Alumnus has revived a once-struggling HBCU

Michael Sorrell A.M. '90, J.D. '94 leads Dallas' Paul Quinn College with an emphasis on the philosophy and practice of servant leadership.
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October 23, 2017

The run-on of requests for Michael Sorrell A.M. ’90, J.D. ’94 to hold forth on higher education’s peaks and rock-bottom lows landed him, this spring day, alongside two experts from colleges quite unlike the one he’d snatched from the brink of a slow, protracted death.

“My constituency is probably the most vulnerable of those who will be impacted by this administration,” begins Sorrell, the president of Texas’ 145-year-old Paul Quinn College, the oldest historically black university west of the Mississippi River.

From his seat on a panel of experts, Sorrell was calculating the human toll—if President Donald Trump’s budget proposal didn’t change—of paring federal Pell Grant funding and wholly eliminating the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and a host of other safety nets for the least resourced students and their families. For fuller context, consider some essential facts about Sorrell’s campus: One recent fall semester, he sanctioned some social- media crowd-funding to buy eye glasses for students who needed but couldn’t afford them.

Eighty-five percent of Paul Quinn’s 521 students hail from households with incomes meager enough to qualify them for a Pell Grant. Seventy percent have earnings so low that their “expected family contribution” is zero. A fifth of them are Latinos. And, in that mix, some are quaking over both the president’s immigration crackdown and his directive for Congress to replace President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order with an actual law within six months. (At this writing, the future of DACA—which lets undocumented college student “Dreamers” continue their studies without being legal U.S. residents—is unclear.)

“The day after the election, we had to call a town-hall meeting,” Sorrell tells members of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges convening at a top-dollar Dallas hotel.

“Our campuses should be sanctuaries for all our students,” Sorrell riffs, answering a follow-up question about undocumented collegians during the discussion.

By “all students,” he was acknowledging—no doubt—the particular barriers confronting those who don’t legally reside in the United States. But, really, he was homing in: Sorrell believes colleges and universities across the nation ought to welcome and accept exceedingly more individuals than they’re enrolling. Race, region, gender, and, unequivocally, finances, ought not be cause to leave any academic aspirant behind.

As he forges ahead in his self-styled fight to help create a network of institutions akin to Paul Quinn—Sorrell’s “new urban college model” is bent on educating the poorest people, while improving distressed communities—the former corporate lawyer and Clinton administration White House aide is doubling down. He’s upending conventions about who is educable in America. How do we ensure, he asks and demands, that the poor, working, and struggling middle classes also get into and graduate from the institutions that sometimes are egregiously out of reach and out of touch?

He’s conveyed this to audiences at the Aspen Ideas Festival, TEDx, and Ashoka; the George W. Bush Presidential Center; at gatherings of the College Board, where he’s a trustee; in front of the corporate chiefs on Paul Quinn’s growing list of allies; and at a slew of universities, including Duke.

That the message has been well-received points to Sorrell’s singular appeal because of his revival of Paul Quinn. There, “We over Me” is the slogan. Christian faith-fueled “servant leadership’’ is a core standard in classrooms and extracurricular campus and community activities.

One of Sorrell’s most-noticed steps was to cut tuition in half. And his most recent, much-lauded achievement was to win the school’s certification as a U.S. Department of Education “work college,” where paid student internships are a graduation requirement. Paul Quinn became the eighth such college this past March. It’s the first historically black college or university and first urban institution with that designation.

“I’ve come to believe that people don’t believe in the possibility of things they’ve never seen—until they see it. And that’s especially true of higher-education elitists, with all their class-consciousness” and view that only kids from certain kinds of communities and academic backgrounds are college-ready and -worthy, says Sorrell, who has twice been named HBCU President of the Year by HBCU Digest.

After serving on Paul Quinn’s board of trustees, Sorrell became president a decade ago—having been turned down for the job twice. At the time he took over, the small college was mired in debt and administrative scandal. It was going to lose its accreditation. Fifteen of its twenty buildings were in shambles. (Sorrell, gauging cost-effectiveness, had them demolished as redevelopment plans also got under way.)

Paul Quinn verged on being shut down.

Key to keeping students coming through its open doors was the tuition cut in 2014, which put tuition for on-campus students at the private college closer to what Texas residents pay at that state’s public universities. It also meant that Paul Quinn Class of 2018 Pell Grant recipients whose families cannot help pay their colleges costs, for example, could arrange, if they choose, to graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt. That’s almost a fourth of what the average student borrower in the United States owes post-graduation. (Indeed, some students leave college in the red by as many as six figures.) Sorrell says the college is managing that tuition overhaul, in part, by having students fill some jobs that previously went to higher- paid professionals and by ramping up its fundraising.

Sorrell also required all students to work an on-campus gig, their salaries paid in the form of tuition credit. It was a first step toward the work-college designation. Paul Quinn has lined up several major corporations, other companies, and organizations where students will be paid interns.

“The work-college model gives students and graduates adaptable skills they can transfer between industries and enhance over the course of their careers,” says Tashni-Ann Dubroy, president of Raleigh’s Shaw University.

Work colleges, Dubroy says, “not only provide a favorable outlook for [students’] long-term earning potential, but the potential for families and communities to have a foundation of higher education and social mobility. Dr. Sorrell’s approach to redefining and executing a novel liberal-arts model is ambitious and disruptive.”

Which is Sorrell’s precise intent: “For people trapped by urban and rural poverty, we need to get this right,” he says.

SORRELL IS CHICAGO South Side-born and reared. His educator mama and entrepreneurial daddy—owner and operator of Sorrell’s Painted Doll, a popular barbecue joint—schooled him in the civic imperative of attending to one’s neighbor’s needs and one’s own personal uplift. He rolls out that pivotal bit of biography during the three-week summer course he teaches to students starting their first semester at Paul Quinn.

Sorrell’s summer bridge course is where New York-born Vincent Owoseni, twenty-one, a Paul Quinn senior majoring in business, first heard the words “servant leadership.”

“I understood its essence before I got here. Coming here quantified and solidified what that means,” says Owoseni, who produced his own line of hoodies, T-shirts, and other attire bearing slogans of personal and community advancement during what was his single semester at New York City College of Technology. At sixteen, he had been valedictorian at Polytechnic High, one of Brooklyn’s most competitive public schools, which adjoins the tech college.

Paul Quinn’s graduation rate was abysmally low when, through a high-school counselor, Owoseni got word that Sorrell was crisscrossing Texas and other states, scouting scholars and would-be scholars willing to take a chance on his rebounding college. The native New Yorker’s father initially scoffed at the idea of his son transferring to Paul Quinn, where 60 percent of students are native Texans. But Sorrell convinced the skeptical dad, in person, inside the Owosenis’ home.

Since landing on Paul Quinn’s pastoral 144-acre campus in a South Dallas neighborhood dotted with modest, mainly well-kept homes, pawnshops, and checking-cashing stores, Owoseni says he has soared. “I was vice president of the freshman class.” He was tapped for Duke Immerse, a Paul Quinn- Duke student collaboration on environmental justice, and for a semester of study in Southern Methodist University’s engineering school, another collaboration. He has interned for a Texas legislator who is a Paul Quinn alumna in JCPenney’s corporate procurement and finance division, and at Civitas Capital Management. He mentors younger Paul Quinn men and tutors the neighborhood’s elementary- and secondary-schoolers. He is a member of Paul Quinn’s chapter of My Brothers’ Keeper, a nationwide “cradle- to-career” initiative for black males that the Obama White House birthed.

The school was named the 2011 HBCU of the Year and, in 2013, was a finalist for the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

As Paul Quinn shows what it and its students are capable of achieving, it has kept its immediate neighbors in mind. The college led efforts yielding a fall 2016 opening of the first full-service grocery store in twenty years in the mostly black, largely blue-collar and working poor Highland Hills, just two blocks from campus.

Paul Quinn has drafted blueprints for a 200-unit apartment complex to be erected on campus, reserving several units for families headed by single parents. "We've got a built-in audience here. And we’ve got people to serve,” Sorrell says.

ITINERANT, sometimes barely literate black preachers from the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded Paul Quinn in 1872 in Austin. Initially, it taught blacksmithing, carpentry, tanning, and other trades to freed slaves and their children. The college later moved to Waco, where AME Bishop Paul Quinn began adding Latin, letters, and other kinds of learning he hoped would propel black people in racially fraught, hierarchical America. On the Dallas campus, where the college moved in 1990, the bishop’s grave is on the grounds of a chapel now housing a public charter school.

Paul Quinn’s abiding, faith-based history was evident during the 2017 Founder’s Day honors ceremony in the student life building across the way from that chapel.

It was like church.

“Oh, dear God, this morning we thank you, and we accept your provision today,” invoked Dexter Evans, Young Alumni Council chair and a Paul Quinn alumnus bound for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of education.

“We are tasked with being repairers of the breach,” said Don Clevenger, who chairs Paul Quinn’s multiracial board of trustees. He was borrowing from the biblical book of Isaiah.

And Jeremy Thomas, who is slated to graduate from Paul Quinn in 2019, belted a gospel song: … He’s gonna ful-fill e-ve-ry promise to you … Oh-oooh-ooo-oh … He’s able.

The honchos from Toyota’s philanthropic arm who sat in the front row, the elders of a reinvigorated alumni association, students, most everyone assembled took to their feet.

Sorrell clapped. He sang. He threw his head back in flat-out worship. He testified. He all but preached. In his comments, he did not forget that an infinitesimal number of people struck by sudden cardiac death live to tell about being revived. But, in 2008, he did die of that. God raised him from the dead. How boundless must this miracle-working God be, Sorrell summarizes, without actually articulating that question.

Days before, on the fifteen-minute drive back to Paul Quinn from the downtown Dallas hotel where he had addressed those university administrators, trustees, fundraisers, and thought-leaders, Sorrell’s wife, Natalie Jenkins Sorrell, rang through his Bluetooth: Would Trezeur Butler, the business major from Oakland, California, who, as an eighth-grader, got herself into one of San Francisco’s top Catholic girls’ schools on her own, be joining them for dinner as planned? “Yes,” he confirmed.

Butler, raised by her grandmother and aunt in a house also shared by her drug-abusing father, was in Sorrell’s back seat, flipping through her phone.

“That’s my child, too,” Sorrell says.

“He has kindness and love for his students that is unrelenting,” says Kelsel Thompson, lured to Paul Quinn from Austin College to be the school’s dean of student life. That faithfulness extends to the staff, she says, and it’s reciprocated. Few among the college’s faculty and staff do just one job.

 

“He’s a ride-or-die dude for me and for everyone here,” says Thompson. “I’m dean, athletic director, manager of external affairs and alumni relations—and whatever else I’m told to do. It’s a small HBCU. It requires being nimble, having flexibility. I tell people all the time that God sent me to Paul Quinn and to Prez,” she says. “He is very clear, laser-focused. No one can outwork him. Not in hours, not in intensity, not in quality.”

 

Says Maurice West, a former public-school educator and Sorrell’s friend of twenty-five years who doubles as Paul Quinn’s dean of men and basketball coach: “What Michael is doing here, what we all are doing is impact work.”

So, Sorrell tasked the student- athlete who wanted a campus soccer team with laying the groundwork for that. The field got built, the team kicked off. That student was its paid coach.

So, Sorrell or his staffers, on any given day, might drop off “We over Me” T-shirts at the same neighborhood post office where they helped get the stray dogs rounded up.

So, the We over Me Farm, on what was an unused football field, sells its organic produce and henhouse eggs to local restaurants but also gives some to local food pantries and soup kitchens.

And, so, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra does summer concerts on one of Paul Quinn’s lawns.

“The college has to—has to—be visible to everyone,” says Sorrell, noting that he is the only one among his college-educated kin who didn’t attend an HBCU.

“But everything I am is because of what HBCUs did for my people,” he says. “My being at Paul Quinn? This is about me saying thank you.”

Gray’s work has appeared in, among other print and online publications, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Sun magazine, and The Washington Post.