An Interview with Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell
The passion is apparent from his voice. It’s not a yell, it’s not a bellow commonly found atop a southern Baptist altar. No, Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell’s voice is passionate with an authoritative calm. There is a certainty of purpose, recognition of urgency, and a committed tenor of belief.
It’s the voice of representing the faith of a school; a voice that echoes on behalf of the campuses “extraordinary competence.”
Michael Sorrell became president of Paul Quinn College in 2007, immediately making waves by implementing a business casual dress code for students attending classes and dining in the campus cafeteria. Since his appointment, the former corporate lawyer has raised as many standards as he has eyebrows, working to build a vision of PQC becoming one of the top small colleges not only in Texas, but in the United States.
“We think that what we’re doing will be one of this country’s greatest higher education stories,” Sorrell said in a telephone interview. “Every decision that we make, we ask the question “Does this advance our quest to become America’s best small college?”
While a school that has made headlines for enrollment issues and accreditation may have lofty goals to become America’s best small college, they certainly aren’t without a solid foundation. Paul Quinn College last year yielded a budget surplus of more than $800,000, its second straight surplus in as many years. The campus has implemented a two-year retention program, “No Quinnite Left Behind,” that engages students through their initial years at the school, and empowers all PQC students to graduate within five years.
The school recently made headlines by creating a sustainable agricultural partnership with PepsiCo. The “Food for Good” program makes produce grown on the former football field to be used in the campus dining facilities, sold to area restaurants, and shared with needy community members in the southern Dallas region. The PQC Business and Legal Studies program also utilizes the farm to supplement its social entrepreneurship curriculum, in which students manage business operations, the school’s Farmer’s Market, and farming of the two-acre area.
The school maintains a 50-50 split on financing and revenues generated by the farm with PepsiCo, a partnership that Sorrell says is the only kind of deal Paul Quinn will enter into.
“Everybody likes a winner, but no one likes an underdog that doesn’t act like an underdog. We ask only for partnerships, and we don’t accept anything less because it’s not a good business model,” Sorrell says. “We don’t teach our students to graduate, go out and get jobs. We teach our students how to have careers, how to go out and make money. We’re not capitalistic mongers, but we understand the importance of wealth, and of having resources so that the students we train to be servant leaders and agents of change can create a culture of success for their families.”
Family ties are a large part of Sorrell’s path to becoming the school’s 34th president. A rich history of family graduates from Dillard University, Morehouse College, Florida A&M University, Hampton University and Spelman College shaped Sorrell’s perspectives on HBCUs early in childhood. He would go on to an undergraduate career as a student athlete at Oberlin College, and on to Duke University where he obtained a Juris Doctorate and a M.A. in Public Policy. While a student at Oberlin, a chance meeting with former Spelman president Dr. Johnnetta Cole cemented his career ambition to lead an HBCU.
“We met in the most random way you could imagine – like a group of us were standing in the hall and someone asked if we wanted to have dinner with Dr. Cole. I came away from that meeting feeling like ‘I just got to know the coolest person I’ve ever met.’ And at that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a president of a historically black college.”
Through careers in professional athletics, corporate law and work in public policy and politics, Sorrell’s experiences shape his leadership of the PQC campus.
“We’re not geniuses or magicians. We just inject a corporate work ethic into higher education. Being president of a college is a hard job and takes a lot of hard work, so I can’t understand those that don’t think hard work is all you can do to make your university grow.”
Hard work recently paid off in the form of a $1 million donation from Dallas-area philanthropist Trammel Crow. During the press conference to announce the gift, Crow attributed his interest in helping Paul Quinn to the involvement of Michael Sorrell.
“Truly the catalyst for my involvement is the leadership of Mike Sorrell and what he’s bringing to the campus and the city,” said Crow. “I truly believe that there will be a lot of brighter days very soon around the corner.”
For now, bright days include having regular conversations with the student body, with each member having access to his cell phone number. And in his spare time when not spending time with his wife and seven-week-old baby? He’s preparing to help train members of the PQC varsity basketball team.
In a short time, Michael Sorrell has changed the culture at Paul Quinn College, and inner circles within higher education are taking notice. A constant name spun in the rumor mill when presidential vacancies come up, Sorrell firmly believes in the vision he has specifically for PQC, and the backing of its constituents.
“If you think that what we’ve done so far is great, this is just the beginning. The Morehouses, the Xavier of Louisianas, the Swarthmores of the world, Paul Quinn wants to be in that discussion of America’s best small colleges.”
“And we will be.”