Students, Faculty Remember NCCU Chancellor Who Lost Battle With Cancer

Nov 29, 2016

A memorial honoring Debra Saunders-White sits in the middle of the NCCU campus, next to the statue of the school's founder.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Flowers and other memorials are being placed around the North Carolina Central University campus in Durham as students and staff remember their late chancellor, Debra Saunders-White.

There is a wreath and a photo of Saunders-White next to the statue of the university's founder, James E. Shepard. And there are even white bows adorning Debra Saunders-White’s parking space.

Saunders-White died Saturday after what NCCU officials call a "heroic" battle with kidney cancer.

Professor Harvey McMurray headed the faculty senate when Saunders-White was named chancellor in 2013.

“She empowered people and expected them to perform," said McMurray. "She wasn’t indifferent because if you weren’t about protecting her students and ensuring they were successful, you would have a very hard time with her, very hard time."

Derrick Hicks is a graduate student at NCCU and a former student body president. He remembers the first time he met Saunders-White. He was mad a professor wouldn't change his grade.

“And I said, you know what, I’m going to talk to the chancellor, she had just gotten here then.  I said, if the chancellor can’t change this grade, nobody can change this grade.”  

The grade was not changed but Hicks said he will never forget the life-long lessons the chancellor taught him and many other students. Saunders-White suggested he read the book, "Getting to Yes," a well-known book on negotiating.

Saunders-White has been described as a powerhouse of energy. But in August, she took a medical leave of absence from NCCU, a century old historically black university. She came to NCCU from the U.S. Department of Education after working in higher education at Hampton University and at UNC-Wilmington.

Saunders-White was NCCU's first permanent female chancellor. UNC President Margaret Spellings said in a statement, "as a first-generation college graduate, Deb understood the rare opportunities that higher education can provide, as well as the challenges so many young people face in accessing and affording college."

Saunders-White is survived by two children, her mother, three brothers and a host of other relatives and friends. A campus-wide memorial is set for Friday on the NCCU campus. 

She was 59.