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Outgoing Huston-Tillotson president knows it's wise to 'leave the party when you're having fun'

A woman wearing glasses and pearls around her neck smiles for the camera, with a tree and tower in the background.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette says the Huston-Tillotson University campus in Austin "has a magic to it" that she experienced for the first time when she visited for her interview in the spring of 2015. Pierce Burnette says she told her husband after the interview she "had to get that job."

When Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette arrived on the Huston-Tillotson University campus in Austin for a job interview to be president in 2015, she was there for practice. Her mentor had told her it would be good experience to apply and go through the search process. But she says not long after she stepped on campus, she knew this was for real.

"The campus has a magic to it," Pierce Burnette says. "And when I met with the students — they were the third meeting of the day — I was sold."

Pierce Burnette says she went back to her home in Ohio and told her husband: "I have got to get that job."

And she did.

Pierce Burnette's first day as president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University was July 1, 2015. Her last day is Thursday. She will next take over as president and CEO of Newfields (the Indianapolis Museum of Art) on Aug. 1. She says she was ready "to have another chapter in my life" and wanted to give the new H-T president "the opportunity to get to know the city and to most of all get to know the university" before launching a planned capital campaign.

Pierce Burnette says making the decision to leave was tough, but she took her mentor's advice to "leave the party when you're having fun and know when it's time to pass the baton."

Pierce Burnette says she is leaving H-T in a good position and although she doesn't think Austin fully appreciates it and fully understands "the jewel that it is," she does believe the city appreciates H-T more than it did in 2015.

Listen to the edited interview above or read the transcript of the full interview below to find out more of the "triumphs and trials" of Pierce Burnette's time leading Huston-Tillotson University and why she says she was an "emotional wreck" at H-T's 2022 commencement.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: Your first day [as president and CEO at Huston-Tillotson University] was July 1, 2015. Could you remind us and describe for us what drew you to this job and what drew you to Huston-Tillotson at the time that you decided to come?

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette: I had a dream to be the president of a historically black college, and my plan was to get a large institution with the big STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] program, football program, etc. But that was clearly not God's plan.

I think there were three or four finalists, and I came on campus for the on-campus interview — and actually this parking lot right there — we pulled into the space and I was practicing in my mind. To go through a presidential search, it's so intense. And one of my mentors told me, "You should throw your hat in that ring to go for that position as a practice, to do a search." So I was practicing.

I got out of the car, and I got this feeling of "stop practicing." And it was around this time of year, and the campus has a magic to it. This is where you're supposed to be. And that was the beginning of my assignment. So then I immediately stopped practicing and took that day of interviews extremely seriously, really looking at the campus. And when I met with the students — they were the third meeting of the day — I was sold.

I left Ohio practicing, and I went back to Ohio telling my husband: "I have got to get that job."

What are you feeling like right now, reflecting on this place, this campus and your time here?

When I decided to retire, that was a very hard decision for me. There was an evolution for me. I think you have to know when it's time to pass the baton. And I've had a beautiful journey as the president of Huston-Tillotson University and as a resident of Austin, Texas. Those two things go together for me. Not only is the university magical, but it's in a magical city.

And there's been some challenging times — clearly navigating the university through a pandemic, a global pandemic — a lot of triumphs and many trials. The university is postured in a very good place.

My mentor once again told me to leave the party when you're having fun and know when it's time to pass the baton so someone else can run the race at a steadier pace and maybe even perhaps a faster pace. We are going to launch a capital campaign, and I wanted to give someone the opportunity to get to know the city and to most of all get to know the university so that you can get people to lean into investing in the university's mission.

And for me personally, I wanted to have another chapter in my life, too. I'm in my mid-60s, so another chapter of my life to do something different so that I can follow my passions in other ways. It was not an easy decision. It’s still not. Sitting here right now, I could burst out in tears because it's bittersweet for me. To leave something that you love is never easy.

I love my students and I love this mission and I love the role that Huston-Tillotson University plays in Austin and in Austin's prosperity and in higher education. I did not attend a historically Black college, but I've dedicated the last almost 23 years of my professional career to the mission because there's something that happens to young people on these campuses.

Because I believe so deeply in this mission, it's very hard for me to think about on July 1, in 2022, that I wake up and I'm not the president of Huston-Tillotson University.

You mentioned the role of Huston-Tillotson in the city of Austin. Can you talk more about the role that you see Huston-Tillotson University playing in the city of Austin and how that has changed and evolved during your time here?

We have a tagline — "I am the pipeline" — because we are a part of the solution of diversifying workplaces. Hands down, that's what we do. We are a part of keeping talented, creative people irrespective of their skin color in the community — people who have passion for where they live.

We're also an honest broker in courageous, hard conversations when it comes to conversations about race and about inequities and biases. And that's the role colleges play in general in their communities. You're an honest broker for spaces for people to come and have really good, courageous conversations about how we truly build a beloved community.

51827027933_27c6b1164e_c.jpg
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Pierce Burnette speaks during the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Huston-Tillotson on Jan. 17. She says part of H-T's role in the community is to be an "an honest broker in courageous, hard conversations when it comes to conversations about race and about inequities and biases."

We've worked really, really hard for us to serve that purpose in Austin. We have all kinds of things happening on our campus that are reflective of that. We are the host site for Earth Day. We've had the Texas Tribune have speakers on campus that are very thought-provoking speakers or topics that are very thought-provoking. We've done a wonderful job in building corporate partnerships so that we are respected as an institution of higher learning in the community.

The role that we play is multifaceted. Yes, we are a university. Yes, what we do is educate people and individuals. But we also are symbolic of something — even us being in East Austin and our history. We’re the oldest institution of higher learning [in Austin]. So the magic of that part of how we are a mainstay deeply rooted in East Austin — as a reminder of what that means to this community both the good and the bad. We are that mainstay in this quote unquote “Six Square” of this part of the city of Austin.

Do you feel that Austin appreciates Huston-Tillotson University and really understands what it is and what it means that Austin has Huston-Tillotson here?

I don't think that Austin fully appreciates it and fully understands the jewel that it is. However, comma, Austin appreciates it much more than it did in 2015. And Austin is open to understanding what a jewel in the violet crown of Austin is than it did in 2015. When I started, I would meet people — 10 people — and nine of them had never been on this campus. They were either University of Texas graduates [or] they may even have lived in this community and they've never been on this campus. Some didn't even know that there was a campus up here.

That has changed. Maybe now out of 10, maybe I'll meet four that have that feeling and then they have a sense of ownership that they haven’t. Where before people were, you know, "Oh, I didn't know that was a university" with no sense of responsibility or respect of the fact that there's a university in this community — an excellent university, a beautiful university, a productive university, an open university, a warm university, one with core values of intellect, critical thinking, all of those things — that has changed tremendously over time.

But that's an evolution that doesn't stop. And it doesn't stop with me no longer being the president. The campus knows that. And I think the community knows that. And that is a concern that I have that that evolution won't continue.

If I think back to when you started in 2015, the population in Austin of the Black community has been going down a little bit over that time. And there are a lot of folks who say that although Austin has a reputation as a liberal city, a welcoming city, an open city, that's actually not the experience for some in the Black community who live here.

How do you see Huston-Tillotson and its strength and growth coupling up with what's happening in greater Austin with the Black population? How do those two things exist together in the same city?

I remind people that there are 400 people of color living right up on this hill. This is 78702. This is their ZIP code. It’s where they live. So when people say there are no Black people in East Austin, you know that's not true. That's not real. I acknowledge, I embrace, I understand the decline in the Black population in Austin proper where people are being marginalized — pushed out to the margins. That’s by definition what it means. That’s not going to happen with the university. So we are a part of that consistent grind, if you will, to dismantle that thought or even to stop that hemorrhaging, if you will, of that part of our community. That's what having a historically Black college in the heart — that’s one of those multilayers of attracting people to the community, to the area. When people find out that we have historically Black college in the city, their perspective of Austin deepens and changes.

The development around the University of Texas didn't happen by chance. It happened because it's a catalyst for growth. So my vision is that this university can be the same thing for this area of the city, to do the same kind of development and the same kind of spark outside of quote unquote, affordable housing. It's bigger than that. It’s building a true sense of community. The amenities, the culture, the arts. I mean, all of that can happen. And we have this spark, this ignition, source of the flame in a very positive way right here.

What would you say to your successor, whoever that is going to be, if they said "President Burnette, I'm coming in. I want to hit the top things. I want to make sure that I'm touching on the top priorities." What would you say to your successor are then those top priorities for what they should be thinking about, be focusing on as they take over the presidency?

Student success is paramount. You think students first — think students — then you decide. Student success is paramount. You keep that as your North Star. All your decisions are going to be wonderful decisions.

When I think of what the top priorities are, it's continuing to build those sustainable and reciprocal partnerships across the city with corporations. The beauty of the partnerships that we have with entities like Apple are very, very productive for Apple as well as for the university; for the students’ opportunities; branding; everything. It’s to continue that. And to continue to advocate for the university in all circles.

I mean the cliché: Have your seat at the table. Bring your own table. Bring your own seat. Whatever. Make your own table, whatever it is. That's a cliche to keep the university upfront and present in people's minds and thoughts when they talk about the future and when they talk about next steps for all parties, all sectors of the university.

So it’s building those reciprocal and sustainable partnerships. The reason I use the word reciprocal is because the partner benefits as does the university. It’s not just that you hire our students, which is the top priority, but it's also that you then invest back into the university when it comes to academics, the curriculum, the tools that we provide our students as they matriculate through the university — that you're truly investing in us.

And the population that we serve — affordability is an issue, so scholarships are super important so that we can keep education as a right, not a privilege. And us being a small, liberal arts minority serving institution, historically Black college, our mission is just something that people should invest in because education is the great equalizer. It is. So we all improve when we have a more educated citizenry. So it’s finding those partnerships, finding new partnerships, continuing to invest in those that exist and keeping Huston-Tillotson University top of mind across all sectors of our society: the business sector, the religious sector, the housing sector, the health sector and finding the role and the niche that the university plays in those different sectors.

Earlier in the conversation, you mentioned triumphs and trials. Talk about some of those triumphs - the things that you're especially proud of, happy about, excited about.

I'm very, very proud of our African-American male teacher initiative. I'm very, very proud of that. That initiative to recruit, retain and graduate young Black men to be teachers in the K-12 system in Austin, in Texas and beyond. There is just a great need in the K-12 system for Black male teachers.

I'm also very proud of — we've stood up a band, the Jazz Collective. And the reason I'm proud of that is because we did it from scratch, as my grandmother would say. We had no band present. We have a phenomenal choir, but we did not have a band. And we hired just a phenomenal young man, Dr. [William] Oliver, to come in. And he has built it from the ground up in a very short amount of time through partnerships and collaborations. He is a role model of what happens when someone has magic in their eyes. I had a vision, and he made it happen for me. And they do from big band sound to jazz to contemporary. Those people are just super, super talented, and many of them want to be teachers.

I could take up the whole time that we have talking about the things that I'm proud of. I'm proud of my DuBois scholars. I'm proud of my STEM scholars. I'm very proud of a relationship we have with St David’s for STEM scholars. I'm an engineer myself, so for us to be a liberal arts institution — to have STEM scholars that do extremely well — that's a triumph for me.

I feel like we can't have a conversation getting close to your retirement without talking about the COVID-19 pandemic because you were talking about practicing, thinking about being universe president — I don't think there's a rule book out there for university presidents for what to do when a global pandemic hits. Talk a little bit about what it was like to navigate this institution, Houston Tillotson University, through a global pandemic.

When you are a president of an institution that serves 70% Pell [grant] eligible, you're always in a crisis. You're always in a crisis. It can be expensive to serve excellence to the low income especially when you're as determined as we are to give them excellence. So you're always in a crisis.

But then a “real” crisis hits, and you jump in it and start leading your institution, making decisions, informed decisions through a lot of sleepless nights. Sleepless days, actually, I won't even say nights where you don't know what's next. I mean, we ran into a storm that we did not see coming with a ship that wasn't quite that stable. In higher education, we don't make hard right turns. We just don't. And it forced us to make hard right turns.

We are not an online institution, but when you have a president who is a techie, an engineer, you invest a lot of time and effort into building out the physical and digital plant. We had the technology and the infrastructure in place to offer online. My faculty were very malleable and asked for an extra week for them to be able to incorporate or change over their curriculum to be online. And they did it in a week. We extended spring break and we lifted this 145-year-old at that time institution fully online in a week. And we did it successfully.

We had some bumps in the road, and we learned a lot. Like, for example, the internet is not a utility. Everybody doesn't have it. So we had to quickly pivot to accommodate that for our students. Many of our students didn't have computers at home so we had to quickly pivot to raise money — pre CARES Act — to raise money for us to be able to offer the services to students, so we shipped them out to their house. So we almost became like a mini-Amazon where you’re shipping; you’re procuring; all the things that go on behind the scenes to get students what they needed for them to be successful.

If you focus on student success, your decisions will be excellent decisions and then stay within the means of what you can do, but at the same time demand excellence. And then you really can't steer from that.

So the crisis itself was very stressful. I have two vice presidents who came to campus with me every day because even though the campus was closed — we were online — the university was not closed. We still had to process mail. We still had to bring in a class. We still had to be recruiting students, and we lifted everything virtually. So when I think about that, in hindsight, that was God. Because when you're in it, you're just doing it. And we did it. I'm very proud. We had no layoffs, no furloughs. We had some attrition in our enrollment but very minimal compared to some of our sister institutions. We were able to hold on to our students.

And it was very hard for our students. And I don't like the word resilience because resilience can at some point — it becomes abusive. Why do I have to be resilient? But our students were extremely resilient through that. And when we had graduation, we graduated the class of 2020 and 2021 together. And I was shocked at the number of students that came back who had finished in 2020 but did not have a commencement. And that's because it's a rite of passage for them. They earned that. And then even this class of 2022 that we just graduated, two of their years were spent online. So that was two years of their college experience; they didn't come to Huston-Tillotson to be online, and the pandemic stole that from them.

A person behind a fence with the Huston-Tillotson shield on it.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

And this campus was not the same without students. Sometimes administrators look forward to summer break because the campus can rest a little bit. But I was looking so forward to having students back on campus because they bring something magic with them. They’re the purpose. They are the why. They are the affirmation of why you do what you do, why you don't sleep at night, to be able to serve them and give them what they deserve.

So the pandemic was extremely trying and some of the most difficult decisions I made in my professional career of 40 years — what has been in the last three years of my life related to the pandemic.

This year, your final commencement, what was that like for you?

I was an emotional wreck. When you're president, you get a script to follow. What's happening next as you as you navigate through commencement. Our commencements are beautiful. We can graduate 200 plus graduates, but we have 5,000 people on this campus. It's like a reunion. People who don't have anyone graduating come to our commencement just to see that we're graduating families. We're graduating a family. The families have T-shirts on, and the lawn is filled with people just mingling. It's like a family reunion.

So it's already an emotionally packed day. And we have the African drummers that start off at 8 that morning. and it's hot as I don't know what. It was 92 degrees. Someone told me it was 101 at the peak of our commencement. It was a super hot day. But people are just so into the magic of the moment.

So it's already emotional. It's already a joy-filled day. And joy is different than happy. It's deeper than happy. You can be happy and you say, "Oh, it’s a happy graduation." But it's a joy-filled graduation. It’s something that is in your spirit, in your belly, because you see lives have changed as a result of what's happened under your leadership.

I was fine this past commencement all the way to the end when we were marching out. It's a lot of pomp and circumstance around college graduations. And I started to see the faces of the people who work for me. And it's a reflection of my success is because of them. And that is the power of being a leader because you see your purpose. It was a period in a sentence. That's what being a leader is about. Not to lead people so that they follow you. It's to build up a love of the community and the role you play in that for people to work alongside. And that was the spark for me because I won't see those people on July 1.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.
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