A few showers could not dampen the enthusiasm at North Carolina Central University as the campus community welcomed Chancellor Debra Saunders-White on Monday, June 3, at the Alfonso Elder Student Union. Accompanied by the Marching Sound Machine, the university’s new leader entered the student union to a standing ovation.
“We are grateful that Chancellor Saunders-White accepted the call to stand at the helm of NCCU,” said Wendell Davis, vice chancellor for administration and finance and co-chair of the chancellor transition committee.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell welcomed Saunders-White with a key to the city and a joke: “You don’t need a key,” he said. “We haven’t changed the locks.” Bell also praised the partnership between NCCU and the City of Durham. “We pride ourselves on fine partnerships, and Durham shares Dr. Shepard’s motto of ‘Truth and Service,’ ” he said.
Additional speakers greeting Saunders-White included NCCU Student Government Association president Stefan Weathers; Paul Pope, a member of the NCCU Board of Trustees; Frankie Perry, president of the NCCU Foundation Board of Directors; and Calvin Kearney, vice president of the NCCU Alumni Association. Kearney presented the chancellor with an alumni association lapel pin. “That is a statement of her support to more than 30,000 NCCU alumni,” Kearney said.
Saunders-White is the first woman appointed to the permanent position of chancellor at NCCU and the second female chancellor to serve at any of the UNC system’s five historically black universities. “It is great to see a sister rise to the top,” said Perry. “Her credentials are impeccable.”
In her own remarks, Saunders-White vowed to continue the university’s strategic plan and its five goals, speaking specifically about increasing four-year graduation rates, leadership in community engagement and improved internal communication through technology.
“I return to North Carolina to be one of the people our founder spoke of,” Saunders-White said, “one who builds people up, not pulls them down.” Her promise to students was simple: “To ensure that every dream you come here with is fulfilled. We will ensure that no dream gets deferred.”
Before her appointment as chancellor of NCCU on Feb. 8, Saunders-White served as assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. She previously worked as a technology administrator at both Hampton University and UNC Wilmington and began her career as a systems engineer at IBM, and she said she has often been known as “the technology lady.” “In the 21st century, all of us need to embrace the good elements of technology,” she said.
She invited the NCCU community to join her on a journey to excellence through what she called “E-Squared,” Eagle Excellence.
In conversations with reporters later in the morning, Saunders-White amplified on her plans to focus on the university’s four-year graduation rate, rather than the six-year rate that is the common benchmark for universities nationwide. “It’s a signal I’m sending to the campus community,” she said. “We need to ensure that our students are crossing the stage in four years. The longer students stay in the academy, the more debt they take on.”
Responding to a reporter’s question about the purpose of historically black colleges and universities, she acknowledged that “in the 21st century, some people question the relevance of HBCUs.” But she added, “I believe in our mission, more so now than ever. We serve the under-served extraordinarily well.”
Later that afternoon, Chancellor Saunders-White connected to students through a Google Hangout. Using the hashtag #NCCUWelcome the chancellor took questions and encouraged students to "keep talking to me."