Best of: Why is education the equalizer?
As Here to Help returns with the first episode of 2022, Indeed CEO Chris Hyams speaks to Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, the first female president of the combined institutions of Huston and Tillotson Colleges.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette is a strong proponent of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as civic and community engagement. Dr. Burnette is laser-focused on finding resources to support a student-centered university and she is a committed servant leader across the Austin community. Dr. Burnette is co-chair of the Mayor of Austin’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities, Board Chair of Leadership Austin, and Treasurer of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas. She also received a 2019 ULI Austin Vision Award.
Dr. Burnette shares her career journey, and we learn how a career in tech led her to academia. We also hear about the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to Huston-Tillotson University.
- Hello everyone, I am Chris Hyams CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the very first episode of "Here To Help" for 2022. Today is January 10th, and Indeed is on day 678 of global work from home. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. And this is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us up at night. And what powers that mission is our people, and "Here To Help" is a look at how people's experience, strength and hope, inspire them to want to help others. Today, we have a very special guest, someone I've had the true pleasure of getting to know over the past few years, and someone I have the deepest respect for, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette. Dr. Burnette is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Huston-Tillotson University. An historically Black university, and Austin's oldest institution of higher learning. She's the first female president, of the combined institutions of Huston and Tillotson colleges and was appointed in 2015. Dr. Burnette started her career in engineering and information technology leadership, and later pursued a doctorate in education, leading to her role here at HT. In addition to her work at Huston-Tillotson, Dr. Burnette is deeply engaged in the Austin community. She has served as co-chair, for the mayor's task force on institutional racism and systemic inequities, chair of Leadership Austin board, chair of the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity, and treasurer of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, as well as numerous other local and national boards. And among her many accolades, far too many to list here, Dr. Burnette was just yesterday announced as Austinite of the year for 2021, by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Not only for her work in accelerating, and expanding the city's historically Black university, but also for her citywide civic leadership. Dr. Burnette, Colette, thank you so much for joining me today, and congratulations on being named Austinite of the Year.
- Thank you, Chris. I shared with you earlier, the gratitude is all mine. I'm not sharing my gratitude this morning. Thank you.
- Well, let's start where we always start these discussions, with a simple question. How are you doing right now?
- So right this second, I feel a little weepy, because while we were on the two minute countdown, today's my first day back on campus, since the holiday break. I had a conference last week, and of course we had the holidays. So I haven't been back on campus physically since the 17th of December. Thanks to Zoom, I was working last week. And I have a lot of mail. So while we were waiting for the two minutes, I picked up a card that I thought was really nice, and it was a letter from one of my allies, a White female here in Austin with a $1,000 check in it, saying that she wished she could do more for the university, but she taught a class and that extra money, but what really touched my heart about this, was in it, she was expressing how the university's mission was so special to her, because of her own collegiate experience, and thanking me for my work here in Austin. And it just really touched me with... The check is wonderful, but the card is beautiful, and what she could in the card was this. And it just really pierced my soul. So that's how I'm doing right this moment. It's just a great moment.
- Well, that's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. As I mentioned at the start, among the many things that you've done, you are currently the president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University. Can you talk a little bit about HT, and what makes it so special?
- Gladly. So I am not a historically Black college graduate. I went to the Ohio State University, and my husband is an HBC graduate, he went to Morehouse. My son is an HBC graduate, he graduated from Hampton University, and my sister graduated from Clark. So I've been around HBCU graduates, but I did not experience it in my undergraduate or graduate experience. There's something that happens on these campuses that is just magical for young people's lives. It's a space where it's truly a community, it really is a family, even with our moles and wars, just like all families. It's just a magical place. And young people can come here and there is no mediocrity, there is no less than, there is no language of lack, your true brilliance and your true gifts are respected, appreciated, and lifted. And Huston-Tillotson right here, we call ourselves the intellectual heartbeat of East Austin, we're really a Jewel in the city. One of those spaces in the city, that is rooted in the city's history, and a very important part of the city's history, and really a space of excellence. And we consider ourselves to be the community's university, that's what town-gown relationships are all about. And it has really been a good experience for me. We're 45% first-generation our students, and 70% are Pell eligible. So we have this wonderful group of young people, who all they need is an opportunity, good books, and good teachers. And that's what they find here, at Houston-Tillotson. They don't need to be saved, they just need to be exposed opportunities. And that mission is a calling for me, to lead this institution. And I'm surrounded by.. I said this when the interview about Austinite of the year, which I'm super humbled and grateful for. I said this, I have a whole army of people. I may be the face of it, the one whose name gets the award, but I'm surrounded by a lot of committed people, committed to education being the great equalizer. And that's what happens every day on this campus, in and out. Even for the last 600 plus days, as you brought to my attention, probably even more so, I recognize the beauty and the power, and the necessity of this mission, to get people educated.
- So we're having this discussion today, January 10th, exactly a week before Martin Luther king Jr, Day, and as a long time Austin resident, my introduction to HT actually was as part of the Martin Luther king Jr. Day parade, that we have here, which historically starts on the campus of University of Texas at the MLK statue, goes through East Austin, and ends at a big celebration on the HT campus. Last year, obviously due to COVID, the parade and the celebration were both canceled. My wife Lize and I, and we talked about this last week, actually went on MLK day, just the two of us and did the walk ourselves, from the statue over to campus, and it was definitely a different type of recognition. It was very contemplative, seeing that the empty streets and the empty campus. Now I know this year, we are not going to have a parade here in Austin, but you have planned a smaller event on campus, although with COVID, that's still in question. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of MLK Day and the celebration to HT, and what marking this event means to you?
- So, Dr. King is iconic obviously, in many lives, particularly in my own. In fact that what I've been striving and pushing for, and using as my mantra here in Austin, about building a beloved community comes directly from the teachings of Dr. King, is building that beloved community for all residents of the community. The march is very symbolic for me in a lot of ways, and a part of my evolution of my leadership here in Austin. The connection between University of Texas and Huston-Tillotson, is symbolized by starting the March at UT, at the statue, and then ending it here on my own campus. And when I first started, it was really an alienated relationship, between University of Texas and Huston-Tillotson. Alienated in that we were not seen as a true partner. We were a part of the diversity arm, as opposed to a true partner. And Greg Fenves and I started our... The previous president, started our presidencies at the same time, and he and I became friends, and we're both engineers, so we were both geeks, so we had the same common language. And we really built a friendship quite frankly, with he and his wife. And so that march became symbolic over time, and that connection was strengthened in me as a leader, between our sister institution as and Huston-Tillotson. So that's one part of the march. In keeping with Dr. King's teachings, that we are more alike than we are different, and we need to compliment each other, as opposed to being contrasting and controversial, and combative with each other. So that's a part of the element, I mean, the element of what it means to me, and that's partnership has strengthened over time, even under the current president, he and I have connected and really made commitment to each other, to strengthen our partnerships at all granular levels. And that's healthy for Austin, it's healthy for higher education, and it's healthy for Austin. We can't do what UT does, and UT can't do what we do, so we have to compliment each other. So that's the symbolism of the march itself, between the two anchor institutions in the city. One step beyond that, is when I first started, the march ended in the parking lot of Huston-Tillotson. For some reason, probably good ones, the march did not come onto the campus. Over time, Huston-Tillotson became very closed inside of ourselves. We had a fence around the campus, a chain link fence around the campus, really to protect ourselves from perceptions of what was happening around us. And I'll put perceptions because, I don't know, I wasn't here then. That being said, I was wondering, "Why does it end in the parking lot?" And you know that why you keep doing something over and over and over, but no one really questions or knows why, we're not continuing to be curious about something. And as a new person, I don't know. So I asked the question of the organizers actually, and they told me that it was not an option, to come onto campus. I said, "We're going to change that the next year." So then next year we open the gates up, and I actually marched with Mayor Adler that year, my husband and I marched with Mayor Adler and Diane Land that year. And that was really a good experience. It's good bonding experience to march up that hill, and go down that hill and onto campus. So we had our band... Our drum line, not our band, our drum line playing, our students were chanting. It was really a good moment. And then we just led the crowd, directly onto the campus. It was as though something fell, like a wall fell. And that might've been something just me in my mind, but after that, there were people who had never been on the campus. And we are an Oasis, we have a beautiful campus. You would never know what's up on this hill, until you come onto the campus. So people came onto the campus, and it was really a festive moment. It was almost like a family reunion. And that strengthened over time, even when it was super cold one year, people still came onto the campus, it was still very festive, people still stayed around, people still talk to each other. Someone who doesn't have the first language as you, same first language as you, or someone who doesn't look like you, someone who's not in your age bracket. We were encouraging people just to talk to people. So that was a symbolic, almost like the wall crumbling down, that's a presidential word, crumbling down. So it seemed like the wall it just came down. And we've been very intentional ever since then throughout the year, not just on the day that we recognized Dr. King, but intentional every day, that we opened the campus up. It's beneficial to our students 'cause it's a two way reciprocal relationship with the City of Austin, with the community. Just not just on King's Day, that we do that on a continuing basis. And that's how you build a beloved community to really get to know each other as on a very human level.
- Well, let's take a quick step back, and look at your career journey a bit. You began life working in the world of engineering, and information technology. You spent time at institutions like the Washington Post, Procter & Gamble, Washington State Department of Transportation. What did you get from those experiences, and how did that help lead you into academia?
- So my first job out of undergrad, at Procter & gamble Corporation, Everything's a university, everything's a teaching moment in my mind now. And my children who are grown people remind me, "Mom, every moment is not a teaching moment." I tell them, "Yes, every moment is a teaching moment. "You're always at a university." So my first position out of undergrad, as an operation support engineer at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio was my true corporate training. Procter & Gamble was blue suit, briefcase, true professionalism. You don't talk about your salaries, you come, you do a good job, you only strive for excellence. The Washington Post was very adventurous for me. It was an exciting time there at the Washington post, even though I was a programmer assistant's analyst, working on the Sunday edition of the paper, which was worth a lot of money in revenues. Everything had to be right. Carrying a pager, pre-cell phones, et cetera, on call 24/7, even while pregnant. That was really an adventure for me. I loved working at the Washington Post. And then the Washington State Department of Transportation was my glass ceiling as a professional. I had a large staff, responsible for all IT projects within the transportation system to include the ferries. So it was a very intense position, when it comes to level of responsibility, et cetera, but a good experience. So my husband... I'm an Air Force wife, we are an Air Force family. My husband was active duty. I was with him of his 21 years active duty. So when he decided to retire, it was my time so to speak, to think about what I wanted to do, because my career transitioned every time we moved to a new base, and I was very fortunate and blessed to have really good jobs, because this is in the eighties and the nineties. And that was the time frame when a black female engineer was a commodity. Unfortunately that's still the case. But at that time, for me in my journey, it was very easy for me to find a position, and a good, solid space, where I grew, every plateau was the next platform to the next level. So I reached in a plateau, but I don't think that I... In fact, I know that I never wanted to be an engineer. I was very good in math, in high school, thank you to my grandmother's training me. And when you're good at math, and graduated from high school in 1975, Black female, it was you were a commodity. So I ended up at Ohio State University. In fact, I'm first-generation myself. When I told my grandfather, and I've told this story, 'cause it's really monumental in my life. He was watching the Cleveland Browns game, I'll never forget it. And I said, "Papa," I was interrupting him, interrupt during Cleveland Browns game, but I'm so excited. I said, "Papa I'm going to school to become an engineer." And he took a deep breath and he looked at me and he said, "Girl, why do you want to go drive a train? "You're always trying to do some different." 'Cause in his mind, that's what an engineer does. So off to Ohio State I went, and I don't know who filled out my FAFSA, how I got there. My English teacher was dating my uncle, and she had actually driven me. My white English teacher was dating my uncle. That's his part of the story. And she took a special interest in me. And so she actually drove me to Ohio State, which now I know is when you bring the pre-freshman in, and high school students interested in the college. I stayed in the residence halls, I fell in love with it, and ended up at Ohio State as an engineer. So served as an engineer for almost 21 years, actually 21 years, exactly 70... Yes, 21 years. And I co-op through school, and I was Ohio state's first co-op student. Now we call it internships, but in the college of engineering, I was their first co-op student, because my mother had worked for 20 years, at the Illuminating Company in Cleveland, is their utility now called First Energy. And she shared that I was going to Ohio State as an engineer, and they were interested in hiring summer interns. So I became Ohio State's first co-op student, which was a part of my journey. I worked at a nuclear power plant, which was very eyeopening. And I started off as a mechanical engineer. In my first summer I worked with all White men, in a coal-fired power plant. And they put me in the basement of the power plant, with a manometer to take the measurements hourly for the whole day. They were hazing me. I drove them around in the 18 passenger van, they don't know they were taking their lives at risk. And I did it that summer, but I went back to school in the fall, and I met with the, mow I know as the chair, and told him, "I don't..." Who my English teacher had introduced me to, and I told him, "I don't want to be an engineer, "I'm changing my major to business." And he said, "Maybe you don't want to be a mechanical engineer." He said, "Well, we have a new field "called information systems." And I'll have to say they just started that a major up. And I transferred into that, and that's how I got into information systems or what we now call information technology or computer science engineering, which has changed the trajectory of my life. So when my husband retired, I came into my own reckoning, if you will, that I need to do something that I have passion about something that I want to go to work every day, and I want to feel good about it. And I always loved learning. I mean, it's instilled in me from my childhood, the passion for learning. So I quit my corporate job, and got a job teaching information technology, information systems at a community college in Washington State. My family thought I was losing my mind. All my friends were like, "Maybe she's going through the change." We call it the change of life. But I was too young to be doing that at that time. So I took a leap of faith and I never looked back. So I started teaching, and the vice president of academic affairs at that time, they lost their chief information officer, their CIO. And she said, "You could do this job with your eyes closed." So that's how I got into administration from teaching. I do really love teaching. I like when people's minds lift or open up. So I got into administration there at a community college, a very large community college, with a lot of resources in Washington State. Microsoft was pumping a lot of money into the community college system, just the education system in general at that time, 1996. So it's now that I'm talking about this out loud, this reflection moment, you're here to help me, Chris, because this is like a therapeutic moment for me, as I go full circle in my life. The concept of administration was very easy to me because I was at a very well-resourced place. My husband decided not to retire, he would take one more assignment. He was going for Lieutenant Colonel. So he said, I'll take one more assignment, and it was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where we met in Ohio he was stationed at Wright Patterson as a second Lieutenant. And I decided I'm doing something I love. My children have been to 13 different schools at that time as a result of my husband's military career. And I was always up and changing my life, finding a new barber, new beautician, new everything, every move. So I said, "I'm not going. "You can take this one last job, one less assignment, "I'm staying here." So I stayed behind and stayed at Pierce College, which was the institution I was working at, at the time. And then my husband met someone on the golf course, a very serendipity moment there in Dayton, Ohio, who told him about this institution called Central State University, that the State of Ohio, a historically black college was almost closing. And my husband being an HBC graduate was very fascinated by the story, and he said they had one job in the administration left. It was the university was in crisis, but the government governor had come in to save the institution, keep it alive. Removed the whole board, hired a whole new administrative team. They had one job left, the CIO. So I went on the interview, just to see what it was about. And I was very into... I am a change agent, I do like challenges, so I took that position there in Ohio, and I was there for the next 15 years, in administration, rebuilding an institution. So Pierce College prepared me for that experience, because there, we had limited if any resources, but I knew what it was supposed to look like. So I'm a strong believer that you learn backwards, to live forward, and every position then in turn prepared me for the next, whether you know it or not.
- So let's jump ahead then. In 2015, you moved to Austin, and took this big leap to become the president and CEO of HT. Can you talk about what it was like when you got there, and what it is that you set out to achieve?
- So having been at Central State, for a little over 15 years, I'd done almost every job. So I had a lot of street cred to be a president, but I didn't have the credential, because I was corporate, so I did not have the doctorate. And the president who I worked for, who was my mentor to this moment, he decided to retire. And I believed in my soul that I would be the next president of Central State. I had done my time, I knew the institution in and out. We took it from 800 students to a little over 2200, in that timeframe. We rebuilt it, it was moving forward. I was going to be the president. I interviewed for 15 years, and the board was very kind to me and said, "We love you, we want you to stay, "but you don't have a doctorate." And that was like a big blow in my belly. And I was 55 at that time, so I really went in a valley, because it was the first time of my life, that I was not qualified for something, I didn't have the right credentials. My son said I had plenty of street cred, but it's higher education, I got to have the credential. So once again, leap of faith, I went back to school to get my doctorate at the age of 55. And it was extremely intense. It was a little more complicated, and trying than I anticipated. So, when I was about to defend my dissertation, someone, actually, Michael Sorrell, who's the president of Paul Quinn, was my classmate at the University of Pennsylvania, where we got our doctorates together. Michael's in Dallas and he nominated me for this position. He said, "Classmate, you should take this position, "you would be a great president." He said, "They need healing." I'll never forget that. And I was offended by that, "oh, because I'm a woman, I'm the healer?" I'm a leader, I'm a manager, I know this stuff. But Michael and I are friends, we talked about it. So I applied for the practice, because I had never been in a presidential search, and they're very intense. And the trustees here at HT took this search very seriously. But I was practicing. So long story short, it changed from practicing, to I really want that job, when I came to Austin and I came on the campus, and I met the students and I met the faculty, I met the staff, I read about the mission. So I wanted the position, like I was all in. So I got the position, started July 1st, the first woman of the combined institutions. I didn't know anything about the 1928 plan. I came from a public institution. I will never complain about public universities ever again, because at least you get enough funding to plan the floor if you will, make your payroll, et cetera. Privates are not like that. It's expensive to serve poor people. Huston-Tillotson was in a very fiscally, fragile place. We did not have a good relationship with the community, and the community in general, and in very specific ways. These are things that did not come out in the interview process, because I was really enamored with being a president and getting a presidency in a prosperous city like Austin, because I've done a lot of research about Austin. So here I am. So I set off on a journey in the partnership with my board, to build a rock solid cabinet, which I have, and it was already pockets of excellence within the faculty, with caring deeply about the students, bringing their souls to what they do on a daily basis with very limited resources, and a lot of challenges. And we still have moles and warts, but that's because humans work here, frankly, and it's expensive to serve poor people. So I wanted to do three things, lift the brand of the university, get fiscal stability, and grow our enrollment. And as you know, I've announced my retirement, because you got to know when it's time to pass the baton, when it's good for you, and when it's good for the university. And I was flipping the 146 year history, and we've gained fiscal stability. We're not rolling in the dough. That's why I got so excited about getting this donation from my... Investment, we call them investments here on campus. But we are fiscally stable. Our brand has been lifted. Senator Watson, when he was Senator, he was governor for a day, and he raised money for both the University of Texas Dell Medical, and he raised money for Huston-Tillotson. and Clay Johnson and I, who also became friends, were like in this competition together, and in my mind, I thought, "Well, why would he do it with Dell Medical and HT?" And he raised more money for HT, than he raised for Dell Medical. And in my mind, I was like, "Our name, we have a brand in Austin." That was an indicator, a metric from me on my dashboard. And then the third was growing our enrollment, and we were on an upward trajectory, pre COVID. We have suffered some loss, in our adult degree population here on campus, but we will rebound. I have no doubt about that. I have a rock solid chief operating officer, that manages a good team of him admissions, and financial aid, and the indicators are that we will survive this. We are a stronger institution as a result of COVID. It's made us look at ourselves and how we do things. And it's actually the silver lining, is it's forced us to do things that we were always leery of. You know, higher education does not make a hard right turn, we're ocean liner. And this storm forced us into a hard right turn. And that has really helped to strengthen the institution, and to give us more courage as an institution. So it's time for me to pass the baton. We're going to be launching a capital campaign, in the next three years, and a president needs time, to get to know his or her institution, and it's just the right time for me to move on. And I have fear, I'll be candid about this, I'll be vulnerable, because I don't know my next chapter. I have never not worked since I was 17 years old, and I just had a 64th birthday. So in all those years, I've always had a next thing, even when I was in school. One year of my doctoral studies, I did not work, and even then I had something to get up to do everyday, to write from my dissertation, to do those things. I had a mission, a purpose. So I have the universe. My sister keeps reminding me, God will take care of me, the universe, my gifts will make room for me. That scripture that I tell other people, and now I need to hear it myself. Someone actually wrote it back to me recently. So that's been my journey here in Austin. And so true reflection, and I had applied for a position, a larger institution, and did not get it, but it was a good moment for me, because it forced me to be still, and to reflect and think about what my campus has accomplished, in the seven years that I've been here. And that's how I came to be. It became very clear to me, that my purpose is over here. So I'll just have to stay open to see where my next chapter is. And now I've self-proclaimed myself as a lifetime resident of Austin. I love the city, it's a very magical place. We have our challenges, we still have a lot of work to do, but there's a lot of opportunity here for all. And the people who live in the city, not all, but the majority, it has been my experience, are willing and ready and are actually doing, what I call the heart work, H-E-A-R-T, to dismantle systemic racism, and the challenges that we have. It's going to take a lot of heart work, and individual reflection at work. But I meet those people, I know those people every single day, and I see that work happening. I'm very encouraged by that. And I want to continue to be a part of it. And I teach at the University of Texas, of course in the summer. So I already have my natural connection to the city, so. Oh, I should share this. One of my faculty members asked me, when I'm not on the... We're starting up a center of justice and equity, which was one of the things I wanted to accomplish here on campus. And my faculty member asked me, I'm saying this on a recording, so he can't step back from it. He asked me to sit on his board, once I stepped down from the presidency, and I'm really looking forward to that.
- Well, I think everyone, who's had a chance to get to know you, is excited to see what that next chapter brings. I would love to because you touched on it, and it's been an important topic on "Here To Help" the response to the pandemic. So you were in this role for just about five years, you had done all this work to lay the foundation, and then a global pandemic and financial crisis hits. And as we saw throughout the pandemic, institutions and systems that were already struggling, got hit pretty hard. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to make the transition to virtual, online learning, and then bringing students back on campus, and how both the institution and you, what you learned about HT and yourself through that process?
- So, the big answer is I learned just how committed the people that I work with here on this campus every day are to this mission, and how it's personal for them, the survival of the institution, and to continue to move from surviving, to thriving. Because as I said, we were stable. We had stabilized ourselves. We weren't as fragile as we were. So I really came to see that we're not fragile at all, not at all. That might be, the fiscally fragile term that you read about, that might be the words that are used, but the grit at this institution, we've survived Jim Crow, we were founded 10 years after Juneteenth. So we started with either enslaved people, people who had been enslaved or are their descendants, their children. That's just a fact. And over the years, the standard of excellence that this institution has maintained, despite the forces coming against it, when University of Texas integrated. Just all the things that happened, racial strife, just everything. Just it's a survivor. So how dare me to think that this institution can't survive it. But in that moment, in my humanity, I had a lot of anxiety about it. That lasted a very short time. And when I looked back on it... I was reflecting on this with someone a couple of days ago, couple weeks ago. And when look back on it, it's just every day we just did it, we just did it. I read where they said that crises don't make strong leaders, they revealed strong leaders. And my brother and sister presidents, we spend a lot of time talking about this, how we come and almost stay in crisis mode. And this one crisis really was a shaking, a wake-up call. So I alluded to this earlier about going online, about that hard right turn. We were very fortunate. I am an engineer, so we have a rock solid IT infrastructure. And we had put into place all of the things, that you need to teach remotely, or to teach online, I'll say, but we did not have any fully online degrees. So we had some hybrid work and a few courses online, but nothing large. So we had it all in place. So my faculty and staff, within two weeks, we lifted the entire institution, from bricks and mortar to online, with the things that we had already planned in place. We had kept putting our toe in the water. We said, we're going to have an associates degree fully online by this date, and then that day would come, and always be something that we were like, "Well, we're not quite ready." Well, we had to be ready. And our students were... It was not the desirable thing, it was not. And it was such an eye-opener because the internet... My students were just, they were extraordinary through it. The internet is not a utility, it's not a utility, and everybody doesn't have access to the internet. So the week that we were going on spring break, and faculty asks for a week extension for them to prepare their syllabus, and get their courses together for online delivery. So we extended spring break a week. That was the two weeks that we took to take it online. So the day that we were closing the residence hall... And I spend a lot of time with my students, so this has been a very sad occasion for me, when we didn't have students here on campus. So we were closing the residence halls for spring break, but we would tell the students, take your things home because we're going to go online. And a student came up to me and she said, "Dr. Burnette I'm really..." She was very stressed. And this has been very hard on students, very, very hard on them. She said, "Dr. Burnette, I don't have a computer "and I don't have the internet at home." And I said, "It's going to be okay, we'll work it out." And I said, "You can have..." She said, "Well, I have a computer I can borrow." I said, "And you can get access." And I said, this to her, I said, "You can get free internet, free wifi, "at McDonald's or Starbucks "don't use that as an excuse, "you can get that anywhere." I didn't know that everything was going to be shut down, and reflection, when everything was shutting down, we launched a campaign to raise enough money for our students to have, every student to have a surface, to purchase that machine for them, that tablet for them, and for them to have hotspots, et cetera, everything they need, and to ship that to them. So we launched this campaign to do that, and the city of Austin did step up. I was a little disappointed, I'll be candid, because some larger entities, who I thought would really come through for us did not, but that made us scrap harder and dig deeper, and show who we are, and we met that mark. And this was pre Cares Act money, because no one knew that the Cares Act money et cetera, was going to even be distributed. That was really a lifesaver for many reasons, because when we decided to close our residence halls, we lost $1.6 million in revenue, instantly. And then we had to refund students for the time that they weren't in the residence halls. So it was one fiscal challenge after the other. And all that said, the hardest thing for me, was having to postpone commencement because commencement is a rite of passage for my students. We graduate families, not individuals. So to take that rite of passage away from my students and their families, was very, very hard for me. That was probably one of the hardest decisions I've made in my entire career, to include my corporate managing various systems, et cetera, et cetera, that seemed irrelevant. Which is why I love what I do, 'cause it's, you're really helping people to live their best lives. So we did have the commencement for the class of 2020, and the class of 2021 in August of last year. It was hot, hot, hot, and I was overwhelmed and pleased with the number of students that came back for their commencement, from the class of 2020. They wanted that opportunity, to walk across that stage, and to get that diploma. It's monumental in their lives, and for their families to come, and experience that with them. And COVID did not take that away from us, the power in that moment, where that they earned that degree. No one can take it from them, and it's an equalizer in their lives, and COVID just couldn't take that from us. So I learned a lot about.. And my campus, I can't say this enough, we are stronger because of COVID or maybe even in spite of COVID, we're stronger.
- On the about page for Huston-Tillotson, you have two hashtags that you use, #WeAreYou, and #IAmThePipeline. Can you talk a little bit about the significance there?
- So the, I am the pipeline was born, and out of a moment that when my second year here, I participated in a panel at Google Fiber, about the challenges that Austin has, when it comes to hiring people of color, in the technology spaces. So I was invited to participate on the panel, and I talked about the Huston-Tillotson, and how we have 200+ bright young people, graduating in all kinds of fields, that can be used in all kinds of ways in the tech spaces. Not everybody is a techie as you know, in a technology company. You have people who have to write well, and people who do human resources, back office operations, accounting, et cetera. And not only that, we also have math, we also have some STEM majors. So I got on stage, got on my platform talking about the beauty of Huston-Tillotson, my wonderful students that can diversify the workplace, and the role Huston-Tillotson plays in that in Austin. So right after I finished, the next person was from a fortune 10 company, that will remain unnamed, a very senior person in that company, and they asked a question of her about diversifying the workforce. And she started off and said, "We just have such a hard time "in finding people of color to hire in Austin." And I thought to myself, "This person has not..." And I probably didn't say person in my mind. "This person did not hear anything I said." so, you know, they have that big screen at Google Fiber behind you. So one of my colleagues was in the audience, and he told me later that I did like this. Look to her, like, I can't believe she just said that, she didn't hear anything I said, she needs to do heart work. So at the end, my very different Preston James was also on the panel. And during the panel Preston, had talked about... He runs DEV INC, and he had talked about what if scenarios, that's how you peel the onion back, where you get to authenticity in hiring, and placing people of color. So I said, I'm going to use what Mr. James... I didn't really know Preston that well, then I said, I'm going to use Mr. James' what if scenario, how you keep going, keep inquisitive, keep challenging yourself to get to a space. So I said, "I'm going to use the, what if scenario." I said, "What if Austin, Texas "had a historically Black college, "right in the center of the city, "producing 200+ graduates." I said, "I bet that would help us address "the challenges that we have "when it comes to diversifying the workforce. "We should look into how we can do that." Now, I was being sarcastic, but I was frustrated, and I was also getting to know Austin at that time. So I left thinking, and it went silent. Like it was a full room, no one said anything. So I thought, "Oh brother, oh, well, whatever, "that's just who I am." So I left, I got right off the stage and left. And this young man ran behind me, and he was a writer with the "Austin Statesman." And he said, "I'd like to come over and talk to you. "I'm interested about what you said about, "Huston-Tillotson University, filling the pipeline." Because I had said that in talk. So I said, "Sure." I gave him my card and he followed through. And fast forward, maybe three months, he came on campus, interviewed me, and like three months had passed by. So I had spoke at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner on a Saturday night, and I woke up that morning to my phone buzzing and buzzing, buzzing. And I didn't have my glasses on, and all I could see was newspaper story. And I thought, "Oh my gosh, did I offend somebody? "Do I need to call my board? "Am I in trouble? "What did I say last night?" So I get up, I run to get the newspaper, and a story was... And I'm a mother of a journalist, so this is important to me. A story was on the Sunday's paper on below the fold, a story about Huston-Tillotson University and the pipeline. And my PR people picked that up and started saying, #IamThePipeline, and it really stuck. And even when we were talking to Tesla recently, about how it's helping for them, helping us stand up a mechanical engineering. Excuse me, manufacturing, not mechanical engineering, I'm anti mechanical engineering, 'cause my own experience. Manufacturing engineering degree, we talked about the pipeline, and building the pipeline, and a funnel, if you will, for young people to progress through their careers, into particular positions. So the we are ideal, #WeAreIdeal, ideal is an acronym for our core values on campus. And we believe deeply in our core values, we work hard to meet them. Integrity, diversity, excellence, accountability, and leadership, it's who we are as a campus, and is what we work to instill in our students. And our students actually pick that up even more so than I do sometimes. I can only speak for myself, because they have ideal week, that students sponsor. Monday is all about integrity, Tuesday diversity, Wednesday excellence, Thursday accountability, and Friday, they have me come and talk to them about leadership. So it made me very happy, when I saw that our students actually picked up those core values and #weAreIdeal.
- Well, Dr. Burnette, every time we talk, I feel like there's not enough time, to even scratch the surface, at all the things that I'd love to hear from you about. But I just like to close with the question, that we always end with, which is when you look back now, as we're getting ready to... As hard as this is to believe. Look at the start of the third year of this pandemic. When you look back over this time, can you talk about anything, that you've seen or experienced, that has left you with some hope and optimism for the future?
- It's the grit of young people. If you are 19, 20 years old, in your entire life, we've had crisis. It's just one after the other. And they get punched in the belly with something, and they just like the transformer, they get stronger. And the young students here on this campus, they're extremely civically engaged. This spring, students are actually organizing and sponsoring a panel here, a conference here on the campus, doing that with one of their faculty members, about the politics of the day and the power of voting and being an informed voter. That gives me great hope, that these young people that they want to teach themselves, they want to understand the decision-makers and how they get to office. And hopefully it will spark for some of them to become public servants. So their stories are so amazing, and the way that they look at the world is so encouraging, it's really fearless. I mean, even my own children, they are my heroes, my hero. I like want to be my own children when I grow up, because I look at, even having gone through 13 different schools, they're like chameleons. So young people give me great hope. And through this pandemic, I have seen them at their worst, which then they come back, and come back at their best, where you don't have the tools to pursue your education, but you don't let that stop you, you have faith in your institution, that is going to partner with you, and you know that you have to do your part, for you to become a college graduate, which is the ultimate goal. And that's, once again, education is the great equalizer, and these young people see that they know that, and they want it, they're hungry. And that gives me great hope for the future.
- Dr. Burnette, thank you so much for joining me today. It's been a wonderful conversation, but thank you so much for everything that you do for Austin, for the world. And I think like everyone else, I'm excited to be on the sidelines, and cheer you on in whatever comes next, 'cause, while you've had what is a pretty long and impressive career, it feels like you're still just getting started, so I can't wait to see what comes next.
- Thank you for saying that, Chris, and I really want to take a second, to thank you for your friendship, from the first time that we met, we have a kinship. We are examples of two people, that are more alike than they are different. As different as we may appear to be, we're actually more alike. And I really appreciate your friendship, and your support and your encouragement, and for everything that you do for our community.