Guest Column: New NCCU chancellor will need help to succeed

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 10:35 AM

North Carolina Central University’s new Chancellor, Debra Saunders-White, “leaned in” as a career woman long before Sheryl Sandberg wrote her current best-selling book of the same title.

She earned degrees in history, business administration and education at top universities. After working for 15 years as a systems engineer at IBM, Dr. Saunders-White transitioned to K-12 math teacher to university administrator to deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, drawing on her corporate experience in technology to hold positions of increasing responsibility.

She is poised to provide visionary leadership to NCCU, which has been underserved by recent administrators who happened to be male. This 21st Century shift to female management comes shortly after NCCU’s centennial celebration. In the for-profit and non-profit sectors, women -previously omitted or not seriously considered in applicant pools - have risen to the executive ranks and frequently exceed the accomplishments of their male counterparts.

Ann Mulcahy was promoted to CEO of the Xerox Corporation in 2001 after her male predecessor led the company to the brink of bankruptcy. She rescued Xerox and was succeeded by an African American female, Ursula Burns, in 2009 - the first time in the history of Fortune 500 firms that a female had replaced female CEO. 

In 2007, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers was forced to resign after stating (in 2005) that there were few women in math and science as a result of “…innate differences between men and women.” He also questioned the role of discrimination in women’s upward professional mobility. After the ensuing controversy and a decline in alumni giving, Summers was replaced by Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female president in Harvard’s 371-year history.

Dr. Saunders-White’s selection as NCCU’s first permanent female chancellor follows a similar pattern. Her two male forerunners were plagued by ethical lapses, fiscal gaffes and technology and human resource failures during their decade of leadership. 

NCCU has not had an effective chancellor since Julius Chambers, who served from 1993-2001.  That has been too long a period for a state university to sustain its stature, credibility and the academic energy required to recruit and retain quality students, faculty and administrators.

Putting all cards on the table face-up, Dr. Saunders-White has inherited a mess, and it will take her full complement of academic, administrative and business skills to get the university back on track. Nonetheless, she has a solid faculty and staff and a strong academic core: law, business, education, biotechnology and several outstanding liberal arts programs. 

She also takes over an attractive campus with “sloping hills” and “verdant green” and a physical plant that may be the finest and most modern ever developed at a historically black college or university.

In a period of political transition, she will have to hit the ground running to maneuver externally to stabilize NCCU’s budget via fundraising and enhanced research and extra-mural funding. An increasingly competitive and more integrated higher-education environment has forced HBCUs to rethink their missions in terms of how to maintain access for traditional minority student populations and the necessity to recruit more white students while maintaining their cultural identities.

Internally, Dr. Saunders-White will have to raise student, staff and faculty morale in the aftermath of the corruption in the unapproved satellite campus in Atlanta, Ga., which resulted in NCCU having to repay more than $1 million to the federal government for fraudulent student loans, and the Minority Colleges and University Consortium, which led to the indictment of a former NCCU provost and her direct report for embezzling hundreds of thousands of grant dollars targeted at closing the minority and white student achievement gap.

Dr. Saunders-White possesses the necessary background and experience to “lean in” and address these challenges. Although she will be heavily scrutinized, in part, due to her gender, Dr. Saunders-White is more than up to the task. But she will need all of us - especially NCCU alumni - to put our shoulders to the wheel. 

We, along with her, must ratchet up alumni contributions so that she can use them in her case statement when she goes into corporate and foundation board rooms to make the “asks.” The old adage that “you have to bring something to get something” is appropriate here, and we have shared responsibilities to anchor her with our support, not allowing her to fail.

The 21st Century may witness the demise of some HBCUs, particularly those unable to compete in the new higher-education paradigm. Dr. Saunders-White is the right leader at the right time to ensure that NCCU does not meet this fate and to continue the legacy of our founder, Dr. James Edward Shepard, and his enduring goal which is inscribed, with economy of expression, in the school motto: “Truth and service.”


Walter Farrell is professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Al-Tony Gilmore is historian and archivist emeritus of the National Education Association and visiting scholar at The George Washington University. Both are NCCU graduates.