Leading a private liberal arts college might not seem like the perfect fit for an industrial engineer, but the engineering education she gained at The Ohio State University helped alumna Colette Pierce Burnette feel well-prepared for the role.
“The industrial systems engineering curriculum was about linking manufacturing processes with people, and how to increase production and decrease costs,” she said. “And that’s what college presidents do, increase production and decrease costs.”
Pierce Burnette became the sixth president and chief executive officer of Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black institution in Austin, Texas, last July. She’s the first female president of the merged institution and only the second female leader in the university's 140-year history.
Now she hopes her story—of an inner city child who became an engineer and a college president—will inspire Huston-Tillotson students to find their own passion and purpose.
A Cleveland native, Pierce Burnette attended John F. Kennedy High School and is proud of her public school roots.
“I think that public schools gave me a tenacity that I needed to be successful at Ohio State,” she said.
Pierce Burnette was drawn to engineering because she was good at math and saw it as a lucrative career. Plus at the time, she explained, female African American engineers were highly sought after.
She researched various engineering schools across the country, but it only took one visit to Ohio State for Pierce Burnette to become a Buckeye.
“When my English teacher took me to Ohio State, there was like a certain kind of magic there,” she explained. “I met Dean Glower, who was the chair of mechanical engineering at the time, and went back home and told my family, ‘I definitely want to be an engineer.’”
Navigating the college experience was daunting at times for the first-generation college student, but she excelled thanks to the College of Engineering’s Minority Engineering Program.
“The Minority Engineering Program, which was spearheaded by Assistant Dean Minnie McGee at the time, was a cocoon within a big giant,” Pierce Burnette said. “As large as Ohio State was, I still was wrapped up in a very nurturing environment.”
With McGee’s help, Pierce Burnette became the university’s first cooperative education experience student and alternated attending school for two quarters with working at a co-op for a quarter to pay for school.
“My experience at Ohio State is one that I would do over exactly the same. I would not change anything,” she said. “Going into engineering, going to school there and getting an engineering degree, that entire experience was very powerful.”
That positive experience, coupled with the fact that the nation is still having the same conversations on diversity that they were when she was in school, are why Pierce Burnette has continued to stay engaged with Ohio State. She currently serves on the Minority Engineering Program Advisory Board.
“I don’t think I would have made it through Ohio State without the Minority Engineering Program, without Assistant Dean McGee,” she said. “So because of her, I stay engaged. And because I want to see us as a nation make intentional changes so that people have fair and equitable opportunity.”
After graduating in 1980, Pierce Burnette spent the first half of her career working in various engineering and information technology positions for organizations like Procter & Gamble and the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“But I always had a gnawing feeling that I needed to be doing something more people-oriented,” she said.
Inspired by visits to her husband’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, and its enthusiastic students, she eventually found her passion in the mission of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“There are people who look like me—my gender, my race—who didn’t have an English teacher who took an interest. They didn’t have the opportunity to go to Ohio State and co-op through school,” she said. “Access institutions such as Huston-Tillotson University provide that opportunity.”
“It’s an environment where you can come and just be. You don’t have to be the only person of color, which is a very trying experience,” she added.
So after her husband retired from the Air Force, she followed a mentor’s advice to get some teaching experience and left her executive position to begin teaching computer science at a community college.
“I took a leap of faith, got a teaching position and found my calling,” Pierce Burnette said.
Since then she has held various roles in higher education, including interim president at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington. She also spent 12 years working for Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and was part of the administrative team that helped rebuild it. That turned out to be good training for her present role, she said.
Ever the STEM ambassador, Pierce Burnette wants Huston-Tillotson to add value to the tech world. Although that primarily means educating engineers, it also includes what she calls the soft scientists, such as communications and English majors.
“Our tagline is #IAmThePipeline,” she explained. “Because we serve as the pipeline for putting people of color into the tech industry.”
Essentially, her current work is all about engineering better opportunities for others.
“I’m giving students the same quality experience that I received at Ohio State in an environment that’s very nurturing for them,” she said.
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org