How Huston-Tillotson University Is Responding To Covid-19

Thursday, May 14th 2020

Covid-19 is having a profound and disruptive effect on universities and students across the country. Dr. Collette Pierce Burnette is the president of Huston-Tillotson University, a private, historically black university in Austin. She talks with Judy Maggio about how her institution is responding to the crisis.

Judy Maggio: Dr. Burnett I want to start with something I've heard you say before. And that is that your institution's biggest competitor is not other schools, it's poverty, talk about that.

Dr. Collette Pierce Burnette: I often do these speeches and I talk about my students, 70 plus percent of them are PELL eligible. 98 percent are receiving some form of aid. And we went to an exercise recently to look at student's estimated family contributions and it was such an eye opener to me where we saw that over half of our students are at an estimated family contribution, meaning what their families can actually afford to pay over half of them were at $10,000 or less.

And a great number of them were at a zero estimated family contribution. So that is a barrier to your success. And what we take for granted that young people have in their homes, their lives especially when we went to online, you know sometimes we just generally think that everybody has internet access everybody has a good computer at home, everybody has a safe environment to study in, to work and to rest and reflect in. And that's not the case for individuals that are living on low income. So the university has really come to understand more so in this, the value of what we do.

JM: How have you provided safety nets for your students who, for example, might be food insecure or even homeless?

CPB: So when we decided to close the halls, our students were going home for spring break anyway. So we said that we were gonna be closing the residence halls until further notice, cause we just didn't know. And we immediately realized that many of our students didn't want to go home permanently, permanently meaning for that term. But there was a cadre of students that were either in the foster care system, had aged out of the foster care system or homeless, or did not have a safe place to go home to. So we did accommodate those students, it was a lot that happened to work with students to parse through what student's needs were. So we accommodated those students that were in those categories that aged out of the foster care system, were homeless or did not have a safe space to return home to.

We did a myriad of things to be able accommodate as many students as we could, we were in an emergency state at that point. Now we have since continued to identify students cause sometimes students don't self identify that they have a need, for many reasons. So some of those things came to be as faculty would have interaction with students. And we took everything online and we're not an online school. So I have said this several times, we took a 145 year old institution fully online in two weeks. That was a heavy lift, and we did it.

JM: How are you going to adapt for the fall and how will the systems you're putting in place now impact the future of Huston-Tillotson?

CPB: Well we are a stronger university as a result of this. And we will be even stronger when the pandemic is behind us as opposed to now we're going through it. We are offering all classes online this summer. You have to keep students engaged, and the population that I serve can not take a gap year. They need to stay focused, they need to get and stay enrolled in college. That's been our message. You gotta fight through this.

Irrespective of whether it's online, on the ground, you gotta stay continuing to get towards your dream of becoming a college graduate. So we're fully online for the summer and we have not made a decision as of yet what we'll do in the fall. We want to make as informed a decision as possible. The safety and health of our students and our faculty and our staff is paramount, and our communities is paramount. So whatever decision we make, I'll be able to say that it was with that at the top of mind. This is such a complex thing, because you want to minimize risk and the ultimate risk is a life. So we want to make sure that's not a risk that the institution will ever take.

JM: I did see you on Instagram last week, with one of your students, talk about ways you're lifting them up and what are you doing in place of a graduation ceremony?

CPB: Our graduation is like a celebration. People bring buses from Houston and Dallas to celebrate their graduation. And so it's a combination of things and it's more than just getting a degree. It's really a success moment. So the saddest moment for me was to have to postpone our graduation. Because these seniors have worked very hard to get to that moment. So we did not cancel our graduation, we postponed it.

We're going to have to create a new normal and that's what we want to do. People keep saying we want to go back to normal. We don't want to go back to normal. This is a true wake up call. So this generation who we call the genius generation here has an opportunity and a responsibility to create that new normal. If you're a biologist, neurosurgeon, educator, historian, English major, whatever you're doing, you have an opportunity now to create that new normal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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