Long-time UMSN faculty member creates change through community

Coleman-Burns quote saying, " “This generation has the opportunity to be in the midst of a struggle. Today's kids have a strong sense that it is up to them to make the world better. They are more open, without the baggage of past generations, but may also have blinders to historical gains."


Twenty-five years deep at the University of Michigan School of Nursing (UMSN), Dr. Patricia Coleman-Burns, or “PCB” as she is affectionately known to students, continues to create community. This year, she has been recognized with the 2017 Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Lifetime Achievement Award. This prestigious honor comes from the Office of the Provost and carries a $5,000 purse to continue her work on diversity.

One of a handful of non-nurse faculty at the school, Coleman-Burns (Ph.D. in rhetoric, 1987, Wayne State University) uses all the arrows in her sling to educate students: rhetoric, organizing and advocacy, and the perspective that comes with history. An active emerita professor, she teaches a course called Cultural Aspects of Health and Illness. She offers all her students candor, encouragement, and her ideals of responsive health care.

The drive to improve our nation has motivated Coleman-Burns throughout her career.

“I try to be a catalyst for change,” she said, and she is inspired by Ella Baker, the civil rights leader, who framed herself as a midwife for change.

Midwife for change: Growing Black studies

In 1978, Coleman-Burns began her teaching career at Wayne State University in Black Studies, a nascent field that developed into an academic department while she was there.

Becoming a new academic department is not easy, and in this case, it would not have happened without the activism of students, who staged a sit-in at Wayne State University to protest the lack of a formal curriculum in African American studies.

The students were successful, and Coleman-Burns participated at the negotiating table to formalize the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University. While she certainly counts this as a professional success, her support of the students strained her relationship with the university, and she decided it was time for a change.

Joining UMSN

Coleman-Burns joined UMSN in 1991 with the main goal of supporting students through their degree programs and on to professional success. She immediately began to lay the seeds for her pipeline program to bring more diverse students to the field of nursing and to UMSN in particular. 

“Pat Coleman-Burns’ background and expertise in the social history of higher education has been of tremendous benefit to the school as we work to recruit, retain, progress and graduate students from all different backgrounds,” said Dean Patricia Hurn.

“Her work as special advisor to me on multicultural affairs, her past leadership as the school’s leader of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative, and her continued support of the school has been truly outstanding. Many students and faculty owe her a great debt of gratitude for their successes,” Dean Hurn continued.    

Focus on African-American health

When Coleman-Burns joined the School of Nursing, she turned her attention to health research. She participated in research to address the risk of prostate cancer in the African-American community, and partnered with predominantly black churches to reach their community, setting up health screenings to be held in church. She also collaborated in African-American health fairs to provide health education.

“At that time,” Coleman-Burns explained, “the exclusion of certain populations from the scientific literature was stark. Reaching out to those communities was cutting-edge.”

For Coleman-Burns, this community-based research was a way to address an obvious need, and to do research while doing good.

Pipeline to the nursing profession

Another way to do good has been the development of a pipeline leading students to the profession of nursing and helping them achieve academic success while pursuing their degree. Coleman-Burns’ Gaining Excellence in Nursing Education: Students Intensifying in the Sciences (GENESIS) project was supported by grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for many years and has helped the School of Nursing reach out to underserved populations and populations underrepresented in the health sciences.

Mentoring staff, students and faculty

Coleman-Burns’ reach across the university is wide, and her colleagues relish their collaborations with her.

“Pat is always offering up her assistance,” Janice Reuben, manager for the Women of Color Task Force (WCTF) at the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) said.

WCTF offers support, leadership skills, community, networking and mentoring, said. Reuben explained that Coleman-Burns has played a role in helping the WCTF with strategic planning, areas of focus, and understanding the political climate on campus and the differences between the medical campus and central campus. As one of the few female faculty of color that have been at the University for 25 years or longer, Reuben likes to bounce ideas off Coleman-Burns.

“She has perspective, wisdom and knowledge developed over the years that is hard to find,” said Reuben.

Working across the university

Coleman-Burns’ mentorship extends across disciplines. Robin R. Means Coleman (no relation), faculty in Communication Studies and Department of Afroamerican and African Studies as well as associate dean for social sciences at Rackham Graduate School, speaks highly of Coleman-Burns’ leadership and effect on others.

“I distinctly remember the moment I first laid eyes on Prof. Coleman-Burns. Not long after I arrived to the University of Michigan in 2005, I attended a breakfast held by the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives. Pat walked in, and my eyes were just drawn to her.”

Coleman-Burns cut such a striking figure, Dr. Means Coleman reports, because she proudly wore African textiles and a jacket emblazoned with the name of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

“The sorority is a predominantly Black public service organization. Their work focuses on improving women’s political, education, social, and economic conditions. Pat was wearing the badge of that good, hard work.”

The PCB effect

The hard work that Coleman-Burns undertakes is undeniable, given the many people she has helped.

Means Coleman remembered that she “wanted to introduce myself to her at the breakfast, and I couldn’t even get close to her! There were so many students, staff, faculty, and administrators hugging her and shaking her hand.”

“Pat shows the love she has for others. She listens and puts us at ease. She shares her life alongside us as we struggle to understand and transform our values and lives,” is how Evans Young, former assistant dean for undergraduate education in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, explained the PCB effect.

Young has known Coleman-Burns since the early 1990s.

“Our common work supporting students and faculty brought us together often in many campus settings. Our longest joint effort has been as members of the planning committee for the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium since the mid-90s. We also shared membership on the U-M Diversity Council from 2003-2014,” said Young.

The two collaborated on a specific endeavor, the Central Campus MLK Spirit Awards, beginning in 2005. This continues to be a way, every year, to honor students who embody the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. through their service and dedication to inclusivity, community, and justice.

“As the Central Campus MLK Spirit Awards master of ceremonies Pat is simply amazing. She captures us with intonations and cadences from her life in Motown and the church. Her voice is ever filled with the ideals and hopes of the civil rights movement. Her remarks each year revitalize our students, their families and friends as they continue striving for justice, reconciliation, and community,” Young shared.

Today’s world, today’s students

“Race is the fundamental challenge to American society,” Coleman-Burns believes. “If we can solve this challenge we will win it all.”

The concern for race is also a concern for women.

“When we let race issues get in the way we fail young women and the younger generation.”

At Wayne State University, Coleman-Burns’ efforts were mainly directed at African-American students because these were the students she knew; these were the students who sought out courses on Black studies. As her career progressed, she was exposed to more and more students. This has allowed her to see broader issues and more problems.

“Today’s students don’t know history and what cultural protections they have, but they are so intrigued with these questions – what is my past, who can I be, are the questions they have,” she explained.

“This generation has the opportunity like in the 60s to be in the midst of a struggle. They don’t know what rights they have to be taken away from them.”

Coleman-Burns likes to remind her students that when she was married, in 1977, she and her husband had to appear before a judge in order to keep her last name.

“Today’s kids have a strong sense that it is up to them to make the world better. They are more open, without the baggage of past generations, but may also have blinders to historical gains,” Coleman-Burns said.

It is her hope, and her belief, that with an awareness of past struggles, today’s students will propel us to a better world.

Service and awards

A complete list of Coleman-Burns service the university is too lengthy, but a few highlights follow.

Coleman-Burns served on CEW’s committee for President’s Advisory on Women’s Issues; on the steering committee of Women of Color in the Academy; on the planning committee for the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, and on the U-M Diversity Council from 2003-2014. More recently, she served the School of Nursing as the liaison to the Steering Committee for the Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2015-2016, and spearheaded the creation of UMSN’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, 2016-2021.

Coleman-Burns is also the recipient of numerous awards from the University of Michigan, including in 2016 Sarah Goddard Power Women award from the Academic Women’s Caucus and the Friend of Nursing Award from Sigma Theta Tau, Rho Chapter. In 2015, the Center for Educational Outreach awarded her their Partner Appreciation Award, and in 2004 she received the School of Nursing’s Mae Edna Doyle Teacher of the Year Award.

The School of Nursing celebrates Pat Coleman-Burns’ life and work, her 2017 Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Lifetime Achievement Award, and looks forward to what the future brings.