SALZBURG, Austria — When Michael J. Sorrell took over as president of Paul Quinn College in March of 2007, he had his fair share of skeptics.
Earlier that year, the Boston Consulting Group had given the school some grim news. They predicted that unless drastic measures were taken to address declining student enrollment, low campus morale and a lack of financial resources, the small Dallas-based, Black liberal arts college, would likely be forced to close it doors for good.
Sorrell, 48, a lawyer who worked for years in corporate America before transitioning into academia, immediately went to work, slowly transforming the institution, founded in 1872 by a group of African Methodist Episcopal ministers, into a thriving college well on its way to recovery.
Today, the school’s enrollment is up 30 percent from the spring 2014 semester, and the retention rate from last spring to this fall is also up about 74 percent. In the process, he’s graduated a group of top-tier students like Jessika Lara who completed her studies in three and a half years, and helped others to secure jobs at major corporations like General Electric.
“From Day One, we believe everything matters and everyone matters,” says Sorrell, who was a panelist at the “Students at the Margins and the Institutions that Serve Them: A Global Perspective,” a five-day international seminar designed to strategize and share best practices with other institutions across the world who work with large numbers of marginalized and disadvantaged students.
Though PQC is considered to be a minority-serving institution, Sorrell doesn’t much care for the term.
“These are our students,” he says, his voice rising. “I don’t consider these students to be marginalized.”
The Paul Quinn narrative is particularly fascinating. It is story of transformation, even as a number of historically Black colleges and universities continue to struggle to stay alive.
But Sorrell is thinking outside of the box and making innovative moves.
Several years ago, he decided to turn the school’s football field into a farm in an effort to solve the food desert issue in the surrounding Dallas neighborhood. Ten percent of the food harvested on the farm is given away to the community.
He also arranged for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to offer a free annual concert on campus, despite a chorus of critics who were convinced that poor Black and Latino residents wouldn’t be interested in listening to an evening of classical musical. They were wrong. This past year, more than 2,500 people converged on campus for the event.
Though it’s clear that Sorrell is chiefly responsible for the dramatic turnaround, he’s adamant about sharing the credit.
“We over me,” he says, reciting the school’s mantra, which is stepped in the idea that no one — student or staff — should be left behind. “We are providing students the opportunity to participate in something larger than themselves, where they are giving something of value. We believe the needs of the community supersede the individual.”
Sorrell talks about helping his students develop an ethos of what he calls “servant leadership” and adds that “intensive and intrusive academic counseling and mentoring” are cornerstones to a PQC education.
Today, the college has almost 300 students — up from 150 several years ago — but Sorrell is not satisfied. He wants to increase the number to about 2000 over the next few years.
All the while, he has formed collaborative partnerships and initiatives with predominantly White institutions like Yale, University of Pennsylvania and his alma mater, Duke.
“Retention starts with recruitment,” he says, adding that the college has implemented a dress code for its students — some of whom phone home to their parents within the first few days of arriving to campus begging to return home.
“We tell the parents to tell them, ‘I love you and hang up the phone,’” Sorrell chuckles. “A lot of what we do drives the students crazy, but they realize that we do this because we love them.”
For many of the participants who traveled to Salzburg to participate in the weeklong seminar convened by Drs. Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael T. Nettles, senior vice president and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair of Policy Evaluation & Research at the Educational Testing Service, Sorrell’s work is inspiring and similar in many ways to the efforts taking place in other places around the world.
“There is a lot of synergy in the work we are doing,” says Zena Richards, who runs the Transformation Student Equity program at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and who also appeared on the panel with Sorrell.
Her program targets rural students in the eighth grade and brings them to campus to begin taking courses in a variety of subjects such as English, sociology and math.
“We create a deep simulation of what university life will be like when they get there,” says Richards, adding that nearly 80 percent of the students who participate in the program go on to enroll in college. “We really want them to gain exposure.”
Sorrell, who is finishing up his doctoral degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, is in the early stages of converting his campus into a work college, where students will be able to gain valuable experience working on campus, while helping to defray the cost of attending college. It’s a sensible idea for a place like PQC, where about 80 percent of the students are eligible to receive Pell Grants.
“When you roll up your sleeves and give people a compelling vision to believe in, I really do believe that anything can happen,” he says.
Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.