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Forced 'To Make A Hard Right Turn': Huston-Tillotson's President On Operating With Tighter Resources

The seal of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas.
Julia Reihs
Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette likens the school to a family and says the campus has shown resilience during the coronavirus pandemic.

Huston-Tillotson University, a private historically Black university in Austin, Texas, will continue to hold all classes remotely for the Spring 2021 semester because of the coronavirus pandemic. University President Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette said in a statement the decision was guided by data and advice from health experts, as well as the expected timetable for a vaccine.Some health experts don't anticipate a vaccine to be widely available until the second quarter of next year.

Burnette says the pandemic has caused some pain — but also highlighted some bright spots — for the school community.

She says students "are my why" so being separated from them is difficult for her and everyone who works for the university. But she says in a way, that separation has also brought the school's mission into sharper focus.

"It's a bright spot, as painful as it is," Burnette says," to recognize that what you do is so important to restore and build [students] up and to break generational poverty."

Burnette says they have cut operating expenses on campus and tightened their belts to make up for revenue lost from closed residence halls and suspended dining services. But she says conducting business that way actually feels familiar outside of pandemic times.

"Operating in a crisis and having to manage your budget efficiently - I've been doing that as the president since I've been [at Huston-Tillotson]," Burnette says. "This is how we tend to have to operate all along when it comes to providing excellence with limited resources."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Burnette about the pain points and bright spots highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette has been President of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas since July 1, 2015.
Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette says one of the "pain points" of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is missing regular meals with students. She says students "are my why."

Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette: The technology has really been a gift. We invested some dollars into purchasing software specific for online, and it has really been engaging. The best example that I could share is being able to have our biology labs — our science labs — virtually. These are some of the things that we will take with us when we come back on ground.

And our faculty — they’ve really seen into students' lives. We've gotten to know them a little better because of the synchronous or the asynchronous [learning], whichever the faculty member is choosing.

We are a stronger institution. And [the COVID-19 pandemic] has really connected us to our mission. We believe very strongly — and there's evidence as such — that education is the great equalizer. The pandemic has shone a bright light on what's always been there when it comes to the inequities of individuals who don't have the opportunities to work in jobs where they could work from home, whether they’re in service positions or don't have the best health care, et cetera.

We're 145 years old. It's a bright spot, as painful as it is, to recognize that what you do is so important to restore and build [students] up and to break generational poverty and all of those things that we talk about.

KUT: What are some of those pain points and some lessons learned because of this experience?

There is a value in face-to-face instruction. We’re a small, intimate liberal arts campus. We pride ourselves in that. I miss my students. It's very hard. I remind myself on a day-to-day basis that we're doing what we have to do now to keep students safe. It's not permanent. It's temporary, but it's painful for me as the president not to be able to engage with my students.

They are my why. They are my why. Just like they didn't sign up for this moment, neither did the individuals who serve them.

The pandemic is not impacting everybody equally. Communities of color have been hit much harder, and everything about the pandemic has brought inequities that we know have been there to light. I'm curious, Dr. Burnette, what you're hearing from students and faculty and staff in a general way of how they're doing. How are they feeling while all of this is going on?

It's very hard. We are a resilient campus, and my students have very big lives. They have to work to go to school. They have to stay focused on school. They can't afford to take a gap year. I've heard some campuses say that some of their students are just going to take the year off. My students can't afford to do that.

Young people have fear in this. When you're my age, you have an anchor point. You know that this is going to pass. But when you're 18, 19, or 20 years old, for the last eight, nine months of your life, you've been hoisted into this very unfamiliar territory that can give you great anxiety.

We did a survey of students at the end of the Spring as we were trying to decide what to do for the Fall, asking them what's the barrier to their success. The number one barrier was technology — having technology at your ready to be able to connect virtually. And the second one was their mental well-being. And that's not just for my students but for everyone who works here.

I'm wondering if you can describe Huston-Tillotson’s slightly longer-term landscape — what it looks like weathering these times when revenues are down and the future's uncertain.

We had to make quite a few adjustments on campus to cut our operating expenses. We've been very fortunate in that we are a family, we are a unit, we are a community. Everybody leans in. We had to hold some positions open, so other people have to take on extra duties. We have to really look at our budget and tighten our belts to be able to accommodate that drop in revenue. When it comes to the residence halls being closed and dining services, we're not getting that revenue.

We are a stronger university already, and we will be stronger. We've been able to see areas within the operation that we can definitely provide technology and innovation to for us to do better, not just for learning but just as some of our other processes. I only have essential personnel on campus. Not only did the students have to go online, we had to learn how to accommodate remote working for most of the staff outside of those essential personnel, and some of that we may incorporate going forward.

Crises force you to do some of the things that you've been thinking of doing but you don't take the time to stop and actually implement. We're an ocean liner. We don't make hard right turns. And this has forced us to make a hard right turn.

Do you have plans or even concerns about having to do another round of belt-tightening? Are you prepared or are you planning for maybe having to do even more of that?

Yes, of course. My business office has presented 17,000 scenarios to me [laughs]. That's an exaggeration, but not by much, on enrollment decreases or enrollment increases. When you are leading an enterprise such as Huston-Tillotson, where we're very tuition-driven, we've had to really, really increase our fundraising to close that gap. And we've been fortunate. Austin has really stepped up to the plate, as individuals and some corporations, to help support the institution.

Keeping the same operational efficiency in mind, while at the same time working towards making the best decisions for our students is not easy. But we've proven that it's possible. This is not new – forcing to be very economical and providing excellence with limited resources. This is not new to the university.

I say that to a lot of people. This is not some shock wave that happened to us. By the fact that we serve the population that we serve, it's expensive to do what we do, and we work really, really hard and are successful at keeping our tuition low. And at the same time, we have people who are so committed to this mission that they deliver.

Operating in a crisis and having to manage your budget efficiently, I've been doing that as the president since I've been here because this is how we tend to have to operate all along when it comes to providing excellence with limited resources.

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