Debra Saunders-White, a 1979 University of Virginia alumna who had been chancellor of North Carolina Central University, died Nov. 26 in Durham, North Carolina. She was 59.
The school announced in August she was taking a medical leave of absence to treat kidney cancer.
The former U.S. deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs had led NCCU since 2013. Founded in 1910 and located in Durham, North Carolina Central University was the nation’s first publically supported liberal arts college for African-Americans and is one of 17 institutions in the University of North Carolina system.
Saunders-White joined the U.S. Department of Education as deputy assistant secretary in May 2011. She oversaw more than 60 programs devoted to strengthening the capacity of minority-serving institutions and helping recruit and prepare disadvantaged students for successful college completion.
When she was selected to lead NCCU, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded her. “As a first-generation college graduate herself, Deb truly understands both the opportunity that higher education provides and the challenges that so many of our nation’s young people face in accessing and affording college,” he said.
A Hampton native, Saunders-White received a DuPont Scholarship to attend UVA, where she was one of approximately 90 African-American students who entered in 1975. She became a resident adviser in Bonnycastle House, served as president of the Black Student Alliance and pledged the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
A longtime UVA supporter, Saunders-White recalled that life as a black student on a predominantly white campus in the 1970s was challenging. Despite that struggle, she said, “Whatever I’ve been able to achieve in life has been a direct result of my education there.”
She earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the College of William & Mary in 1993 and a doctorate in higher education administration from George Washington University in 2004.
Before entering higher education administration, Saunders-White spent 15 years at IBM, mostly in marketing. She then taught math at a private school in Providence, Rhode Island, for several years. In 1999, Saunders-White went to work at Hampton University as assistant provost for technology, designing and building the university’s first information-technology organization. In 2005, she was promoted to the newly created post of vice president for technology and chief information officer.
Saunders-White left Hampton the following year to join the University of North Carolina, Wilmington as vice chancellor for information technology systems. From 2007 to 2008, she served concurrently as the university’s chief diversity officer and as interim associate provost in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.
Her son, Cecil White III, an Echols Scholar, graduated in 2015 from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce.
Saunders-White is survived by Cecil and a daughter, Elizabeth Paige; her mother, Irene Saunders; her brothers, Roger, Ralph and Kyle Saunders; and their families, a number of other family members and a host of friends.