On November 26, our nation lost a fearless champion for students, for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and for higher education in America with the passing of North Carolina Central University Chancellor Dr. Debra Saunders-White. Dr. Saunders-White was a visionary and innovative leader who ensured the success and vitality of the university where she served as the 11th and first permanent female chancellor. I also had the privilege of knowing her personally through my service on the NCCU Board of Trustees, during which time I developed a unique bond with her as a parent, friend and colleague.
âEagle Excellence,â a mantra coined by Dr. Saunders-White, became standard operating procedure at NCCU — until she took it the next level by insisting on âE-squared.â This was simply the way she lived her life. In her Installation speech on April 4, 2014, she quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from remarks he gave on April 4, 1967, saying: âWe are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.â
In her three-and-a-half short years as chancellor of NCCU, Dr. Debra Saunders-White invoked that fierce urgency of ânowâ to institute changes in the higher education landscape. She was a bold promoter of innovative academic programs, new enrollment initiatives, and cutting-edge and game-changing research opportunities that would transform North Carolina Central University into an institution of true distinction.
Over the nearly four years that I knew Dr. Saunders-White, I became increasingly impressed with her passion, enthusiasm and commitment to the universityâs No. 1 priority, student success. NCCU recorded significant increases in critical performance-indicator areas, including retention and graduation rates. The positioning of the universityâs two research institutes became more prominent during her tenure. Dr. Saunders-White transformed vital higher education programs and developed partnerships that have returned needed financial resources to the university in support of student growth and achievement.
One example of Dr. Saunders-Whiteâs innovative approach to academic programming is a partnership she created with the president of Durham Technical Community College in 2014. Called Eagle Connect, the initiative was the first residential, dual-enrollment, transfer admissions program in the Triangle region of North Carolina.
Dr. Saunders-White also led efforts to establish a three-year pilot initiative known as the Minimum Admissions Requirement program. With data showing that GPA is a better indicator of academic success than standardized tests, the initiative adopted by the UNC Board of Governors allows three institutions, including NCCU, to admit a small group of students who have ACT or SAT scores that fall slightly below the UNC systemâs standard requirements, but have a GPA that is higher than the UNC system requirement. The first cohort of students was admitted for the fall 2015 term.
Early in her administration, Dr. Saunders-White established the following priorities for ensuring student success and academic excellence through Eagle Excellence:
- Retaining and graduating students in four years,
- Raising critical scholarship funds, and
- Providing innovative academic instruction to prepare students for work in the global marketplace.
In those areas, North Carolina Central University has experienced tremendous growth and progress. NCCUâs retention rate increased from 69 percent to 82 percent between 2013 and 2016. In May 2016, the university graduated its largest class of students, with a record 1,156 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees conferred. This Saturday, December 10, the university will graduate its largest group of students for a Fall Commencement, with more than 600 students earning their degrees.
Dr. Saunders-White has made âEagle Excellenceâ the fabric that defines NCCU in other ways, as well. The 2014-2015 fiscal year recorded $7.6 million in donations to the university and an alumni giving rate of 15 percent, the second highest in the University of North Carolina (UNC) system. In 2015-2016, the university raised nearly $7 million in private donations.
Her acute focus on fiscal review and planning was another highly successful initiative. Dr. Saunders-White promoted a shared governance model and worked with her administration and members of the faculty and staff senates to implement a strong new financial foundation for the university, allowing it to earn the maximum compliance target rating for fiscal fitness within the UNC system.
Her voice sounded out nationally as she spoke out about access and affordability in higher education. Her commitment to these causes helped rally her colleagues to similarly champion issues of critical importance, especially those impacting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I know that her voice on issues such as Pell Grants and Parent Plus Loans prompted changes by the U.S. Department of Education.
Yet, with all her accomplishments and accolades, it may be the students who will miss her the most. Over the past week, many have recalled her genuine openness, her warm and generous spirit and her desire to be their strongest advocates and loudest cheerleaders. She inspired students in 2014 to rally for a new Student Center to replace the 50-year-old facility on campus. She worked with members of the North Carolina State Legislature to ensure that NCCU was included in the Connect NC Bond that is providing $30 million toward the design and construction of a new School of Business to foster an interactive, high-touch and innovative business-learning environment. Construction on both these facilities, which were approved in 2016, is expected to begin in 2019.
At the Celebration of Life tribute held in her honor at NCCU on December 2, I noted that it is quite amazing to look back on her numerous contributions to this university and the many lives she positively touched in such a short timeframe. I am also personally inspired by the way she lived her life. And I am humbled to have witnessed a small part of Dr. Saunders-White in action.
What a great woman, what a great colleague and friend, and what a great legacy for us to build upon at NCCU.
In addition to serving as Chair of NCCUâs Board of Trustees, George Hamilton is a member of Higher Education Worksâ Board of Directors.