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Sunday, October 1, 2023

The new force at Newfields: Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette

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Arts and culture is a way to bring people together and after the scandal at the IMA in 2020, the organization clearly needed new leadership. They’ve found her.

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette was raised in a working-class family in an all-black neighborhood in Cleveland. Her grandmother was a strong influence in her life. Dr. Pierce Burnette credits her grandmother for her proficiency in math and so much more.

“Grandma would get extra butcher block paper from the local store, hang it up on the walls of the kitchen, and write out my math times tables on it. I wasn’t allowed to eat my breakfast of english muffins with butter and jelly – until I knew my math tables by heart,” shares Dr. Pierce Burnette, who was also required to do the same with her spelling words.

A high school English teacher, who happened to be dating her uncle at the time, took a special interest in Colette. Ohio State University was recruiting women for their engineering and computer science departments and her English teacher drove her to campus to visit.

“In my family, I grew up knowing that there was no choice but to go to college and being a natural with math, all of the adults in my life steered me to be an engineer,” shares Dr. Pierce Burnette, who realizes in hindsight how her grandmother trained her brain to be analytical. Dr. Pierce Burnette currently serves on an Engineering Advisory Board at OSU. Recently, Dr. Pierce Burnette was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, which she jokingly says made her feel old.

Being the wife of a career Air Force officer, the Burnette family moved around quite a bit. Dr. Pierce Burnette has worked with Proctor & Gamble, The Washington Post, WA State Dept. of Transportation, and Neighborhood Re-investment organizations utilizing her computer science and IT expertise. While stationed in Tacoma, WA, at McChord AFB, Dr. Pierce Burnette began teaching and eventually transitioned to being the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for Pierce College. When they moved to Dayton for her husband’s final commission at Wright Patterson AFB, Dr. Pierce Burnette joined the staff at Central State University. At CSU, Dr. Pierce Burnette was in leadership and helped rebuild that university from 800 to 2200 students, and when it was time to appoint a new President, she believed it should be her, but she did not have her doctorate.

“My sister told me to stop whining and do something about it,” says Dr. Pierce Burnette. “I have another friend who asked me how old I would be in 5 years and said, ‘You will turn that age with or without your doctorate.’”

Dr. Pierce Burnette Googled, “Am I too old to get a doctorate?”” And apparently there are studies on this with evidence for both sides of the argument. Dr. Pierce Burnette decided to apply to a few programs around the country. She needed a letter of recommendation, but did not want to alert her current employer (CSU) that she might not be around in the following year, so contacted the Chancellor of Pierce College and the following day was offered a job as the Interim President of a campus for Pierce. The doctoral degree was placed on hold. Pierce College is part of a large community college system in Washington state. Each month the campus presidents would meet in Olympia and she was the only one without a doctorate, like having on a uniform of  a different color. Dr. Pierce Burnette was often one of the few Black persons at the table, and the only Black female at the time. She was going to earn her doctorate.

Dr. Pierce Burnette was accepted to a few programs and decided on the University of Pennsylvania’s Doctorate of Education program, or EdD. The students met monthly in Philadelphia and it was during these meetups that Dr. Pierce Burnette’s imposter syndrome was obliterated. “I realized that I was just as smart as everyone else.”

During her final year of her doctoral program, a colleague told her that Huston-Tillotson University—Austin’s oldest institution of higher learning and only Historical Black College and University (HBCU) – was looking for a new president. Dr. Pierce Burnette was told of the HTU job that they “needed a healer”, as the school was experiencing challenges.

“I was encouraged to put my name in the hat for the presidential search, because they [the interview process] are intense, and a mentor suggested that I ‘should practice’,” says Dr. Pierce Burnette, who was vigorously working on her dissertation at this time.

After phone interviews and the airport interview, Dr. Pierce Burnette found herself among the four finalists for the position.

Since this was a practice run-through in Dr. Pierce Burnette’s mind, she took the final time slot for the campus tours and final interview. She threw her materials together at the last minute and it was suggested by a friend that she get her natural hair flat-ironed to look more presidential, so she did. The day of the interviews, it was rainy and humid and her “straightened hair” returned to its natural state.

She saw her reflection in a window and thought, ‘oh well, I am just practicing’ but then when she arrived on campus and was getting out of the car, she felt a presence saying, “STOP practicing, this is where you are supposed to be.”

“This kinda scared me, but I listened and brought my A-game the rest of the day,” shares Dr. Pierce Burnette. “HTU was phenomenal. I fell in love with the students, the campus, and the community.”

Fueled by her passion for enriching lives through education, Dr. Pierce Burnette not only led HTU through the pandemic, she achieved all of the goals she was hired to accomplish. A friend and mentor once shared an important piece of advice: always leave the party when you are having fun. So Dr. Pierce Burnette felt that it was the right time to step down from HTU.

“I witnessed, as the military wife, why the Air Force doesn’t stay stagnant, it’s because they transition their leaders so they stay on fire about the mission,” states Dr. Pierce Burnette. This is why she is re-reading Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes and Becoming by Michelle Obama.

So then what?

Having dinner with a friend at the close of the HTU chapter in her life, Dr. Pierce Burnette was asked what she wanted to do with her life. She is an activist at heart and thrives on enriching people’s lives. This friend connected her with a coach who guides women along their professional path, and she happened to work with the search firm hired by Newfields.

“They weren’t looking for a Museum Director, Newfields is a world-class cultural institution. They were looking for a President of a cultural institution,” shares Dr. Pierce Burnette.

Dr. Pierce Burnette describes her son as an art museum aficionado and informed her that [IMA] was in the NY Times. She read the article and it made her want the job even more. “I saw an opportunity to be a part of something good. This is not a racist institution, they experienced a racial reckoning.”

Her three main priorities with Newfields are: serving the community;

stability and sustainability, to include environmental stability; and enforcing Newfields as a MUST SEE destination.

Dr. Pierce Burnette had immersed herself within the Austin community, serving on Boards and engaging with a variety of organizations. Since moving to Indianapolis, Dr. Pierce Burnette has joined the Board of Directors for The Indianapolis Propylaeum and Visit Indy’s Board of Directors. Dr. Pierce Burnette will be the keynote speaker for the Marilyn K. Glick Women’s Enrichment Series event on September 21st at The Indianapolis Propylaeum. A takeaway from our conversation is that Dr. Pierce Burnette is just starting to get acclimated to Indianapolis.

Dr. Pierce Burnette was named the 2021 Austinite of the Year by the Austin Chamber of Commerce for her work and engagement in the Austin community. I hope Indianapolis comes up with the equivalent of “Austinite”.

Kara Kavensky is a contributing writer, author of her upcoming memoir “Finding Joy”, and podcaster; Record Scratch with Kara.

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