In this Feb. 4, 2019, photo Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College talks to Aden Jemaneh, right, of Irving, Texas about a piece of artwork as Jaiyer Jinwright looks on at Paul Quinn College in Dallas.
The Dallas Morning News via AP
The Dallas Morning News reports after 12 years under his leadership, the small, historically black, faith-based college in southern Dallas has gone from near death to a financially stable, reimagined four-year higher-ed school that’s becoming a template for colleges around the country.
“This goes exactly to the heart of the tale of two cities — which is our city,” the 52-year-old says in his office just south of downtown off I-45 on Simpson Stuart Road. “A large segment of our city does not believe that anything of significance that is positive happens south of downtown.”
Sorrell is the charismatic tour de force behind the nation’s first urban work college — one dedicated to giving students viable employment skills and a job at graduation. And he’s racking up kudos for his innovative thinking.
Last year, Fortune magazine named Sorrell to its annual “World‘s 50 Greatest Leaders” list. At No. 34, Sorrell was sandwiched between Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and actress Reese Witherspoon.
Time magazine listed him as one of “31 People Changing the South.”
Tom Luce is well-versed on Sorrell and his accomplishments to the south. The prominent Dallas attorney hired Sorrell as a young lawyer two decades ago and spotted a servant leader’s heart worth nurturing.
“Michael was looking for a way to make a big difference. He obviously found it in Paul Quinn,” says Luce, who heads a public policy group grappling with the thorny issues of education. “He was the doctor called into the emergency room to revive a patient in critical condition; he stabilized the patient, and now the patient is a model for the country for tackling and changing the trajectory of social mobility.”
Paul Quinn, affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded in Austin in April 1872, at the height of Reconstruction. Its mission 147 years ago was to educate freed slaves and their offspring.
It’s been largely out of sight and out of mind for most of Big D since then.
Those paying attention know that much has transpired since Sorrell took over in March 2007 as the fourth president in as many years. Fifteen derelict buildings — two-thirds of the campus — were razed, infrastructure was upgraded, debt was reduced to zero, academic accreditation and state certification were established, dress codes were adopted, and the football field was turned in an urban farm.
In August, the school broke ground on its $18.7 million Trammell S. Crow Living and Learning Center, the first new building on campus in 40 years. It will be a multipurpose residence hall and health and wellness center with classroom space, dance studios and a gym that holds 1,500.
“We help students develop skills that they’re going to need to be successful in their lives,” he says. “This is about creating a new version of higher education, having the ability to implement that vision and then be unapologetic advocates for people who don’t have advocates.”
Oncor Electric Delivery executive Don Cleavenger says that without Sorrell‘s vision and drive, Paul Quinn probably would have been lost to history instead of an enviable model for every small college in the country.
“When Michael first came to the board and said, ‘The new strategic plan is we’re going to turn this into a work college and cut the tuition by X percent,’ we all looked at each other like, ‘Is he serious?'” says Cleavenger, a board member for 11 years who’s been its chairman for the past three. “He did it. He’s gone back to what every college should offer — an affordable college degree with a job at the end without creating crushing debt.
“It’s one of the real success stories for Dallas that doesn’t get as much praise locally as it does nationally.”
“Michael‘s a visionary, which anybody with two eyes and a couple of ears can see and hear. But he’s also very practical,” says the 35-year-old. “He talks about how to make big-vision ideas come to life while understanding my top priority, which is my family. He talks about how you can be a world-changer, like he is, yet be everything you need to be for the people who are essentially your first list.”
“I don’t know how to put this in words, but (Sorrell) has definitely walked me through a lot, including the issues I’m having with my kidneys. He’s showed up at the hospital when I was hospitalized. He’s gone to doctors’ appointments with me and my family. He helped me get my daughter into school. I know he does this for a lot of students.”
Trezuer Butler will be among the 58 graduates in May. She just learned that she’s landed a full-time job at MW Logistics, the transportation company where she’s been interning.
She considers him her adopted dad.
“My father decided he didn’t want to be part of my college process. I was kinda abandoned,” says the 21-year-old from San Francisco. “You can imagine me being 17 and starting college and not knowing anyone, not having any family out here. I could tell (Sorrell) things that I was going through and he’d step up. I didn’t even have to ask him for help.
“I grew up in a home where both my parents were the decision-makers in their businesses,” Sorrell says. “I grew up with an appreciation for entrepreneurship and the difference it can make in your life. Entrepreneurship took a man who never stepped foot on a college campus to being the father of a son who is a college president.”
Education was always his parents’ top priority. Michael and his younger sister, Kellie, attended elite private schools. Michael graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep, where he was a star basketball player.
“I love his love of people,” says Hill, who was a year ahead of Sorrell in school. “He’s always trying to help somebody — whether you’re friend or foe. He’s always been a caring, giving, loving individual. It’s reflected in how he treats his family, his friends and his students.”
“So you know where this story’s going,” Sorrell says with a laugh. “It’s in the middle of rural Ohio. We get there, the snow’s starting to melt. It’s ugly and cold because it’s March. All I’m thinking is, ‘I cannot go to school here. I have a picture in my mind of college, and this is not it.'”
“Whatever wasn’t there, if I wanted it, I had to create it,” he says. “I didn’t like the music that was played in the club on campus, so I taught myself to DJ and wound up DJ’ing parties for the last three years of college.”
But he took a gap year off to work as the statewide Community Reinvestment Act coordinator for North Carolina Legal Services, where he advocated for people red-lined and excluded from traditional bank lending.
Confronted with that challenge, he stuck it out, figuring he’d practice law in Charlotte for a few years, get elected mayor, then run for the U.S. Senate.
“He said, ‘Dallas is a place where if you are entrepreneurial and willing to work hard, you can make anything happen. It’s not like cities where you’ve got to know the right people or marry into the right families.’ And then he disappears.
“He was kinda my drunken angel, you know?”
“Here we are 20-plus years later and that story still really impacts my decision-making process, because it’s true.”
In 1997, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Clinton administration, traveling the country to study race relations among the nation’s youth.
“To have the experience of the White House followed by Luce Williams was about the most extraordinary apprenticeship that anyone could have,” says Sorrell, his clasped hands showing cufflinks that are made from “P” and “Q” Scrabble tiles. He is a man of minute details.
“Working for Tom and Del was an apprenticeship in power. I learned how things really do get done and the power of relationships, the power of difficult conversations and how to have them.”
Sorrell says he’s a jock at heart. So in 2006, he jumped at the opportunity to join a group trying to buy the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. Sorrell had picked out a condo overlooking the Mississippi River and was preparing for a Range Rover lifestyle. “I (was) mentally out of here,” he says of Dallas.
A few years earlier, Sorrell had brazenly told Paul Quinn’s AME bishop chairman that it would be a mistake not to hire him as the college‘s next president because the college needed someone entrepreneurial, not another academician.
“It wasn’t my most charming moment,” Sorrell admits. “The bishop doesn’t take kindly to my suggestion and proce to hire an academician — a nice guy but the complete opposite of what the school needed.”
“It was really an unpleasant experience, because the board was so diametrically opposed to the way I felt the school needed to go,” Sorrell recalls. “I decide to resign from the board when a new bishop becomes chairman. Perfect time. We’re buying a basketball team. It’s gonna be great.”
This time, it was a fax angel who stepped in.
“I type up my letter of resignation, and my fax machine doesn’t work. So I put the letter back on my desk and never sent it.”
Several months later, as Sorrell was headed to Oklahoma City to scout University of Texas star Kevin Durant at the Big 12 tournament in hopes that his group might be able to draft Durant for the Grizzlies, Paul Quinn’s new bishop chairman calls and offers Sorrell the presidency.
The school posted surpluses of between five and seven figures in 11 of Sorrell‘s 13 fiscal years and is debt-free. That’s due to federal funding for Paul Quinn’s urban work college model, the largesse of a dozen or so major donors and corporate sponsors, and extensive downsizing that cut things like the football program.
By requiring students to work and use part of their paychecks to defray the cost of attendance and cutting tuition and fees by almost $10,000, Paul Quinn has created a model where its students won’t graduate with insurmountable debt.
The endowment is paltry — less than $10 million.
The two met in 1994, when Sorrell rolled up his sleeves to work on Kirk’s first mayoral campaign. Ron’s wife, Matrice Ellis-Kirk, introduced Sorrell to his wife, Natalie, who is the deputy chief investment officer for the Employees’ Retirement Fund of the city of Dallas.
“So the Kirks are pretty biased about him,” says Ron, a 64-year-old Gibson, Dunn Crutcher attorney. “My daughters have commented, ‘Well, Daddy, he’s sort of a taller, smaller, better-lookin’ version of you.’ Thank you, girls. I take that as a compliment in my own perverse way.”
“Michael would have been magnificent,” Kirk says. “He’s an extraordinarily decent, smart, passionate young man committed to helping kids who need help the most. I don’t know what could be a higher calling.”
Quinn chairman Cleavenger lives in constant fear that Sorrell will get recruited away. “I have no doubt that larger institutions are pursuing him strongly. Thankfully, for now it seems, his mission in life is to be at Paul Quinn.”
“I feel we are just warming up,” he says. “I am passionately committed to addressing and eradicating poverty. We’re building an institution that does that. That’s special.”
He knows he could be making more money. Paul Quinn “can’t pay me a million dollars or $800,000 a year,” he says. “But if we define every decision we make in terms of money, we can oftentimes miss out on some of the greatest blessings and privileges that life has to offer.
“The work that I do matters. That’s a blessing.”
He may need it as the national awards continue to flow in.
“No,” he says. “No calendars. My ego is not quite that big. My wife still makes me take out the trash.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
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