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In the Pilot’s Seat

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As the president of Huston-Tillotson University, Colette Pierce Burnette is in pursuit of what makes her happiest: fulfilling her destiny as an educator by building an environment in which all students have a voice, feel challenged and are actively encouraged and pushed to grow toward greatness in the world outside the classroom.

By Doyin Oyeniyi, Photos by Annie Ray

“I think education is the civil-rights issue of the day, and I think that education is a weapon,” Colette Pierce Burnette says. “It’s a weapon against poverty. It’s a weapon against ignorance. It’s a weapon against all the things that ails society. When you get that education and no one can take it from you, it gives you options.”

Pierce Burnette is explaining her view on education while sitting in her office in the Anthony and Louise Viaer Alumni Hall at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black school that officially became a university in 2005. The college was created when Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, which opened in 1875, and Samuel Huston College, which opened in 1876, merged in 1952. July 1, 2017 marked Pierce Burnette’s two-year anniversary as the president and CEO of the university.

When Pierce Burnette talks, a small smile occasionally makes an appearance. It’s the smile of somebody who wears her confidence easily, who’s sure of what she knows and what she’s learned. Pierce Burnette will be 60 in December, and as she talks about education and the path that brought her to her current position as the second female president in Huston-Tillotson’s history—and the first female president since the schools merged in 1952—it’s clear she knows what she’s talking about.

The belief in the dynamic power of education was instilled in Pierce Burnette at a young age and confirmed again and again by her experiences. Her father’s large family migrated to Cleveland, Ohio, from the South, and she grew up with them in the city in the 1960s and ’70s. But for Pierce Burnette, her story really starts with her grandmother, who she describes as a light-skinned black woman from South Carolina. It was her grandmother’s experiences of discrimination alongside her husband, Pierce Burnette’s grandfather, a dark-skinned black man, that led her to place an emphasis on education in Pierce Burnette’s life.

“I know she truly appreciated the value of an education and what it could do for the quality of your life,” Pierce Burnette says.

It was her grandmother who began drilling math skills into Pierce Burnette’s mind at a young age. She recalls trips with her grandmother to the butcher shop, where her grandmother would request extra butcher paper. Once back home, her grandmother would write her math problems and English lessons on the paper and paste them throughout the kitchen—a teaching method that allowed Pierce Burnette to solve problems and memorize spelling while she ate. On days when she had tests, sometimes Pierce Burnette wouldn’t be allowed to eat until she completely understood the information. Her grandmother’s rigorous training piqued her interest in math, and soon, she excelled at the subject. Today, Pierce Burnette still sees the value in those abilities she learned.

“I think young people should take as much math as they can,” Pierce Burnette says. “Whether you’re going to be a history major, a journalist, a philosopher…math makes you think critically and it stretches the brain in ways that other courses of study cannot, that other subjects cannot.”

Although she was a first-generation college student (Her mother finished high school and her father had a 6th-grade education, but later got his GED.), Pierce Burnette says going to college was such an unquestionable expectation for her that she practically considered it the 13th grade.

“I didn’t know college was optional,” she says.

It wasn’t until she attended Ohio State University that Pierce Burnette realized she was a product of an underserved high school. She’d been educated and pushed by teachers who encouraged her to be confident, but the lack of resources weren’t apparent to her until she went to college.

She recalls walking into a chemistry lab for the first time at Ohio State and realizing the only equipment she recognized were the beakers and the elements chart. She took advantage of the resources at Ohio State that were available to students of color and made connections with classmates who’d come from well-resourced, affluent high schools, classmates who typically tended to be men, in order to adjust and keep up.

In 1980, she graduated from Ohio State with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial and systems engineering, and soon began working at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati as an operations support engineer. Soon after she started her first post-college job, Pierce Burnette met and married her husband, Daarel Burnette, an officer in the Air Force.

Her husband’s military work had them traveling throughout the world, living a lifestyle that helped Pierce Burnette develop a love of travel and a passion for how it helped challenge and improve her understanding of the world. Travel also gave her the skills to build great work teams since at nearly every new location where her husband was stationed, Pierce Burnette would get a new job. While they were in Washington, D.C., she worked as an analyst for the Washington Post and even had her own consulting firm called CompuMent when they lived in Colorado.

Adjusting to new work environments was not always easy, especially as an African-American female engineer. Pierce Burnette remembers a time when her husband was stationed at a base in a small rural town in Georgia called Warner Robins. Part of her family had grown up in the South and her husband was from the South, but for Pierce Burnette, it was her first time actually living there. And although she’d felt resilient and confident in other situations, her resilience didn’t get her past the not-so-subtle racism.

“I turned in my application everywhere and I couldn’t get a job,” Pierce Burnette says. “I couldn’t understand. I’ve got this degree from Ohio State, [which was]in the top 10 engineering schools in the nation, and I came from Procter & Gamble, a very reputable company. I had excellent references, everything. And there were signs all over that they were desperate for engineers.”

Finally, she applied for a position at Robins Air Force Base, where her husband worked. Because of affirmative-action regulations, she knew she could at least get an interview, and even though the interviewer was disinterested and skeptical (He smoked during the interview, and at one time, even pulled up a book on engineering schools to make sure Ohio State was an accredited university.), she eventually got the engineering position.

It wasn’t until Pierce Burnette watched the 2016 movie Hidden Figures last year that she realized the significance of her experiences. She says her first day at the military-base job was very similar to what Taraji P. Henson’s character, the real-life Katherine Johnson, experienced when she walked into the bay of engineers to be met by a sea of white, male faces staring back at her. The movie helped Pierce Burnette realize the significance of what had come before her, she says, adding that the film changed her life.

“When I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I realized that the monumental moments that happened in that movie happened in the ’60s. That happened six years before I entered Ohio State,” Pierce Burnette says. “And I didn’t get the gravity of what had happened before me, to pave this way or to open this trail…to give me an opportunity.”

But understanding how far things had come also made it frustrating to see how far things still have to go. The lack of diversity in the realms of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, is something Pierce Burnette has personally experienced her entire career, and seeing the struggle continue for other generations can be disheartening.

“It makes me sad because I sit on an advisory board for my alma mater, Ohio State, now, and [they are]still talking about how we can increase the number of students of color…in the field of engineering,” Pierce Burnette says. “I graduated 37, almost 40 years ago and that makes me sad.”

At Huston-Tillotson, Pierce Burnette has a chance to do something about that frustration. In April 2016, the university was awarded a $1 million grant from the United Negro College Fund in partnership with the Lilly Endowment as part of the Career Pathways Initiative. The initiative places an emphasis on better preparing students for their careers after college. With the grant, Huston-Tillotson will be able to provide better resources for students, from internships and mentorships to development of better curriculum.

As the school rolls out the initiative in the upcoming school year, Pierce Burnette says, the focus will be on kinesiology majors, business majors, communications majors and computer-science majors. For Pierce Burnette and her goal of increasing diversity in STEM, being located in Austin has its benefits; some of Huston-Tillotson’s corporate partnerships for the initiative include Google Fiber and Additive Robotics, as well as outlets such as the Austin American-Statesman and KUT FM radio.

During her years traveling for her husband’s military career, Pierce Burnette had yet to make the transition from the corporate world to education. Her husband was a Morehouse College graduate and, although his work took their family throughout the country and the world, every year, they would travel to Atlanta to attend the Morehouse homecoming, an event in which alumni would gather to connect and remember their time at the historically black college. Those experiences at the homecomings gave Pierce Burnette a sense of a college experience that was very different from the one she’d had at Ohio State, a predominantly white institution. That experience of being surrounded by educated and confident African-American people who passionately loved their alma mater and maintained a strong sense of camaraderie for their school stuck with Pierce Burnette.

She started thinking about how she’d like to work at a place like a historically black college or university about the same time her husband was thinking of retiring. After 18 years of traveling for his military work, Pierce Burnette could finally entertain thoughts of settling down, not just in one location, but also in a career that made her happy.

“That was my push to do something I want to do, so, even though his career has been good to me, I wasn’t feeling really fulfilled,” she says. “I’m not feeling like I’m living my own story, I’m living my own purpose, so that was my catalyst to make that change.”

Pierce Burnette talked about making the career change to education so much that a mentor of hers who worked in education finally encouraged her to make the transition by taking a teaching position to get experience in the classroom. Pierce Burnette took the plunge. She took a pay cut and left the corporate world to take a tenure-track position teaching information systems at Pierce College, a community college in Washington. After her second term of teaching, the vice president of the school asked her to fill the interim position of dean of information technology.

Eventually, Pierce Burnette’s husband decided not to retire and accepted one last assignment in Ohio. By that time, Pierce Burnette had officially taken on her new position at Pierce College, and her two kids were in high school and middle school. To give the family a bit of stability, the three of them stayed in Washington while her husband returned to Ohio. It was there, while he was stationed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, that he met somebody who worked at Central State University, a historically black university in the state. After learning the university was looking for an IT director, her husband mentioned his wife worked in the same field.

Pierce Burnette interviewed for the position and moved back to Ohio to work at Central State in 2001. She spent nearly 15 years there, first in the position of director of information technology and then working her way through a variety of other positions throughout the years. By 2012, she was the vice president of administration and the chief financial officer.

Her time at Central State ended when she hit what she refers to as her glass ceiling. After the president of the university retired, he told Pierce Burnette that her becoming president of the school would be impossible since she didn’t have a doctorate degree. Because the university had recently gone through a rough patch and was under scrutiny—and although she had a long track record with the university—the board wanted the new president to have the appropriate credentials.

The news left Pierce Burnette at a loss for what to do next. She laughingly recalls how she Googled, “Am I too old to get my doctorate?” and that half of the search results she saw said no and the other half said yes. It was her sister who finally pushed her to stop throwing a pity party and just go do it.

Pierce Burnette was in the process of filling out her graduate-school applications when she reached out to the chancellor of the Pierce College system to ask for a reference. During that conversation, the chancellor mentioned Pierce was looking for a new president and that she’d like Pierce Burnette to apply for the position. The next day, the chancellor called her and asked if she would be the president of the college in the interim. Pierce Burnette said yes.

The preference for college presidents with doctorates was less intense at community colleges, Pierce Burnette says. So, she put her graduate-school applications on hold and fulfilled her dream of becoming a college president. She spent a year serving as the interim president of Pierce College and might have stayed longer if not for one particular meeting she had with other community-college presidents in Washington.

“We’re all going around the room introducing ourselves and everybody is Dr. Something. And then it gets to me,” Pierce Burnette recalls of the meeting. “Not only am I the only black woman and one of two black people at the table, [but]out of maybe 30 presidents, I introduce myself as Ms. Colette Burnette.”

Pierce Burnette describes that moment as deflating. But it reaffirmed her desire to go back to school. After that year at Pierce, she went on to receive her doctorate of education degree in higher-education administration from the University of Pennsylvania. About the time she was finishing up her dissertation, a colleague told her Huston-Tillotson, a small historically black university in Austin, was looking for a new president.

She hesitated because, admittedly, Huston-Tillotson wasn’t what she had in mind. She’d wanted to be the president of a historically black university, yes, but she’d been thinking of a bigger school. But after a friend recommended she apply just for the experience of going through an application process for a university-president position, she gave it a shot.

The process was rigorous and intense. The position had drawn 70 applications from throughout the country, and the 18-member search committee, made up of the university’s board of trustees and a mix of faculty, alumni, students and community leaders, took it seriously. Pierce Burnette progressed through the interview process until she finally came to Austin in early 2015 as one of the nine semi-finalists to take part in two days of interviews. It was then, when she stepped on campus for the first time, that it hit her. All the time, she’d been telling herself she was just practicing for the knowledge that could be gained from the application process. But when she stepped on campus that day, something changed inside her.

“When I got out of my car to come into this building—actually, to meet the members of the search committee to start my day off—I got a feeling: ‘This is where you’re supposed to be. Stop practicing,’ ” Pierce Burnette says.

She laughs at the memory, recalling that she’d thought she was cracking up. It was indeed a mentally demanding period for her. Not only was she handling the stress of an intensive interview process, but she was also completing her dissertation at the time. In fact, the week after that interview in Austin, she would have to defend her dissertation. The concern that she didn’t already have her doctorate degree was raised in an interview.

“There was some discernment about the fact that I didn’t have the earned degree and my answer to that was, ‘I’m going to get this degree. I’m going to defend this dissertation. I’ve worked hard and I’m going to get this credential and somebody will have me and I hope it’s going to be Huston-Tillotson. Because of my research and my experience, even through the process, I really came to know the university and saw the opportunities here. So, I hope it would be the university, but if it’s not the university, I’ll just keep looking.’ ”

But by that time, Pierce Burnette had begun to feel Huston-Tillotson was her place. And the university’s search committee would soon come to agree. Now, she fondly calls the university her destiny because, although it hadn’t been clear to her before, Pierce Burnette now believes the steps in her life were guiding her to this position.

The past two years as president have helped Pierce Burnette better flesh out the priorities she has for the university. Her three main goals for Huston-Tillotson are growing the endowment and alternative revenue streams to keep tuition affordable, increasing traditional enrollment and launching a capital campaign to fund building upgrades, new-building construction and scholarships. The manifestation of those priorities will become evident this fall semester, when the university welcomes its first class of students participating in the Career Pathways Initiative.

On Pierce Burnette’s wrist is a black bracelet that reads, “HT is IDEAL,” referencing an acronym that stands for integrity, diversity, excellence, accountability and leadership. Pierce Burnette hopes to create a campus culture that pushes Huston-Tillotson students to embody these ideals on campus and beyond. It’s part of the important work she feels historically black schools are responsible for in this country.

Historically black colleges and universities were originally created because African-American people were prevented from attending other universities and, although they’re no longer serving a federally segregated nation, Pierce Burnette believes “now, more than ever in history, the mission of HBCUs is very much needed.”

According to Pierce Burnette, Huston-Tillotson has about 1,000 students, with racial demographics breaking down this way: 70 to 75 percent of students are African-American, 15 to 20 percent are Hispanic and Latino, and 10 percent are white and international students. And while she enjoyed her experience at Ohio State, she knows experiences at predominately white institutions aren’t what’s best for everyone. In her opinion, the need for places for students to feel comfortable growing has only increased, and historically black schools are uniquely positioned to provide that kind of space.

“People will need safe spaces to grow and to be who they are and to be able to go out into the world and be comfortable in their own skin, and that’s what we need to do,” Pierce Burnette explains.

For many, it’s likely a refreshing change to hear a university administrator talk about safe spaces without a note of mockery and dismissal that schools such as the University of Chicago adopted when it sent out a letter informing students the school “does not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’ ” In responses like that, Pierce Burnette says, there’s a misunderstanding of what safe spaces mean and what their purpose is. To her, it’s not about creating a campus where students aren’t challenged and there’s no diversity of thought, but about creating a space where students aren’t looked down on and feel comfortable enough to have those hard conversations.

“I work very hard as an administrator to create an environment where students have a voice, and we don’t always get it right,” Pierce Burnette says. “This is a safe space in that students have a voice to tell you when you’re not getting it right.”

That methodology goes hand in hand with her other goal: to increase Huston-Tillotson’s presence in the Austin community. As Pierce Burnette learned more about Austin’s history of segregation and gentrification, she found it disappointing that the university didn’t have a stronger role in that conversation. After all, the school was established—even before the University of Texas, which was founded in 1881—because black students weren’t allowed to attend school anywhere else. What better place than the historically black university in East Austin to serve as that place for understanding and communication as Austin grapples with racial inequality? It’s important to Pierce Burnette that her university takes on that role and makes its value known in the community.

“[Huston-Tillotson belongs] to Austin. We have great value in Austin,” Pierce Burnette says. “We are a jewel in the violet crown of Austin.”

There’s a lot of inspiration to be found in Pierce Burnette’s office, and not just in the woman sitting behind the desk. There’s a Martin Luther King Jr. poster on the wall, a table with a distinguished alumni award from Ohio State and an airplane model gifted to Pierce Burnette after her Huston-Tillotson inauguration speech, in which she analogized her work at the university to the process of “building this plane while we’re flying it.”

Of all the Huston-Tillotson presidents who came before her, there are portraits of just two presidents in her office. One is of John Q. Taylor King, president of the school from 1965 to 1988. In her research about the university, she saw King brought stability to the college and was highly revered on campus. The other portrait is of Mary Branch, president of Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute from 1930 to 1944. In 1929, declining enrollment forced the school to become a junior women’s college and, in order to bring enrollment up and turn the school back into a four-year college, Branch made improvements such as upgrading the facilities with renovations and new construction, increasing the size of the faculty and allowing the creation of fraternities and social clubs. Pierce Burnette says Branch brought order and structure to the school.

“I’ve met a couple of her students and they have tremendously fond memories of her and how she demanded a standard of excellence,” Pierce Burnette says.

That’s what she’s patterning her administration after, that standard of excellence Branch set. And with Branch’s portrait hanging in her office, Pierce Burnette feels Branch’s eyes are always on her. It helps her remember her purpose, she says.

“Wherever I am, in a meeting or if I’m just coming in the office or something, she’s looking right at me and I just feel like she’s saying, ‘You got to stay focused,’ ” Pierce Burnette says. “Her face just says, ‘You got to stay focused. You got to stay on task and keep your eyes on the mission’ because you’ll have a lot of detractors. You have things that feel like setbacks. You have moments that are all glory, but if you stay focused on the mission and you stay true to your purpose, things always come together. And they are slowly coming together.”

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