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Leaders Of Historically Black Colleges And Universities Take Cautious Line On Fall Plans

Gabriel C. Pérez
Huston-Tillotson University, an historically black university in East Austin, has continued classes online during the spring semester because of the pandemic.

From Texas Standard:

While the effects of the pandemic have yet to be fully quantified, it's clear that communities of color have been among the hardest hit. At the same time, educational institutions are having to rethink the way they facilitate learning for their students. 

That's certainly true for historically black colleges and universities, two of which are among the oldest institutions of higher education in Texas. Texas Standard host David Brown spoke with Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, and Michael Sorrell, who leads Paul Quinn College in Dallas. Both institutions have been in operation since the 1870s. 

Pierce Burnette said Huston-Tillotson has not yet decided whether it will resume in-person classes in the fall. A decision will be made by the end of June.

"It's a complicated decision," she said. "We want to do it where we're still honoring the students' experience – their academic as well as their outside-the-classroom experience, but we want to make a very informed decision."

Sorrell said making a reopening decision too quickly could cost lives.

Reopening plans already announced by large universities, including Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Austin haven't impacted Huston-Tillotson or Paul Quinn, their leaders say.

"This mistaken idea that just because you are larger than another institution, your decision-making paradigm carries more weight than anyone else's is just flat-out wrong," Sorrell said. 

Sorrell, who recently wrote about his concerns in The Atlantic, said the choice to resume in-person classes and how to do so has a moral dimension. In his article, he questioned what about the pandemic has changed since March, when classes were cancelled, and now, which would indicate it's safe to resume in-person classes in the fall?

"My moral compass tells me that it is absolutely essential that before I take any action, I ask myself, 'If I am wrong, do I want to bear the consequences of that wrong?'" he said.

Pierce Burnette said she isn't worried about the financial health of Huston-Tillotson if the university doesn't reopen for in-person classes in the fall. 

"We were founded on the fact of a race of people having defiance and fortitude, and power and resilience," she said. "And we've been pulling on that same thread and fabric of the institution for 145 years."

She's encouraging students who are planning to begin college in the fall to "stay engaged."

The plight of families who can't afford college because of the pandemic does worry Pierce Burnette. She's working to increase philanthropic support for her university. 

Both Pierce Burnette and Sorrell reject the word "reopening." They say their institutions continue to provide education to their students, even though it's currently happening online.

"We finished the semester with a full student body," Sorrell said. "We never closed."

Web story by Shelly Brisbin.

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