DURHAM — Debra Saunders-White took the oath of office as N.C. Central University’s 11th chancellor on Friday and announced partnerships that will take the campus in new directions of music, technology and education.
In a ceremony with academic regalia and soaring student performances, Saunders-White was presented with a pewter medallion and the university’s mace. She took the oath of office as her mother, son and daughter held the family Bible.
There was fun along with the pomp. The W.G. Pearson Elementary School Choir gave a spirited and choreographed rendition of “Happy,” the pop hit by by Pharrell, along with R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”
The lyrics were fitting. Ten months into her tenure at NCCU, Saunders-White has repeated her motto “Eagle Excellence,” or “E-squared,” as the one-time math teacher and IBM systems engineer says.
“We ask our students to be fearless. We ask our students to allow their intellectual curiosity to create new thought,” she said. “We teach our Eagles the rewards of selflessness and carrying out the values of truth and service throughout their lives.”
One of her goals is to improve graduation rates – but more than that, to encourage students to finish their degrees on time in four years. And she aims for NCCU students to be “techno-scholars,” well-versed in technology but rooted in NCCU’s liberal arts tradition.
She announced three new initiatives Friday. The university will create a Hip Hop Institute, with record producer, rapper and NCCU alumnus Patrick Douthit – better known as 9th Wonder – as visiting artist-in-residence. The university also will establish a media lab in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to train students and reach out to the Durham community with science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Saunders-White will travel to China later this month to ink a deal with the Beijing Language and Culture University for exchange programs, with a particular emphasis on NCCU’s communication disorders program that deals with autism.
Before she started at NCCU last June, Saunders-White was acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, formulating policy around financial aid, international and foreign language programs. Previously, she was a technology administrator at UNC Wilmington and at Hampton University in Virginia after a 15-year stint at IBM.
The ceremony, held in NCCU’s gym, included remarks from family and colleagues, faculty, staff, students and UNC President Tom Ross, who said: “There is not a doubt in my mind that Debra Saunders-White is the right person to lead North Carolina Central University today and in the years ahead.”
An early mentor, Hampton University President William Harvey, said he watched Saunders-White sharpen her skills as he promoted her through administrative ranks. “She never stopped learning, never stopped growing, never shrank in the face of adversity,” he said, “never grew too tired to see more and greater experiences.”
Harvey said Saunders-White would help the public see the continued value of historically black colleges and universities. “Standing up for HBCUs is not always the easiest thing to do,” Harvey said, “but it’s the right thing to do. I am glad to have her on the HBCU team.”
Her brother, Ralph Saunders, now principal of Bethel High School in Hampton, described how Saunders-White set a standard of excellence in the family. She would place her straight-A report card “nice and neat on the kitchen table,” he said, as he and brother Roger tended to keep theirs hidden. Members of her extended family wiped away tears when Ralph Saunders remarked that their Papa would have been proud to see his “Jellybean” become chancellor of NCCU.
On the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Saunders-White cited the leader who said, “We’re confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
Three-quarters of NCCU’s 8,100 students are the first in their family to go to college or eligible for federal Pell Grants for lower income students. NCCU is one of the most affordable universities among its peer group in the United States, she said. NCCU students pay it forward, she said, in the form of community service required for graduation. Last year, they gave nearly 200,000 hours of service valued at more than $3 million to Durham, she added.
“There are some who are asking the question in the 21st century, ‘Are HBCUs still relevant? Can and should they survive?’” she said. “My response to you, Eagles, is absolutely. They must survive. North Carolina Central University must lead the way.”