Debra Saunders-White, chancellor of North Carolina Central University, died of cancer Saturday, a little more than three years after she brought a can-do spirit and the mantra of “Eagle Excellence” to campus.
Saunders-White, 59, arrived at NCCU June 1, 2013, becoming the first permanent female leader and the 11th chancellor of the historically black university in Durham. She was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2015 and took a medical leave of absence from the university on Aug. 8.
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University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings said Saunders-White would be remembered for her dedication to the university she served.
“The UNC system lost a great leader today,” Spellings said in a statement Saturday. “With the death of Deb Saunders-White, we also lost a valued colleague and friend. Deb loved NCCU with all her being and treated each of its students as her very own. She called them her light and her inspiration as she waged her battle with cancer. As a first-generation college graduate, she understood the rare opportunities that higher education can provide, as well as the challenges so many young people face in accessing and affording college.”
Tributes poured in for Saunders-White as news of her passing spread Saturday.
Duke University President Richard Brodhead said: “Debra was a wise and brave leader whose legacy will last far beyond her years. We join the NCCU community in mourning her untimely passing.”
Gov. Pat McCrory issued a statement lauding Saunders-White’s commitment to NCCU, education and the Durham community, saying it enriched the state. “Her tenure at NC Central was marked by accomplishment and growth and her leadership, especially in helping us to make critical investments in NC Central, will be missed,” McCrory said.
Under Saunders-White’s leadership, NCCU expanded and broadened its partnerships, including dual degree programs with N.C. State University and a special transfer program with Durham Technical Community College. A new business school will be built as a result of the statewide bond referendum last year, and construction will begin next year on a $36 million student center. The center was approved earlier this year after Saunders-White zealously lobbied the UNC Board of Governors for a center she said was desperately needed.
In late August, after Saunders-White had taken a leave of absence, students held a prayer vigil on campus, holding hands in a circle – and they spread photos of the event with the hashtag #SaundersSTRONG. On Saturday, some shared photos of her on social media. One tweeted a video of the chancellor dancing and making an Eagle Pride hand gesture.
She had been quiet about her illness, but last year, before leading the NCCU community on a breast cancer walk, she disclosed her cancer diagnosis, joking, “But I look great, right?”
She projected an upbeat attitude and pledged to get on with the university’s business. She quoted former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the event and thanked the student, faculty and staff “prayer warriors.”
“You have to accept whatever comes,” she said at the time. “The only important thing is that you meet it with courage and the best that you have.”
Chairman of the NCCU Board of Trustees, George Hamilton, said Saunders-White’s death was a deep loss for him personally, and for NCCU.
He said she led NCCU through a period of continuous improvement. This year, the university was recognized as HBCU of the Year by HBCU Digest.
“She led NCCU through transformational years where the university recorded significant increases in critical performance indicator areas, including retention and graduation rates, and the positioning of our two research institutes became more prominent,” Hamilton said.
Johnson Akinleye, acting chancellor, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said Saunders-White’s passing was painful for everyone.
“Her loss is nearly immeasurable to our community, but her influence on higher education and her genuine love and dedication for NCCU, most especially the students, are clearly evident by her impact in Durham, across North Carolina and throughout our nation,” Akinleye said. “Chancellor Saunders-White was a powerhouse of energy and wit; she spent her life passionately executing on her visionary and transformative strategy of using education to create opportunity.”
Saunders-White came to the university from the U.S. Department of Education after working in administration at Hampton University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She also worked in corporate marketing for IBM. A former math teacher, Saunders-White used to refer to her catchphrase, “Eagle Excellence” as “E-squared.”
At her 2014 inaugural, Saunders-White’s big aims stretched out before her. At the occasion, a choir of schoolchildren sang the Pharrell hit, “Happy.”
“We ask our students to be fearless,” she said that day. “We ask our students to allow their intellectual curiosity to create new thought. We teach our Eagles the rewards of selflessness and carrying out the values of truth and service throughout their lives.”
Saunders-White is survived by two children, Elizabeth Paige and Cecil III; her mother, Irene Saunders; and her brothers, Roger, Ralph and Kyle Saunders, and their families, a number of other relatives and a host of friends.
Plans for a vigil, memorial service and celebration of life were underway Saturday.