ON A MISSION
She’s been doing the job since June 2013.
But on Friday, N.C. Central University officially installed Debra Saunders-White as its 11th chancellor.
“This illustrious place of academic excellence,” she said during her address in McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium. “You are the gateway for opportunity.”
Saunders-White spoke after she was sworn in by Elaine Bushfan, a Superior Court judge and longtime N.C. Central devotee. Her mother, son and daughter stood alongside Saunders-White as she affirmed her oath as the first woman to hold the position of chancellor at NCCU on a permanent basis.
She credited the university’s founder, James Shepard, for having the vision 103 years ago to establish a place of higher learning for the African-American community.
“It is his vision that we celebrate today,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here without his courage and his fortitude.”
She said that it’s no good approaching something like it’s just a job.
“You have to come because you were called,” she said. “You have to come because you are on a mission.”
In her first nine months, Saunders-White has pursued something she calls “Eagle Excellence” or “E-squared,” with a focus on ensuring student success and academic excellence.
During her speech Friday, she announced three new initiatives that fired up the crowd:
-- Collaboration with rapper 9th Wonder, an alum who’ll bring hip-hop to the curriculum of NCCU’s music program as an artist-in-residence.
-- Partnership with the Medialab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to bring innovative technological opportunities to the campus in Durham.
-- Teaming with the Beijing Language and Culture University, to share results of research into the treatment of children with autism.
She noted that some question the relevance of historically black colleges and universities, wondering whether schools such as NCCU can and should survive.
“My response to you, Eagles, is absolutely,” she said. “And N.C. Central must lead the way.”
Saunders-White insisted that she’ll let government leaders know that “quality costs and talents need to be nurtured, and all will hear the message that N.C. Central is a great return on investment.”
Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina System, said that he sees “enormous potential” for NCCU under her leadership.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that she’s the right person to lead N.C. Central today and in the years ahead,” Ross said.
Michael Page, chairman of the Durham County Commission, described Saunders-White as brilliant, insightful and energetic. He called her “simply a breath of fresh air.”
Durham Mayor Bill Bell said the university should be proud of how she hit the ground running and immersed herself in the community from the start.
A former boss spoke on her behalf during Friday’s ceremony. William Harvey, president of Hampton University in Virginia, vouched for her integrity and persistence.
“She’ll make the right decisions at the right time for the right reasons,” he said.
Saunders-White acknowledged what others said repeatedly during the ceremony: Sometimes, the way will grow rocky; the path, difficult to navigate.
“But what is worth having if it was given to us?” she said.
The woman upon whom her father bestowed the nickname of “Jellybean” got her start at an elementary school with Eagles as a mascot, said her brother, Ralph. Now she’s got her eye on new heights for NCCU’s Eagles in Durham.
“It is with our grit, our hard work, that we will forge a new era at NCCU,” she said.
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