Turnaround Artist: Q & A with Michael Sorrel

In the spring of 2007, lawyer and businessman Michael Sorrell MPP'90/JD’94 was named interim president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college (HBCU) in Dallas on the verge of collapse. It had mounting debts, crumbling buildings, falling enrollment and was threatened with losing accreditation.

Within a year, Sorrell was named president and had gained national attention for extensive fund-raising, instituting a business casual dress code and, in football-crazed Texas, shutting down the football program. The list of changes and accomplishments during Sorrell’s tenure is impressive. He had 15 abandoned campus buildings demolished, the football field turned into an organic garden, new admissions standards established and a Presidential Scholars Program launched. The college completed four consecutive audits without findings, had budget surpluses in three of the last four years and received full accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges. In 2011 the college was named HBCU of the Year. Sorrell will be the alumni speaker at Sanford’s MPP and MIDP graduation ceremonies on May 12. Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Sanford Insights Associate Editor Jackie Ogburn.

You talk a lot about teaching your students “servant leadership.”  What do you mean by that?

I tell our students we have an obligation to leave places better than we found them and to serve something greater than ourselves. Leadership is not about solving the easy problems, but rather addressing the issues which matter the most. My work at PQC is founded on the simple notion that we can do better. When I arrived, I thought, “This can’t be what the founders meant for this school to be.”

To help communicate our philosophy on servant leadership, we instituted a summer bridge program for the incoming freshman.  In this program, I teach a section of the course where we introduce them to the meaning of servant leadership in the Quinnite Nation. I also teach a section on leadership in the business department during the regular school year, and we read a variety of texts, including The Art of War and Freakonomics. I think it creates a special bond with students to see the president as a professor. It also provides a better context for me in working with faculty members.  

“WE over Me” is now our institutional ethos, and we just named our on-campus farm, the “We Over Me Farm.”  

Next year, we have plans to build a grocery store on campus that will be staffed by students and open to the community. Students will not only learn about business principles, but about issues of food security. The campus is in the middle of a “food desert,” with no source of fresh food for several miles. I didn’t realize how bad the issue was when I accepted the presidency.  As a direct result of the lack of access to healthy food and the stress, the majority of my staff and I gained at least 20 pounds- which I’m proud to say we’ve finally worked off.

After closing the football program, do sports still have a role at Quinn?

Yes. We have track and basketball and are planning to add soccer next year. College sports are important, but in their proper place. Our student-athletes rarely have realistic expectations of becoming professional athletes.  However, we fully expect them to be professional men and women for the entirety of their lives. Taking part in college sports can teach them the skills and traits required to be successful professionals in their life.

I love sports; I played basketball at Oberlin. I loved competing and I loved basketball, but I was very clear that if all I was ever known for was my ability to shoot a basketball, I would have led a sad and shallow life.

Are you grooming new leadership for Paul Quinn College?

My master’s memo topic was on mentoring -  specifically, the impact of mentoring on the drop-out rates of African-American males in urban school systems.  I believe that you have to invest in people, trust them to learn from their mistakes and watch them grow.  I am proud that we have assembled a cadre of young women at Paul Quinn  who will be future leaders in higher education and beyond. Among them is Victoria Wilson a Sanford MPP (2010) who works as one of my special assistants.

Can you give us a preview of your remarks at graduation?

When people ask me, “What can you do with a public policy degree?” I always say, “Whatever you want.” At Sanford, you are educated to make a difference. A Duke Law degree means you never have to explain to people that you are smart. A Duke public policy degree means that you are never overwhelmed. My two years at Sanford were intellectually and physically demanding in ways that I had never experienced until that point. I will tell the graduates that their two years at Sanford will provide the foundation for a career path that few will be able to match. It will be useful in careers both inside and outside of government. The way the policy school taught me to think was helpful to me as a lawyer, in the White House, in sports representation and now in education.

Read a previous alumni profile of Michael Sorrell here.