NCCU alums remember Chancellor Saunders-White

Chancellor Debra Saunders-White

NCCU alums remember Chancellor Saunders-White
December 01
08:30 2016



The proud Eagle Nation of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) continues in deep mourning for the loss of its leader last Saturday, Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, the first permanent female chancellor in NCCU’s history.

Dr. Saunders-White, 59, died Nov. 26 after a courageous battle with kidney cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 2015. She took a medical leave last August.

“So many of you have told me how strong I am with kind adjectives to reinforce it. While I am immensely appreciative of your kind expressions, I must say that as a child of God, I am only here today because of His continued grace and mercy, along with the reassurance of you all,” Saunders-White wrote to all of her supporters in an open letter in October. “Please know that my head is still held up high, delighted to continue to serve my Master as humbly as I know how. I am incredibly grateful for your compassion and love.”

She signed it, “Deb.”

The 11th chancellor in NCCU’s history, Saunders-White came to the school on June 1, 2013. Avon Ruffin, a member of the NCCU Trustee Board until 2015, served as vice chair of the Search Committee, and remembers how impressed the panel was with her commitment to educational excellence.

“In the interview process, we realized that there was something there, and we thought that [she] would be a tremendous asset for North Carolina Central University. So she quickly rose to the top of our list as we looked at potential candidates.”

“It’s a tremendous loss for us,” said Ruffin, a 1975 alumna and widow of a UNC System Board president, the late Benjamin Ruffin. “As a person, she was a sweet spirit. I believe that she had faith …  and her caring for the students of North Carolina Central and that university, and all that she did to pull us out of some really tough times, is an example of the greatness of her leadership.”

Mable Stevenson, president of the NCCU Winston-Salem Alumni Association, recalled how Dr. Saunders-White always walked the Durham cam-pus, meeting and encouraging students. And when she was in her office, she always made time to meet with people who wanted to speak with her.

“She was always very warm, and she made you feel that you were important,” Stevenson, a 1963 alumnae, recalls. “I can see her now, running up the steps at football games. It’s a big loss. She accomplished so much.”

Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson, like many other leaders of HBCUs throughout the state and nation, mourned the untimely death of his friend and colleague.

“As an alumnus of NCCU and a good friend of Debra’s, I mourn alongside the NCCU community and her family,” Dr. Robinson said in a statement. “Her commitment to students and her passion for education was evident as she led my alma mater to even greater distinction.

“The WSSU community offers its condolences to Dr. Saunders-White’s family, friends and the entire North Carolina Central University family.”

A native of Hampton, Virginia, Dr. Saunders-White earned her bachelor’s degree in history in 1979 from the University of Virginia, and a master’s in business administration from The College of William and Mary in 1993. In 2004, Saunders-White earned a doctorate in higher education administration from George Washington University.

In addition to her academic credentials, Saunders-White spent 15 years in the corporate sector, working at IBM in 1979 as a systems engineer, rising to marketing and management before she left. She later taught college preparatory math in Newport, R.I.

In 1999, Saunders-White became provost for technology at Hampton University, and in 2006 she went to UNC-Wilmington to become vice chancellor of information technology systems. While there, Saunders-White improved emergency communications for campus safety and cost effective classroom technologies.

Saunders-White accepted an appointment by the Obama Administration in May 2011 to serve as deputy assistant secretary for Higher Education Programs (HEP), administering more than 60 programs totaling nearly $3 billion annually.

In February 2015, she was chosen to become the first permanent female chancellor in NCCU’s history, assuming the post in June of that year.

“Chancellor Saunders-White was an effective leader, steering the University toward innovative teaching with a renewed focus on STEM programs,” says U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-NC-1). “She always encouraged her students to strive for ‘Eagle Excellence.’  Her vision for NCCU and passion for uplifting all HBCUs left a lasting mark on the future of our students.

“Chancellor Saunders-White will be sorely missed, but her legacy will not be forgotten.”

A memorial service was held on the NCCU campus Monday evening, followed by a candlelight vigil with students, faculty and administrators.

In her honor, a ‘Celebration of Life Tribute’ will be held on Friday, Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. in NCCU’s McDougald-McLendon Arena. Saunders-White’s funeral is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 3 at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (414 Buckroe Avenue, Hampton, Virginia 23664) in Virginia.

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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