October 14, 2017

Advancing Historically Black Colleges and Universities

by Linda S. Kadaba

Colette Pierce Burnette, GRD ’15, left a lucrative career in engineering to find her purpose in higher education. As president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, she is committed to the purpose of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in American education.

Colette Pierce Burnette, GRD’15 (Photo courtesy of Huston-Tillotson University)

“The mission of HBCUs is more important than ever,” says Pierce Burnette, the first female president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson since the previously separate Samuel Huston and Tillotson colleges merged in 1952, and the second female president in the institutions’ 140-year history. “HBCUs give people of color an opportunity to be in a space where their peers see them simply as students and not students who are different,” she says.

As an engineer, Pierce Burnette worked at a variety of companies, including Procter & Gamble and her own computer networks business.

“But I was never quite fulfilled,” she says. She turned to edu­cation, teaching computer science at a community college and eventually joining an HBCU, Central State University (CSU), in Wilberforce, Ohio, as director of information technology. There she rose through the ranks to vice president of administration and CFO, earning a track record by tripling enrollment, boosting morale, and introducing best practices to save hundreds of thou­sands in the budget.

“The mission of HBCUs is more important than ever.”

Eager to take on a presidency, she knew she lacked one qualification. “I had street credibility, but I didn’t have the doctorate,” she says. In the Executive Doctorate program at Penn GSE, Pierce Burnette says, she worked harder than ever before. “You may think you’re going to school once a month,” she says, referring to the sessions on campus, “but really, you’re going to school every day.”

Her doctoral thesis on Wilberforce University, the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans, reinforced her staunch support of HBCUs. Networking with her fellow students brought her to her current role.

As president, Pierce Burnette has worked to build community on campus and partnerships with the surrounding city of Austin. She has also grown Huston-Tillotson’s adult degree program, which includes tracks in business administration, education, liberal arts, psychology, and criminal justice. “It is designed for working adults whose access to higher education may be otherwise limited due to personal, financial, and professional responsibilities,” she says.

That kind of opportunity is at the heart of HBCUs, she notes. “College gives people choices,” she says. “HBCUs are an investment in the future.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Penn GSE Magazine.