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HBCU President: 'I Slept Better' After Deciding On All Online Classes In The Fall

Colette Pierce Burnette is the president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. The HBCU is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state.
Colette Pierce Burnette is the president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. The HBCU is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state.

Historically Black colleges and universities have an extra factor to consider as they plan on how to operate this next school year: Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, Black people are dying from the coronavirus at two and a half times the rate of white people.

Colette Pierce Burnette is the president of Huston-Tillotson University, a small, private HBCU in Austin, Texas. She recently announced that the school's 1,100 students will not be returning in the fall, but that all classes will be online.

"We must have looked at over a dozen different scenarios — from being fully online to being fully on ground here on campus," she tells All Things Considered. "The students' health, the safety of our faculty, our staff, the people who work here, was paramount."

To help address technology barriers that students face, Burnette says the school will supply tablets to all students enrolled for the fall and provide internet access through mobile hotspots.

Here are excerpts from her interview.

Why did you ultimately come to the decision to go fully online as opposed to online in a limited way, but still have some in-person, socially distanced components to the curriculum in the upcoming year?

We followed the science. ... We have a small, intimate campus. When you look at social distancing of young people, the age of the people who serve our students, the race of the people who serve our students, as well as the cost associated with the PPE [personal protective equipment], testing, quarantining, it becomes overwhelming for a small school such as us.

And then you add on top of that my concern for the safety and well-being of our students. It ended up being a complicated decision to make, a very hard decision to make, but I slept better that night once the campus decided that this is the best thing for us to do. ... And it's temporary. It's not long lasting. We are not becoming an online school.

How do you feel your responsibility, as the leader of an HBCU, compares to the responsibilities of a leader of another college during this time? What feels different about your job?

My role as an HBCU president, of what I consider to be a jewel in a prosperous city like Austin, yet is somewhat fragile because of the population that we serve. It's expensive to serve people who are low income.

And sometimes I listen to some of my fellow presidents ... of large majority institutions or majority institutions of similar size, who worry about making payroll or worry about enrollment, worry about the challenges — known and unknown — that COVID-19 has placed on us because we can't do business as usual. ... That's my life as an HBCU president every day. It's compounded now by a crisis. And I believe that my brother and sister presidents of my fellow HBCUs ... we are postured for a moment such as this. You're almost groomed for a moment such as this, to guide your institution through an unexpected storm, whether it be through an era of discrimination, the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws.

My institution is 145 years old. We're the oldest institution of higher learning in Austin — we're older than the University of Texas. So this scrapping, this being innovative, this taking a deep breath, stepping back and serving your students because you care so deeply about the mission, it's personal. That's not new.

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