NCCU's new chancellor promotes technology on her first day

jstancill@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2013 

— It was fitting that Debra Saunders-White connected with students via Twitter and Google during her first day on the job as N.C. Central University’s new chancellor.

Saunders-White, a former IBM systems engineer and IT administrator at both Hampton University and UNC Wilmington, light-heartedly calls herself “the technology lady.”

At the student union Monday, she coined a new motto for NCCU, as she talked about better graduation rates, community engagement and global experiences for students.

“Eagle Excellence,” she said to the crowd. “I like to call that E-squared.”

A dreary day didn’t cloud the welcome event, where Saunders-White received the key to the city from Durham Mayor Bill Bell and was serenaded by the university’s marching band.

“I grew up in a house where we believed you can’t have flowers if you don’t have rain,” she said. “So for me, it is indeed a spectacular morning.”

Saunders-White, most recently the deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the U.S. Department of Education, succeeds former appellate court judge Charles Becton, who took over when former Chancellor Charlie Nelms stepped down last year.

In ushering in a new era, NCCU also celebrates its first female chancellor who is not an interim leader. As that point was made repeatedly Monday, a number of women in the audience nodded their approval.

“It just shows how much this campus has grown to have a woman as chancellor,” said Cherita Jones, a senior mass communication major from Durham. “It means a lot to see a woman (here).”

Goals for the future

Saunders-White first had the students in the audience stand up. “This is about you,” she told them, adding, “We will ensure that no dream gets deferred.”

She also signaled high expectations for the 8,600-student university, where only 42 percent of entering freshmen in 2006 had received a degree six years later. Saunders-White was specific in talking about academic achievement “in four years,” and she quoted Aristotle who said that excellence is “not an act, but a habit.”

A higher graduation rate is a goal across the 16-college UNC system, but Saunders-White said it’s her goal, too.

“I am absolutely committed that we need to ensure that our students come in and are crossing the stage within a four-year period,” she said. “So I’m going to be working with our faculty and our administrators to understand what we need to do to realize that dream. ... It’s clearly what we need to do across our nation. You know, the longer a student stays within the academy, the more debt that they assume.”

She said it is her hope that future graduates of NCCU are “techno-scholars,” and she encouraged students to engage in the global community by using “the good elements of technology.”

Saunders-White may be a technocrat, but she started her academic journey as a Southern history major at the University of Virginia. She later earned an MBA from the College of William and Mary and a doctorate in higher education administration from The George Washington University.

‘I believe in our mission’

The role of historically black colleges and universities is not only rooted in history, she said, but also in sync with today’s environment.

“In the 21st century some are questioning the relevance of HBCUs,” she said. “I’m here because I believe in our mission. I believe that we are relevant within the 21st century, more so now than ever before. We have traditionally served the underserved. We do that extraordinarily well.”

Her college-age children joined her for part of the day, though she gently chided them for being late to the morning event when they got lost on campus. Her daughter, Elizabeth Paige, just graduated from Temple University and is headed to the University of Florida for law school; her son, Cecil III, is a student at the University of Virginia.

They have spent the last week getting to know Durham, hitting the farmers market, shopping at The Streets at Southpoint and dining on chicken and waffles downtown. Up next: a Durham Bulls game.

On her first visit to NCCU during her job interview, Saunders-White asked for more time with students. When she got in the car to leave, she said, she knew she was “an Eagle.”

She plans to eat in the student cafeteria regularly to continue the conversation, she said.

“I want them to leave NCCU understanding that this place really made a difference in their lives. ... You can’t do this job if you don’t love being around the students and seeing their bright eyes.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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