Leadership & Governance

Genius or Madman? An HBCU Chief Pursues Unconventional Ways to Save a College

Michael J. Sorrell, Paul Quinn College

September 30, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz


ERIC KELDERMAN: We're here at The Chronicle of Higher Education with Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, in Dallas, Texas. Paul Quinn is a small historically black college that has in recent years survived what you might call a near-death experience by losing its accreditation. And we're happy to have you with us today, Mr. Sorrell.

MICHAEL SORRELL: Always good to see you, Eric.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Thank you very much. How did you even find out about Paul Quinn College? You were educated at Oberlin College and Duke University, where you got your law degree. How did you even find out about Paul Quinn, and what was it about the college that made you want to take a leadership role there?

MICHAEL SORRELL: Sure. So I moved to Dallas. I was recruited there out of law school. Went to work for a big law firm. I was a securities lawyer. And when I moved to Texas, I didn't know anyone except for the people at the firm. And wherever I go to even visit for extended periods of time, I find places where people play basketball.

I was a college basketball player, so that was always important to me. And I was steered to a game at a gym downtown. And it so happens that a lot of the people at the gym had played for Paul Quinn College. Now I only had heard of the school a little bit because of their success in basketball in the 1990s, and those guys were incredibly nice to me.

Some of them turned out to be my fraternity brothers. They made a stranger feel welcome in a strange land. And their wives and girlfriends invited me over to cookouts. And I'm not a little guy, so that gesture was appreciated.

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And I'm one of those people that just believes if you're ever kind to me or my issues, I will say thank you. And so the combination of them and the kindness that they showed me—they really didn't have to—made me feel a special affinity for their school. So when people were critical of their school, I just looked for ways in which I could help.

I would give money. I would speak on campus. I'd just try to be an asset. And that—long story short—turned into being the president of their college. Before that, I was on the board.

So really it's a combination of that, and the fact that everyone in my family—with the exception of myself—went to a historically black college. So wherever I am came from the foundation of black colleges, and this is just my way of saying thank you.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. Not long after you became president, the college was placed on probation. You did a lot of things that were completely the opposite of what college presidents would do. You kicked out a lot of students.


ERIC KELDERMAN: You tore down a bunch of buildings.


ERIC KELDERMAN: You killed the football program.

MICHAEL SORRELL: Well, they were already dead. I just—

ERIC KELDERMAN: You dismantled the football program, and as I've written about, you turned the football field into a big garden space both for the college and the community. Why was all of that necessary at that point?

MICHAEL SORRELL: Well, I think you have to make a fundamental choice, right? You are either going to continue to wallow in mediocrity, or you're going to embrace the possibilities of a better tomorrow. And I come from a school of thought where one—I am always going to be honest.

There will be no self-delusion. There will be no illusion of grandeur. We weren't good enough. No, I didn't need an accreditor to tell me that. I didn't need anyone else. I could look at it. I've been blessed with the opportunity to attend some of the nation's best schools. I know what academic rigor, and I know what outstanding institutions, are supposed to look like.

So we made decisions based upon the long-term play. There was no point in trying to masquerade anything or put lipstick on the hog. This was about how do we create a foundation to then become one of America's great small colleges. That is our singular goal.

So when we presented the opportunity for a new vision to the institution—and those that weren't on board with it, we had to help them find places where they could be comfortable. Now, full disclosure—I will either go down in history as a genius or a madman. There will be no in-between.

Because when you kick out that many students, effectively what you are saying is, we're going to take the hit on our graduation rate. We're going to take a hit on our retention rate. And these are all short term. We're going to be criticized because it's completely against conventional thought. I was not interested in conventional thought. I did not come through the ranks of higher education, so frankly, I didn't do this with the expectation of how would it jeopardize my opportunity for career advancement.

If all I ever do is serve as the president of Paul Quinn College, then my life has been well spent. And this was the right thing to do. So we made these decisions, and do you know what? They have paid off in droves, right?

I mean, when you look at it, we implemented a more-selective admissions policy which took some time to really take root. But during that time—during the years that we were 200 students, 225 students—we still managed to have six- and seven-figure surpluses. So we know how to run a business.

But we implemented all the programs that we wanted to implement. That we thought would give us the ability to become a great college. So we are now a work college. We measure our retention rate semester to semester. The last two semesters we've been 71 percent and 74 percent. Our students are starting to get jobs in the types of places that you'd expect students from academically rigorous institutions to show up.

We're recruiting a different caliber of student. We've done over $6- or $7-million of infrastructure improvements without borrowing a single penny. We're getting seven-figure gifts regularly now.

I mean everything that points to a positive direction—you can look at our partnerships. We've got partnerships with Duke, with UT-Southwestern. We're opening a charter school in the fall.

So it was highly unconventional. I pull no punches about that, but it's also been highly effective. And the best part of it is, we're just warming up. We haven't even taken our great stuff off the shelf yet.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Tell me about the typical Paul Quinn student now. First of all, tell me about how many students you enroll, and what does the average student at Paul Quinn look like?

MICHAEL SORRELL: Sure. So our enrollment is up 80 percent since 2009. We're up to 272 students, and 298, 300 total head count. The typical Paul Quinn student has changed.

When I got there, the average age was somewhere between 27, 28 years old. They had attended a minimum of two to three colleges. We were academically very, very weak. Something around the nature of 90 percent of the students took intensive remedial courses. We look radically different now.

The average age is down to 22. Students are coming from all over the country. New York, California, Chicago, Michigan, to complement the student coming from Texas. Our average ACT and SAT scores are all within—the ACT scores are within one point of the national average for African-American students. The SAT scores are within 100 points of the national average for African-American students.

We're up to 12 percent Hispanic students. We have a Presidential Scholars Program which is recruiting some students from all over the country that are phenomenal students. It's a different kind of student. They have a different sense of hope and possibilities, and a difference of expectations.

Increasingly, they're coming to us straight out of high school. Which means we get the opportunity to really shape who and what they are and their expectations for life. And we love to have students that are older. That's what our online program is for. That we just started. But the reality of it is, great small colleges—the kind that we aspire to be—they do a fantastic job of taking students straight out of high school and turning them into transformational leaders. That's the group we want to be in.

ERIC KELDERMAN: A lot of leaders at historically black colleges often bring up this when we talk about the future of the institution. They go down this path, and they say you're going to ask me if black colleges are relevant. And that's not really my question for you.

For your students, Paul Quinn is relevant. For any student in any historically black college, that institution is relevant. What I want to know is, is Paul Quinn sustainable?

MICHAEL SORRELL: Yeah. See, I think that's a fantastic question. We're absolutely sustainable, but we're sustainable for a very different reason. If you look across the higher-education landscape, there is no one that is more innovative than we are. If you look at, just take a look at using the resources you have efficiently and effectively, and pushing the envelope.

We're going to be sustainable because we represent the new urban college model. We think the institutions in cities have a responsibility to engage in the issues of importance to those citizens. We're in a food desert. So we're creating an urban food-distribution network.

People always laughed about the farm, and how can you cut your football program and turn it into a garden. First of all, they lost every game. So it really wasn't a big loss. But we were in a food desert, and we had the ability to do something about that. So we did.

Now what's coming up in the short order will be a grocery store, and will also be a little pop-up restaurant concept that we're developing. Because those are the issues that matter. That is relevancy to the community that you serve.

The charter school is K through 12, and it's going to focus on sustainability. So we're the first environmental charter school in the state of Texas. And the folks who have created the concept came from Austin College, which is another one of America's pre-eminent small colleges. This was the kind of partnership we should have.

We're developing this model of applied research. So my research area is how you transform small urban colleges into anchor institutions for their community.

Well, we have a partnership with Duke where next semester eight Paul Quinn students and eight Duke students are going to go to school together. They're going to live together. So part of the semester they'll go to Duke. Part of the semester they'll go together at Paul Quinn.

And after that, they'll all be in therapy for a year. But once they come out of therapy, they'll appreciate it. But the subject matter is sustainability and economic development in under-resourced communities.

We have another partnership with UT-Southwestern which is addressing mental-wellness issues of students from urban areas. So if you begin to look at what we're carving out and the example we're setting, we're doing things when no one else is doing. No one else at this level is doing from the perspective that we're doing.

We have created an economic-rigor model that involves a work-college concept which allows us to economically support our students, but also create work-force training and habits that our students would never have had. So it gives them a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

So when you look at all of these things, what it comes down to is just the simple notion that apparently everywhere else understands for higher education. The higher education—they think revolutions start from above. Revolutions never start from above. Look at the history of man.

They start from below. They start from a small group of committed individuals that identify an area that they're unhappy about and are willing to lay it all on the line to change. And we are willing to lay it all on the line to change the nature of under-resourced communities.

Now I don't know if everyone else is sustainable. What I can tell you is institutions that are willing to commit themselves to the issues of the people that they serve and educate will always be sustainable. We will be that model. We will become one of America's great small colleges by focusing on students from those communities and, as they say in the great state of Texas, coaching them up. So yeah, we're absolutely sustainable.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Well, thanks a lot—

MICHAEL SORRELL: No, thank you.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Always a pleasure to talk.

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz

Correction (9/30/2014, 2:48 p.m.): This article originally misstated President Sorrell's middle initial. It is J., not A. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.