By her own account, the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” altered Colette Pierce Burnette’s life.
“My husband and I saw that movie together, and I kept saying: ‘That happened to me! That happened to me!’” the outgoing president of Huston-Tillotson University said about the lives of trailblazing Black women who toiled almost invisibly in the fields of math and science.
Seeing “Hidden Figures” helped spark a “fire in the belly” to make sure that higher education became more equitable. She came to Huston-Tillotson at a time when historically Black colleges were stepping into the national spotlight — and she could do something significant about those inequities, some of which she experienced personally.
Burnette, who conquered the fields of engineering, information technology and higher education management, had many times been the only woman — and the only Black woman — in the room. Early conclusions were ignored; her work was discounted.
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Burnette, who just turned 64, is no longer a hidden figure.
In fact, the Austin Chamber of Commerce has named Burnette its 2021 Austinite of the Year, not only for her work in accelerating and expanding the city’s historically Black university, but also for her citywide civic leadership, including crucial service as co-chair for the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities.
“In every room I’ve been with her, she has encouraged courageous leadership,” said Nikki Graham, the 2021 chairwoman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “She’s collaborative. She wants people to work together. But she’s not afraid to push the status quo and make people see things differently. She has played a key role in this important time in our city’s history.”
Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the Austinite of the Year Award is given to people for making outsize contributions to the community. She said she feels Burnette helped turn longtime talk on issues such as social justice, economic opportunity and affordability into action, especially by making Huston-Tillotson a locus of that action.
“In every sense of the spirit of this award, she has made extraordinary contributions in a very short time,” Huffman said. “Her impact was felt immediately and deeply on the most important issues our community has been struggling with, and on the opportunities we have to fix those problems. … She’s practical, but she’s also aspirational. She truly believes that Austin’s best days are ahead of us — and I love that about her.”
Burnette gets choked up when she thinks about the new honor — she has earned many — which is often given to leaders who have devoted lifetimes to improving Austin.
“When I found out, I was speechless,” Burnette said. “It’s big. But not for me — I mean, not just for me. It’s big for a lot of people. I may be the face of it, but I’m not it. I am a vessel. People say: ‘How do you do it? How do keep up the stamina? How do you keep up the energy?’ It’s just not me. … I have an army of people behind me.”
Burnette was born in 1957 in Cleveland, Ohio, where she also grew up. Her father, who moved to the North from Mississippi during the Great Migration, was one of 18 kids. He finished the sixth grade. Her mother, a Cleveland native, graduated from high school.
“My mom and dad are the smartest people I know,” Burnette said. “But they didn’t have the opportunities.”
Schooling, therefore, was paramount for the Pierce children.
“I thought college was the 13th grade,” Burnette said. “I did not know that it was optional until I got to Ohio State, and then I realized that people were there by choice. My dad knew that my sister and I were going to college.”
A child of the 1960s — “protected from but not protected from” the great swirl of social changes — Burnette attended the still-new John F. Kennedy High School, a Black public school in Cleveland with high standards.
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“Education truly is the great equalizer,” Burnette said. “In my school, there was no mediocrity. It was all excellence.
“When I go back to my high school reunions, I have judges in my class, a college president — myself — doctors, very successful entrepreneurs. So even though we were quote-unquote ‘low income,’ you don’t know it until you look back on it.”
Early on, the girl from a large, strong family was good at math.
“My grandmother used to get butcher paper from the local deli, which was owned by Italians — there were very few stores that were owned by Black people in my community,” Burnette recalled. “She’d paste the butcher paper up on the walls around the kitchen. While I was eating, I’d recite my times tables — all the elements of math — and my spelling words, etc.”
At Ohio State University in the 1970s, she was the only Black engineering student in her graduating class, and also the first Black Ohio State student to intern at an engineering job.
“When I walked in my chemistry class, the only thing I recognized was the beakers and the Bunsen burners,” Burnette said. “I was the only girl in that class and the only Black. But my upbringing made me know that I could do anything. I was a bit fearless.”
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Minnie M. McGee, an administrator who had attended a historically Black college in the South, had been hired to recruit and retain Black students in Ohio State’s engineering program.
“She built a cocoon where I could just be me,” Burnette said. “Where someone was pouring into me and making me proud of who I am so my own gifts could come out, without me apologizing.”
After earning a Bachelor of Science degree, she took a job as an engineer at Proctor and Gamble, running the computer lab at a plant that made Tide and Crest.
Soon after, Burnette met and married now-retired Air Force Lt. Col. Daarel Burnette, who had attended Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta.
“I knew absolutely nothing about active-duty military life,” she said. “I knew he was cute. He is from the South, and I am from the North. He is introverted, and I’m extroverted.”
The couple raised two children, Daarel Burnette II, a journalist now working in Washington, D.C., and Daana Burnette, a producer in Los Angeles.
“We got married in July, and we got orders to move in August — to Warner Robins, Georgia,” Burnette said about a place not unlike the setting for “Hidden Figures.” “I had to get 20 references for a job. I interviewed with an older white guy — all of them were Georgia Tech graduates. … They called me the ‘sassy Negro.’ … But I come from big family in Cleveland. That did not intimidate me.”
She faced another hurdle when she went to pick up an application for the officer’s club.
“She told me: ‘There is criteria to join this club,’” Burnette said. “‘Well, my husband is an officer, is that criteria?’ She didn’t believe me. My husband had to come back that afternoon to pick up the application.”
While there, she earned her Master of Science degree in administration from Georgia College, a public liberal arts school in Milledgeville
The Burnette family moved often, living across the country and abroad.
“My husband’s career was good to me,” Burnette said. “I would have stayed in Ohio for my whole life. I’m from Cleveland, went to school in Columbus, and took my first job in Cincinnati. I’d still be working for Proctor and Gamble.”
Among other jobs, Burnette worked for The Washington Post as a systems analyst, and she ran her own computer consulting firm, CompuMent.
While her early adult career was spent in the corporate world, she moved over to education when her husband retired.
Burnette started by teaching community college and then earned her Ed.D. in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. She is also a graduate of the management development program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Before coming to Austin, she held numerous administrative positions at universities across the country.
“We learn backwards to live forwards,” Burnette said. “Everything in my life has prepared me for my journey in Austin and for my presidency of Huston-Tillotson. I am praying and hopeful that my journey at Huston-Tillotson will now prepare me for my next chapter — and I don’t know what that is. “
Burnette joined Huston-Tillotson as president and CEO on July 21, 2015, the first woman to hold that position since Huston and Tillotson colleges merged in 1952.
Many Austinites don’t know that Huston-Tillotson was the first institution of higher learning in Austin, established in 1875, two years before St. Edward’s University and eight years before the University of Texas.
The school’s rich history — though often hidden in the heart of the city — attracted Burnette. So did the community that surrounded it.
“As I drove around East Austin and saw the remnants of it — you’d see where there used to be a barbershop, but now there’s just a sign … or a school that is not in the best condition anymore,” Burnette said. “It really reminded me of the community that I grew up in. I had the feeling that I was home in a very odd way in East Austin.”
Although she did not attend a historically Black college herself, she had long been a proponent of the schools. A member of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically Black sorority with a strong presence at Ohio State, she remains very engaged with the organization.
During the past couple of years, the general public has learned more about the reach of historically Black colleges and historically Black sororities and fraternities because of interest in Vice President Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“HBCs have been important since their inception,” Burnette said. “The world is finally recognizing the beauty of these schools and how they built the middle class.”
Huston-Tillotson, however, was financially fragile when she arrived. Enrollment was down. As president, she gave speeches about perseverance.
“Not using as an excuse that you came from a quote-unquote ‘underprepared’ high school,” Burnette said. “Preparation is relative. Grit is a good part of preparation. It is sometimes even more so than the reading, writing and arithmetic part of it.”
She credits her predecessor, Huston-Tillotson President Larry L. Earvin, with setting the stage.
“When I arrived, I read something in the Statesman about the college not facing outward,” she said. “I only knew about facing outward. … If Cleveland had had a historically Black college with such rich history in the middle of my community, how wonderful that would have been.”
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Injured at the airport early in her tenure, Burnette took Uber back and forth to Huston-Tillotson. She always chatted with the drivers.
“Eight or maybe nine of the first 10 didn’t even know the university existed,” Burnette said. “I could not understand that in a city like Austin with a university in the heart of the city — and people didn’t know it was there.”
That has changed substantially during the past seven years.
“Colette has transformed Huston-Tillotson,” said Graham, formerly with Bank of America, now the head of Hector and Gloria Lopez Foundation, which supports students who identify as Latino, low-income and first-generation in their pursuit of higher education. “She has increased HT’s endowment, made it a central focus of the community, and made clear the needs of college attainment for young men of color in order to build the highly skilled, talented workforce we need in Austin. She has put a finer point on the needs of HBCs in keeping with a trend we see nationwide.”
Huffman goes even further in her assessment.
“I believe that Dr. Burnette has made the students and the institution of HT part of the economic success of Austin,” she said. “I do think part of growing the university is making sure that economic opportunities are available to the students, to the teachers, to the staff — and that they are helping drive the success of the community. I think she’s done that.”
“Austin is such a magical city,” Burnette said. “There is so much opportunity here. There are so many things my students have been able to do, and be a part of, and to be able to blossom. We have a long way to go as an institution, but we are at that stage.”
Although here for just seven years, Burnette has put down deep roots and has served on numerous citywide boards and committees, despite holding down a daunting day job.
“I am a self-proclaimed lifetime member of the Austin community,” she said. “Nobody can take that away from me. … You are not going to get rid of me.”
As Austin looked once again for answers about social justice and equity in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Burnette discovered many others in Austin who shared her passions.
“I’ve always been a social justice warrior,” Burnette said. “I met people who really leaned into wanting Austin be a beloved community as Dr. King defined it.”
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As Mayor Steve Adler put together the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities, he sensed that Burnette fit the job of co-chair of the task force, along with Paul Cruz, then chief of Austin schools.
“I am not a token,” she said. “I am unapologetically a Black female. I was hesitant to do it, because my job was so complicated.”
Improving Austin’s effectiveness at social equity helped her day job. She discovered that she could not recruit effectively for a historically Black college if the city’s reputation was not inclusive. Also, she could draft local leaders in her efforts to build up Huston-Tillotson.
“It put me in a position to meet more people and share the gifts of the institution in a more public way,” Burnette said. “I met the movers and shakers and thought leaders in the city.”
As a result, enrollment is up and Huston-Tillotson is no longer fiscally fragile. So why leave her position at the college?
“I have stood in my purpose as president of the university,’” Burnette said. “And my purpose in the community. A mentor once told me, ‘You always leave the party when you’re having fun.’ The university is in a really good place right now.”
She has but one regret regarding her Huston-Tillotson tenure: She did not build more buildings.
“We have the land. We need a new academic building, and we need a new residence hall. Our gym is not air-conditioned. We don’t have a student union,” she said. “I kept looking for a private-public partnership. … That’s not going to happen by June 30. But the next person is going to get that done. You rarely get to see the tree from the seeds you plant. I want to come back for the ribbon cutting, and I hope I just get to touch the scissors.”
In the near future, Burnette will continue to teach a course in social justice in higher education leadership at the University of Texas. She has thought about running a nonprofit that has social justice and higher education as part of its mission.
“Look, Colette has the energy, the intellect and the influence to make sure Austin achieves its fullest potential,” Huffman said. “She’s also someone whose enthusiasm is contagious. You find yourself wanting to work with her.”
“She has a background in business and a unique set of skills that help her relate to elected officials, business people and academics alike. She’s a unifier,” Graham said. “She brings all people to the table at HT while shining a light on the needs of the surrounding community.
“She’s transformed our community for the better.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
EXCLUSIVE: Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University, named Austinite of the Year – Austin American-Statesman
By her own account, the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” altered Colette Pierce Burnette’s life.