Huston-Tillotson University Embraces its Civil Rights Legacy to Become an Anchor in East Austin

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, President and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University — Austin’s oldest institution of higher learning and only Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Photo by Kylie Birchfield.
What a good problem it is to have to not be able to name a single proudest moment as the leader Huston-Tillotson University (HTU), Austin’s oldest institution of higher learning.

Last week, Huston-Tillotson University hosted Rev. Jesse Jackson and media personality Roland Martin on campus to shine a light on the voter suppression efforts underway by state legislators. In an interview for Martin’s online news show, Roland Martin Unfiltered, HTU President Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette said it made sense for Martin and Jackson to visit the city’s oldest higher ed institution and only historically Black university and bring the civil rights conversation to life for its students. After all, HTU served as the epicenter for the local Black Lives Matter movement after last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd, and it has a long history of civil rights activism as a bedrock of Austin’s Eastside.

“We’ve worked really hard to be one of the anchor institutions in Austin,” said Burnette in an interview with soulciti. 

This effort includes attracting new partnerships and initiatives to make the institution a premier destination for students. For example, HT’s Center for Academic Innovation and Transformation recently launched a partnership with Apple, the Golden Apple Teacher Program, to recruit and train more Black males as teachers.  And when former State Senator Kirk Watson had an opportunity to serve as Governor for the day in 2019, he hosted a fundraiser naming Dell Medical School and HTU as the beneficiaries. Burnette felt that moment represented a turn to finally getting the HBCU its recognition as the jewel in the violet crown of Austin.

Crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

“We really need to have more confidence in ourselves,” Burnette said. One instance where she feels like the HTU team really delivered was the transition to online instruction because of the pandemic. “We had been hesitant to trust ourselves to move just instruction online. However, during the pandemic, we moved everything online: classes, counseling, library services, functions of the Dean of Students and Student Affairs, even athletics, and our annual coronation of our King and Queen.”

She beamed as she explained how students used graphic design and video technology to simulate her crowning Mr. and Mrs. HTU in a virtual environment. Quoting Denis Leary, she said, “Crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” While other institutions crumbled under the weight of the pandemic, we were already accustomed to securing resources for underserved communities and being innovative problem solvers. “We were made for this moment.”

This week, HTU is poised to welcome trailblazing astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison to campus as commencement speaker. 

“Dr. Jemison has a humble story of resilience and she’s a trailblazer, so I was excited to know (graduating students) would be hearing from her.” With Burnette’s engineering and IT background, she welcomes the spotlight on more women in the sciences. HTU is proud of its #IAmThePipeline initiative, which seeks to connect students to many opportunities that lie in industries in which Black people are historically underrepresented. Having closer contact with scientists such as herself and Dr. Jemison makes such aspirations feel more realistic. 

Once you taste chocolate, you never go back

Burnette pointed out this opportunity to be innovative and discover one’s natural talents is often much more profound at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) than a majority institution. Because of this, Burnette is not surprised at the newsworthy migration of black talent, like acclaimed writers Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent appointments at Howard University, to HBCUs. Having spent the first 26 years of her career in corporate America, she can relate to the discovery of the HBCU experience later in life. “Once you taste chocolate, you never go back. This is true for students and faculty of all backgrounds. You fall in love with it. You crave it.”

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