There’s Something Good Happening in Texas

As the majority of my research pertains to historically black colleges and universities, I constantly watch what’s going on with these institutions. I have a Google alert on the term HBCU as well as the individual institutions so I can stay up to date. By and large, news stories tend to be negative when they are about HBCUs—a fact about which I have written a peer-reviewed article and about which I have spoken publicly. I think some of the media attention is a bit more balanced as of late—a bit—but it could still be better. That said, there are so many positive stories about HBCUs that we rarely hear because no one covers them. I thought I’d write today about an HBCU in Dallas, Texas, Paul Quinn College.

Most people wrote the institution off a couple years ago, but it, and its president Michael Sorrell, are survivors. The school is located in a low-income area of Dallas and has roughly 150 students and a tiny endowment. It lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools a while back and fought in Federal District Court to regain it; the institution received an injunction, which reinstated accreditation until the case goes to trial next year.

That said, the story of Paul Quinn College’s fight to survive (and thrive) is a great one. I spent the day talking with the institution’s president and one can’t help but be completely inspired by his enthusiasm about the college and the community in which it exists. He doesn’t claim to be perfect and knows that some may take issue with his methods and leadership, but you can’t deny that he is turning the small school around in a big way. Let me offer some examples.

—President Sorrell recently secured a $500,000 gift from the Meadows Foundation (the largest single donor gift in the past 10 years for the college).

—The school achieved candidacy status with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools this past April.

—President Sorrell and his leadership team completed $1.5 million in capital improvements.

—The institution had a $1 million surplus in FY10; and a $500,000 surplus in FY09.

—President Sorrell reconstituted the board of trustees, bringing in more people who have access to wealth and a greater vested interest in the institution.

—The institution revamped its Web site, revealing a new motto and outlook ( Check out the motto: “Leave places better than we found them; lead from wherever we are; live lives that matter; and love something greater than ourselves. What do you do?”

—President Sorrell turned the unused football field into an urban-farm partnership with PepsiCo and is selling and donating food to the local community and using it in the dining halls. He did this because there are no grocery stores within five miles of the school and none of the Texas grocery chains would put one in the area when asked by the college.

—President Sorrell recently secured a $1 million gift to demolish 10 abandoned buildings that have been an eyesore on the campus for decades.

There are those who think many of the small HBCUs will “die off.” The research on dying colleges tells us that this is likely for some, especially those without dynamic leadership, a willingness to be innovative and fresh, and supportive alumni. Fading away may be the reality for some HBCUs, but I certainly hope not. HBCUS—all of them—are historic treasures. They are African-American cultural institutions with rich histories, especially those like Paul Quinn College, which was started by African-American members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I think we should do everything we can to solidify the place of HBCUs, especially when there are people who care about the future of HBCUs at the helm.

That said, alumni of HBCUs, black communities that have benefited from them, and anyone else who cares about their rich history of providing opportunity for all students, need to step up and support HBCUs. Consistent support, helps HBCUs to avoid what my good friend Nelson Bowman (the director of development at Prairie View A & M University) calls “crisis fundraising.” HBCUs need friends every day, not just on rainy days.

And one last thing: I hope to see more young leaders, like Sorrell, become presidents of HBCUs. Many HBCUS need more energy and new ideas. I am hopeful that young people will step into these leadership positions because about every other week a young African American e-mails or calls me to tell me that’s his or her dream. How can we make that happen?

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