DURHAM Debra Saunders-White’s career has taken her from one of America’s giant computer corporations to two university administrations and ultimately to the U.S. Department of Education. All along, she has blended technology with the classroom.
Now, N.C. Central University is counting on Saunders-White to catapult the campus to the next level.
On Friday, Saunders-White, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, was elected NCCU’s 11th chancellor by the UNC Board of Governors. She is the first woman to be permanently named chancellor at the 8,100-student historically black university in Durham.
In announcing her appointment, UNC President Tom Ross said Saunders-White will be “a forceful and effective leader” for NCCU. She will start the job June 1 at an annual salary of $285,000.
“The stars kind of collided for me when I saw this opportunity emerge,” she said. “I think it will be a really powerful message to have her be our first woman chancellor,” said junior Krysten Sessoms. “To give the women on our campus a bigger voice.”
Harold Epps, chairman of NCCU’s search committee, said Saunders-White has a diversity of skills that was hard to beat, as an information technology professional in business and in higher education, with experience in both minority- and majority-serving universities.
She spent 15 years at IBM as a systems engineer and manager leading education, finance and public sector marketing. She later taught mathematics at St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., where she created a course using technology to engage students who disliked math.
She then moved to higher education in 1999 at Hampton University in Virginia, where she was assistant provost for technology and later vice president for technology and chief information officer. She helped Hampton become one of the “most wired universities,” according to Forbes Magazine and The Princeton Review.
Ross said Saunders-White’s experience will be tapped as the UNC system moves more aggressively into online learning as part of its new five-year plan.
“She brings a level of expertise in technology and in e-learning and in developing courses using technology that is really quite rare, I think, in campus leadership,” he said. After five years at UNCW, she was chosen by the White House in 2011 to serve as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education. She had oversight of 60 programs aimed at strengthening minority institutions – a large grant-making function in the department.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Saunders-White had “worked tirelessly” to help open doors for more students to go to college.
Saunders-White gave credit to her parents. They educated her and her brothers, she said, “without incurring any debt, only from the sweat of their brow.”
She thanked her children, who were at her side Friday – Elizabeth Paige, a senior and track team member at Temple University, and Cecil III, a second-year student at the University of Virginia. She called them her motivation and inspiration.
Saunders-White will take the helm at NCCU at a time when the university has raised academic standards with an eye toward better graduation rates. She said she would continue the work launched by Nelms six years ago to show that NCCU is focused on the future, agile and responsive to regional demands. Those are big shoes to fill, she told the UNC Board of Governors:
“Luckily, I wear heels.”