by Lori Shull
Tech administrator emphasizes the importance of leaving a legacy
For many students, Marc Burnett is more than a university administrator. He is a mentor. When he first came to Tech from Alcoa, Tennessee, he started on a journey that has “given him the world.”
Now, he wants to make sure future students have the same opportunity.
Burnett has been a fixture at Tech for more than 30 years. As a student, he played for the first basketball team to call the Hooper Eblen Center home. As a staff member, admissions materials first included pictures of minorities at his suggestion. He is among the longest-serving university administrators in the state and, he says, his time on campus has been “a fairy tale.”
As the vice president of Student Affairs begins to think of retirement, Burnett’s attention has increasingly shifted from his career to mentoring others.
“I’ve had two of the best administrators in the history of this institution as mentors, Mr. Marc Burnett and Dr. Leo McGee,” said Robert Owens, ’98 industrial engineering, ’00 MBA, ’03 Ed.S. instructional leadership and ’09 Ph.D. exceptional learning. “They happen to have dark skin so it’s been unique for me, because in a small Southern town race is part of the African-American reality.”
Owens, assistant vice president of Multicultural Affairs, has studied and worked at Tech for 22 years and refers to his office as his second home. He has been part of an effort to help minority students find their place on a campus in a rural, predominantly white region.
Since 1964, the population of African-Americans at Tech has slowly grown. That year, six black students, including four athletes, came to Cookeville. In 2014, more than 400 students identified as black, another 250 as Hispanic and about 150 as Asian.
Though Tech’s student body is becoming more diverse, Owens and Burnett are working with staff and alumni to make campus more welcoming.
“I spent many days when I was the only African-American students in a class. Imagine going half a day and not seeing anybody that looks like you,” said Burnett, ’82 English/journalism, ’86 M.A. educational psychology, ’93 Ed.S. administration and supervision.
“People can’t put it in perspective, but imagine doing that.
“At our Centennial, we’re saying, ‘What should Tennessee Tech be in the next 100 years?’ Be even more inviting, even more culturally diverse.”
The pair is reaching out to Tech graduates, especially minorities, to raise money for scholarships and programs. Burnett, said every gift helps.
The goal is to raise $2 million for this. According to Burnett, the effort has brought in more than $500,000.
“You just try to make a change so you can honestly say you tried to make something better. If you don’t try, how will you know?” said Nathan Littlejohn, ‘70 political science. “I grew up during a climate of hate. Do you conform to what the others are doing? You have to have some sort of moral compass.”
Littlejohn grew up in the segregated South. He remembers being forced to sit in the back of the school bus and listen to racist comments during his paper route. He came to Tech, he said, to find out if all white people had the same negative attitude toward blacks.
“I had good and bad experiences; some professors I will always cherish,” he said. “In ’68, Dr. King was assassinated. I walked around Tech in a daze. Somebody hung a figure in a tree to symbolize Dr. King.
“I said, ‘There has to be a better way to meet and discuss issues rather than resorting to violence.’”
Littlejohn was instrumental in starting Tech’s Black Student Organization, which promoted discussions about race. Now inactive, it has been replaced by the Leona Lusk Officer Black Cultural Center.
Owens came to Tech to focus on his studies and avoid the temptation of too much partying. Despite the racial tension he and his African-American friends experienced, Owens said he stayed for the friendships and his affinity to the university. While here he learned to work with different types of people, which he says he may not have learned elsewhere.
“This scholarship can broaden the range of students of color. The goal is to reach critical mass so some of these issues dissipate.”
Some seem to be dissipating already; the hope is the scholarship will continue to improve relationships and understanding.
“I think the younger the alumni, the better the stories. Times have changed,” said Martia Patty, ’06 biology, ’07 M.A. and ’10 Ed.S. instructional leadership. “Being Homecoming queen was my best moment at Tech. I was the only minority on the court. I don’t know how many black Homecoming queens Tech has had, but that was a defining moment, that so many people believed in me.”
Patty funded two degrees with help from an existing diversity scholarship. She would not have come to Tech without the aid. When she heard about Burnett’s and Owens’ effort to build an endowment for full-ride scholarships and other initiatives, she quickly got involved.
Her motivation stems from her passion for and belief in Tech’s community. That perspective is a notable shift; older alumni speak of “surviving” Tech.
“The people who were here in the 60s and early 70s were barrier-breaking. Of course they saw Tech differently and came away with different feelings,” Burnett said. “For me, a couple of Tech professors taught me about working through stuff like that. One of my English professors gave me confidence to know that I could do this.”
In addition to how to deal with different groups of people – a lesson all students learn – Burnett and Owens hope to emphasize the importance of leaving a legacy. Their dream is that students who have benefitted from the scholarship will contribute to help future generations.
“As an educational institution, inclusiveness should be part of our fabric. It hasn’t always been that way,” Burnett said. “This scholarship is a way to leave something more than memories, to say ‘I can help the next ones even if I’m not there.’
“It is incumbent on us to make this place more inviting for whoever wants to come.”
To learn more about these scholarships and programs, contact the Tech Director of Planned Giving at (931) 267-1076.