Michael Sorrell grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Chicago. He attended a prestigious private high school, received a bachelor’s degree in government from Oberlin College, and headed to Duke to obtain a JD and a master’s degree in public policy. In 1994 he came to Dallas to work for a downtown law firm, left to spend a year and a half working in the Clinton White House as a special assistant on race relations, and then returned to Dallas, where he continued to practice law, consulted in public affairs, and became part of an investment group that was trying to purchase the NBA’s struggling Memphis Grizzlies.
Then, in 2007, when he was forty years old, Sorrell received a phone call asking if he would like to run Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in South Dallas.
Founded in 1872 to educate freedmen and their children, Paul Quinn seemed to be on its last legs. Fifteen buildings on campus were abandoned. The rooms inside the dorms needed painting, the lawns needed mowing, and many of the school’s five hundred or so students were on their second or third try at college.
Motivated by a desire to help a worthy institution that was struggling, Sorrell agreed to take the job until a permanent president was found. He figured he would last three months or so, after which he would move to Memphis and rebuild the Grizzlies as their president.
But his investment group’s offer for the team fell through, and today, more than a decade later, Sorrell is still running Paul Quinn. Along the way, he’s made a name for himself as one of higher education’s most innovative administrators, “someone who’s not afraid to try new things and shake up the traditional old ways,” says Jarrett Carter, the founding editor of the HBCU Digest, which covers Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Last spring, Fortune magazine named Sorrell one of the world’s 50 Greatest Leaders, lauding his attempts to solve “the problems that ail all of higher education—the cost, and the disconnect with what comes after [graduation].”
At least 85 percent of Paul Quinn’s students qualify for Pell Grants, which means they fall below the poverty line, which is exactly what Sorrell prefers. “I know all too well about higher education’s elitism,” the six-foot-four Sorrell (he was a star basketball player at Oberlin) tells me one afternoon in his large, cluttered office. “I know that many university presidents are constantly chasing the U.S. News &World Report rankings of the best schools. They go after the top research dollars, and they offer full-ride scholarships to top academic prospects. But I have no interest in mimicking what everyone else is doing. My goal is to create one of America’s best small colleges, with students who come from the margins, students who have lived lives of scarcity. I want Paul Quinn to be the place that lifts them up.”
Initially, it didn’t seem as if Sorrell could stop the college’s demise. Two years into his tenure, enrollment had dropped to 151 students, and the school was in danger of losing its accreditation. Desperate to avoid bankruptcy, Sorrell killed the football program, which cost more than $600,000 a year. Alumni were furious. He heard from at least one HBCU president who told him he was too young and inexperienced and had no idea what he was doing.
Undeterred, Sorrell visited with wealthy Dallas businessmen and philanthropic foundations to ask for help, and he received a seven-figure donation from entrepreneur and environmentalist Trammell S. Crow, who reached out to him directly. To get enrollment back up, he visited low-income high schools in Dallas and across the country, telling students that Paul Quinn cared more about their attitudes than their ACT scores. “The kids I met had known little but turmoil and disappointment,” says Sorrell. “They had spent their lives having to deal with the stress of living without money. Some of them had begun their days not sure where their next meal was coming from.”
Sorrell didn’t have to be told that many of these kids and their families couldn’t afford college. So he came up with an employment program of sorts, offering students who live on campus the opportunity to work part-time on campus or at local corporations that have agreed to partner with the school.
Today, Sorrell proudly describes Paul Quinn as an “urban work college,” and it’s attracting students from around the country. (A little more than a third of the 551 students are from outside of Texas.) The 280 students who live on campus (the other 271 commute) are required to work ten to fifteen hours a week. Part of their income is theirs to spend however they want, but they agree to give $5,000 each year to the school to cover about a third of the $15,500 for tuition, fees, and housing that it costs to attend. Paul Quinn also arranges for the students—“Quinnites,” Sorrell calls them—to receive $6,100-a-year federal Pell Grants, and many get other grants that can add up to as much as $2,000. As a result, many students need to borrow no more than $10,000 for four years of education. “It’s hard to find another college that offers that kind of deal,” Sorrell says.
And, according to Sorrell, what the students get for that modest amount of money is a well-rounded education. Quinnites take courses in liberal arts, business administration, health and wellness, education, and legal studies. But Sorrell acknowledges that he is focused on preparing his Quinnites to thrive in the marketplace. “It’s great to read the classics,” he says, “but what’s truly wonderful is to be unburdened from financial stress. If you can’t help feed your family, then where are you?”
Sorrell tells me he has been meeting with business leaders, asking them what they want in an employee. They invariably reply that their most successful staffers are able to write well, speak well, think well, work well in groups, and master digital technology. As a result, starting next fall, every course at Paul Quinn, regardless of subject, must require students to complete writing assignments, give speeches in front of the class, use critical thinking to solve real-world problems, participate in group projects, and engage in some sort of advanced computer task—not just tweeting or texting, but coding.
Sorrell knows he has a long way to go. When he first came to Paul Quinn, only 1 percent of the students were graduating. Today, that number exceeds 20 percent, which Sorrell admits is still distressingly low. “We know that, statistically speaking, the group of students we aim for, those from the lowest economic strata, have always been the most difficult to retain and graduate. Many of them grow up in environments that do not prepare them for college. Or they have to drop out because their parents lose a job, and there’s no money to pay bills or pay back loans. The students have to go back to their homes, go to work full-time, or take care of their younger brothers and sisters.”
Nevertheless, he says, his goal for the next decade is to have 1,500 students at Paul Quinn and achieve an 80 percent graduation rate. To help his Quinnites prosper, he has pulled in more philanthropic donations to pay for such things as eyeglasses for students who need them. He has persuaded J. C. Penney and American Airlines to provide a free “clothes closet,” filled with business-casual clothing, for students to wear to class and for job interviews. And, courtesy of nearby UT-Southwestern, he’s arranged for free mental-health services for students who, in Sorrell’s words, “have been forced to endure trauma growing up that I can’t begin to describe.”
Sorrell also teaches a course to all incoming freshmen called “Introduction to Quinnite Servant Leadership,” in which he exhorts students to follow what he calls “the Four Ls”: leave places better than you found them, lead from wherever you are, live a life that matters, and love something greater than yourself. “I see myself as a hope merchant,” he says. “My job is to give them the strength and courage to aim higher and achieve. My job is to get them to dream, and to dream audaciously.”
Democratic party insiders are so impressed with Sorrell that they have approached him about running for office. Last year, some of them tried to persuade him to run for governor, against Greg Abbott. But Sorrell insists he isn’t leaving Paul Quinn anytime soon.
“We’re trying to do something different here, providing young people a bridge to a life out of poverty,” he says. “I cannot tell you how glad I am that I took this job. It’s without question the most important job I’ll ever have.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Bringing Higher Education to the Students who Need it Most.” Subscribe today.