. “We think we got a good one.”
A native of Hampton, Va., Saunders-White holds an undergraduate history degree from the University of Virginia, an MBA from the College of William and Mary and a doctorate from George Washington University.
She spent 15 years at IBM as a systems engineer and manager who led higher education, finance and public sector marketing. She later taught mathematics at St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., where she created a course using technology to engage students who disliked math.
She then moved on to higher education in 1999 at Hampton University in Virginia, where she was assistant provost for technology and later vice president for technology and chief information officer. She helped Hampton become one of the “most wired universities,” according to Forbes Magazine and The Princeton Review.
In 2006, Saunders-White left Hampton to join UNC Wilmington as vice chancellor for information technology systems. There, she was credited with improving emergency communications, introducing mobile services and helping develop UNCW’s Learning Commons, a library that used technology to enable students to work in teams.
‘A level of expertise’
Ross said Saunders-White’s experience will be tapped as the UNC system moves more aggressively into online learning as part of its new five-year plan.
“She brings a level of expertise in technology and in e-learning and in developing courses using technology that is really quite rare, I think, in campus leadership.” he said. “She’s going to be somebody we call on a lot to help us as we begin to implement the strategic plan.”
Saunders-White said she is an ardent believer in public service and applauded NCCU’s community service graduation requirement.
On the UNCW campus, she created a mentoring program called Seahawks Empowering African-American Men, in which black male faculty worked with students. In Wilmington, she also reached out to the community with computer literacy training for residents of public housing.
After five years at UNCW, she was chosen by the White House in 2011 to serve as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education. There she administered federal programs to improve higher education opportunities for low-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities. She had oversight of 60 programs aimed at strengthening minority institutions — a large grant-making function in the department.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Saunders-White had “worked tirelessly” to help open doors for more students to go to college.
“As a first-generation college graduate herself, Deb truly understands both the opportunity that higher education provides and the challenges that so many of our nation’s young people face in accessing and affording college,” he said in a news release.
Saunders-White gave credit to her parents — her mother who grew up in Northampton County in a sharecropper’s family and her father who was a used car salesman. They educated her and her brothers, she said, “without incurring any debt, only from the sweat of their brow.”
“I believe that quality higher education is transformative and is our nation’s most prized asset,” she said. “Without a doubt it is the most powerful economic engine, especially for a person like me.”
She thanked her children, who were in the audience Friday — Elizabeth Paige, a senior and track team member at Temple University, and Cecil III, a second-year student at the University of Virginia. She called them her motivation and inspiration.
She also quoted W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American activist, sociologist and historian: “If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed up. What he needs is education to turn him around.”
Saunders-White will take the helm at NCCU at a time when the university has raised academic standards with an eye toward better graduation rates. She said she would continue the work launched by Nelms six years ago to show that NCCU is focused on the future, agile and responsive to regional demands. Those are big shoes to fill, she told the UNC Board of Governors.
“Luckily, I wear heels.”