At beleaguered Paul Quinn College, the self-proclaimed oldest historically black school in Texas, Michael Sorrell should be the most unpopular man on campus.
Named president this month after serving as the school’s interim since March, Sorrell has already ordered a business-casual dress code for students and made class attendance mandatory.
Sorrell even decided in football-crazy Texas to save $600,000 a year by cutting the football program and, he chuckles, “lived to tell.”
The charismatic 40-year-old Sorrell a lawyer, businessman and political consultant admittedly lacks the traditional academic background of a college administrator. But he is winning converts among the student body, who say his full-speed-ahead approach to fixing Paul Quinn is just what the school needs.
“Some students say he is just trying to do this for publicity,” said Kenneth Boston, the student government president. “Go sit down and talk with him one on one. Get to know him. Then you will understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.”
The change that brought the most attention is the dress code, announced in a letter to students on the college Web site and in an op-ed piece Sorrell wrote for The Dallas Morning News. From Monday to Thursday, students can’t wear jeans, flip-flops, sneakers, T-shirts, pajama bottoms or sweats outside the dorms. The rules allow for slacks or skirts and collared shirts. On Friday, jeans are permissible and so are T-shirts, so long as they display Paul Quinn or Greek logos.
Sorrell means business. Late for a meeting with student leaders and hustling from his office to the student union on a recent Friday, Sorrell stopped to bust a student whose yellow shirt bore no college or Greek logo. He sentenced the student on the spot to community service. “Seriously?” the student said.
“He’s preparing us for the business world,” said Laquasha Drisdale, a senior and the student government chaplain.
In a culture that associates college with freedom and in perhaps a too-casual era in which members of Northwestern’s NCAA championship women’s lacrosse team wore flip-flops when meeting President Bush the idea of a dress code has struck a chord. Sorrell’s decision inspired newspaper columns, clothing donations and alumni praise.
“I think it’s about leadership. It’s about standards. It’s about saying, ‘Enough,'” Sorrell said. “We are tired of pretending what has become acceptable is truly acceptable. It’s not.”
But Paul Quinn has bigger problems than baggy jeans. This summer, the school was put on probation by its accrediting agency, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It faulted the school for failing to meet standards in several areas, including faculty competence, financial stability and student achievement.
Earlier this month, former school treasurer James Fantroy was named in a federal indictment alleging he embezzled at least $5,000 from Paul Quinn. Fantroy, a former city councilman and former member of the school’s board of directors, has pleaded not guilty.
Instability at the top has led to some of the problems. Sorrell is the school’s fifth leader since 2001.
There are other problems. Enrollment is down by about 100 students to 600 this year. The endowment has shrunk to less than $5 million, Sorrell said, and the school has been running with operating deficits. Buildings are decades-old and in need of repair, the campus roads are pocked by potholes, and students complain of bad food in the cafeteria and bug infestations in the dorms.
Historically black colleges, once the only option for blacks in the South, have encountered problems positioning themselves in a desegregated academic environment. But the schools are surviving and enrollment has risen from 190,000 to 222,000 between 1976 to 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Education. About 24 percent of black college students start their degrees at historically black schools.
Sorrell has big plans. He wants to raise academic standards, increase enrollment to 2,000 and began a fundraising campaign that will “raise more money than we’ve ever raised in this school’s history,” he said.
“There is no example for what we’re about to do,” Sorrell said. “We’re going to turn what has generally been considered a mediocre historically black college into a great, small liberal arts college. That’s where we’re going.”
There’s also no example of a college president with as unlikely a career path.
The Chicago native played basketball at Oberlin College, leaving as its fifth-leading scorer. He went to Duke for a master’s and then a law degree. He also has worked as an NBA agent, practiced law and helps out on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
The school’s alumni seem unconcerned about Sorrell’s inexperience in academia.
“The alumni are overwhelmingly enthusiastic with the changes Mike has made,” said Kevin Kelley, a 2000 Paul Quinn graduate who founded a Dallas law firm with a classmate. “His ability to fundraise and bring in other supporters of the college has nothing to do with whether he has published any articles.”
Sorrell said his business success should translate to academics, even if his forceful style has already pushed out about 20 of Paul Quinn’s 150 faculty and staff members. Some of them left voluntarily and others were fired, said Dr. Rosa Simmons, a humanities and Spanish professor who is also president of the faculty senate.
Simmons said there has been some opposition to Sorrell’s sweeping changes, but that most professors are embracing his decisions. When Sorrell was still interim president, the faculty senate wrote a letter to the school’s board of trustees endorsing him for the permanent job, she said.
“There had been a modus operandi at this school that it has been almost acceptable to not do the best that you can do,” Simmons said. “It had become acceptable to be mediocre. When we get someone like Mr. Sorrell to the faculty, it is like a breath of fresh air.”
Sorrell does not want to change the school in the slow, careful, committee-heavy fashion for which colleges are known. He wants to change Paul Quinn now.
“I am never going to be an academic,” he said. “They are very staid. They are very academic. They wear tweed. There is a place for those guys and I respect them and I am awed by them.
“But that’s not what my school needs and that’s not what this community needs. They need someone who will roll up their sleeves and fight fight for their students and fight for the school.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com