Michael Sorrell
The man, the brand: Michael Sorrell is the face—and the heart—of Paul Quinn College. Credit: Courtesy of Dear World

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Twelve hours before Paul Quinn College’s biggest day of the summer, president Michael Sorrell is meeting with his staff. There’s a lot to discuss. A fund-raiser for the school’s on-campus farm is scheduled for tomorrow, and after that, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is playing a free outdoor concert on the lawn outside the chapel. These are two of the most high-profile events of the year for this 450-student historically black institution located off Interstate 45 in a working-class African American neighborhood of South Dallas. But Sorrell isn’t talking about any of that right now. He’s focused on how Vincent is doing at J. C. Penney.

Vincent Owoseni, a junior finance major from Brooklyn, is interning at the Texas-based department store chain as part of Paul Quinn’s work program, in which all students hold jobs on or off campus to help defray the cost of their education. But, Sorrell tells the room, Owoseni was having some trouble adjusting to the position—he was placed in the shipping department, which he wasn’t prepared for. Sorrell seems conflicted about the news. On the one hand, he tells his staff that Vincent needs to understand that unexpected assignments are part of any career and that he’ll learn just as much from the logistics side of J. C. Penney as from the customer-facing side. On the other hand, he treats the news as a possible warning sign. “He’s one of the best students we’ve got here,” Sorrell says. “If he’s having trouble, how is everyone else doing?” He assigns staffers to check in on other students who might be in similar situations.

When I later catch up with Owoseni, he expresses no surprise that his name came up in the meeting. Sorrell, he says, has been in touch throughout the internship. Indeed, he’d been reaching out to him since high school. Owoseni was valedictorian at City Polytechnic High School, and Sorrell flew out to meet him. “He was very inspiring,” Owoseni says. “He asked what I wanted to do. Then he told me, ‘You can do better than that.’”

“Better than that” is a fair description of Sorrell’s own aspirational leadership philosophy, and of the school’s trajectory since he took over as president in 2007. He arrived to find a college that was on the verge of closing its doors, buried under a mountain of debt with more than a dozen abandoned buildings and a four-year graduation rate of 1 percent. It seemed less “fixer-upper” than “lost cause.”

Sorrell went to work right away. He axed the expensive football program and turned the playing field into a farm, where students can work and from which food gets donated to the surrounding neighborhood. He traveled the country, visiting other colleges to learn from their presidents, and building up recruiting relationships with high schools. He nearly doubled the size of the student body, and raised millions from donors and corporate partners, enough to put (and keep) the school in the black.

It’s not uncommon for Sorrell and his staff to be on a first-name basis with students who are still in high school.

The stunning turnaround of Paul Quinn has made Sorrell into a mini-celebrity. He’s been interviewed on HBO, spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and participated in countless higher education panels. But what he is increasingly getting attention for is the work program, which he first rolled out in 2015. All students are required to work at least eight hours a week, first on campus for the college, then off campus for participating employers. Twenty-four hundred dollars of students’ wages per year go to offsetting their tuition, the rest goes into their pockets. This has allowed Paul Quinn to slash its total cost of attendance from $23,800 to $14,275 a year. Sorrell’s goal is to get students into the job market with less than $10,000 in debt; the average student takes on only $2,300 in loans a year after Pell Grants and other subsidies along with work tuition credits.

The idea that students of modest means can contribute some of their labor in exchange for lower tuition is not new. Some Catholic high schools and a few rural liberal arts colleges have long operated that way. But Sorrell is the first to apply the model in an urban college setting. He is also the first to extend the concept beyond low-skill on-campus jobs to off-campus positions with private-sector employers, where students can garner skills and connections that might give them a leg up in the post-college job market.

This “New Urban College Model,” as Sorrell calls it, addresses some of the most pressing problems in higher education: how to substantially reduce tuition for lower-income, and especially minority, students in a way that colleges can afford; how to do so for students who need the high-touch support of a liberal arts college and who might otherwise get lost in a larger public university; and how to better integrate a liberal arts education with the job market. (Sorrell thinks his model can achieve even more—that reinventing the urban campus can also bring back depressed urban neighborhoods.)

It’s no wonder that Sorrell’s innovations are a hot topic in higher ed reform circles. The question is whether those interventions are, in wonk-speak, “replicable.” In other words, can other schools achieve what Paul Quinn College has without a one-in-a-million leader like Michael Sorrell?

Like a lot of colleges these days, Paul Quinn offers a “summer bridge” program, in which incoming students spend six weeks getting acclimated to college life in general and to Paul Quinn in particular by living in dorms and taking a few introductory classes. Unlike at other colleges, the president of Paul Quinn teaches one. “What’s on your mind?” asks Sorrell at the beginning of one such class this past summer. Only two weeks into their pre-college experience, the assembled students aren’t afraid to share. They end up discussing the then-recent nightclub shooting in Orlando, touching on religion, gun control, and gay rights over the course of twenty minutes, leading into Sorrell’s actual lesson plan about what makes a community. The conversation isn’t purely free-form; when a student is called on, she must first stand up and announce her name loudly to the class. Any drops in volume, grammatical errors, or uses of the dreaded filler word “like” will get called out by Sorrell. “He’s intense and kinda tortures students when he’s teaching them,” says junior Elexis Evans, one of his TAs, before quickly adding, “But he’s a great professor.”

Sorrell is six foot four, with an athlete’s physique, and he holds court with the confidence of someone who doesn’t mind reminding you that he was a star basketball player at Oberlin College. But even in his toughness he exudes empathy, recognizing which students he can needle and poke fun at and which ones need more positive reinforcement to get their confidence up. When the community lesson turns to crime and punishment—specifically marijuana legalization—he poses a question: “Hypothetically, how many of you have been in the vicinity of something illegal, like getting high?” About two dozen hands go up—which is about two dozen more than you’d expect from a bunch of soon-to-be college freshmen facing down the president of their Christian school. He laughs and gestures at those with their hands down. “Now, I know some of you are lying.”

Sorrell says he pushes students over the summer to prepare them for college, but offers enough support that they understand it’s constructive. “You can’t allow them to not be educated, but you have to create a safe space,” he says. “I spend a lot of time affirming my students. You’re safe, I love you, I’m here with you for the long haul.”

And that safe space can mean the occasional questioning of the professor. When he chides a student for starting her sentence with “I feel like,” classmates protest in her defense, arguing that it’s proper usage and not a filler. Sorrell argues that it’s not incorrect but rather “substandard,” in an attempt to quell the semantic mutiny as students break out their phones to check dictionary apps and weigh in. They’re eager to prove themselves; in many cases, it’s why they were recruited to Paul Quinn in the first place. About eight in ten students are getting Pell Grants, and more than 70 percent will get no money from their families to help pay for tuition. Two-thirds of them hail from outside Texas, with high numbers coming from cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Some have faced massive roadblocks in their path to college—extreme poverty, broken homes, multiple deaths in the family—and nearly all will have to work harder than they ever have before to succeed.

That includes little things like basic time management and academic skills, especially in preparation for the jobs to come. Many have never paid attention for an entire multi-hour lecture before, have never really written a paper, have nothing but anxiety at the prospect of tests that can make or break a grade. To foster a sense of professionalism, Sorrell enforces a business-casual dress code in classes. For those who don’t have the clothes, the school keeps a closet full of donated businesswear that students can borrow from. Those who struggle despite the staff’s hands-on approach can be put on the “Carrington plan”—they live together on the one dormitory’s third floor and maintain a schedule of distraction-free study hall sessions. The program is named after former undergraduate Ryan Carrington, a promising student whom Sorrell ordered to work at a desk in his own office after a massive drop in grades following a fraternity pledge. Sorrell took Carrington’s keys and cell phone and had him introduce himself to every visitor who came in. “He had never sat still long enough to learn,” Sorrell says. Sure enough, the grades went back up.

Sorrell (and the high school administrators who like to send him names) makes a point to find students like Carrington who can blossom with that extra push that Paul Quinn can provide, who have been dealt a difficult hand but have the potential to thrive in a college that’s meant to feel like a family. “There is this entrepreneurial spirit,” Evans says. “A lot of us didn’t realize we came here with that, but we had it brought out of us.” They may use “like” incorrectly at first, but they’re willing to fight for themselves when they get it right.

As Sorrell gets the class back on track following the great “like” debate, Trezuer Butler smirks at the scene. Butler came to the summer bridge program as an incoming freshman last year, taking her first-ever flight out of her native San Francisco. Now she’s a TA at the same bridge program, her work helping offset her tuition. Like many Paul Quinn students, the urban work college model wasn’t totally new to her—she came from a work high school, Immaculate Conception Academy, where the administrators have a relationship with Sorrell. She knew she wanted to go to a historically black school, and ended up getting in everywhere she wanted to go. She picked Paul Quinn after receiving a full scholarship, and Sorrell surprised her with a call after she accepted and convinced her to come to Dallas early for the summer program. Afterward, he stopped in San Francisco for Sunday dinner with her family, who were nervous about sending her off to Texas for good. “He got permission to watch me, punish me, motivate me,” Butler said. “I didn’t have a relationship with my dad, so he really stepped in and stepped up.”

What’s remarkable about these calls and visits is how unremarkable they seem as part of his larger recruitment strategy. It’s not uncommon for Sorrell and his staff to be on a first-name basis with students who are still in high school. The school estimates that only 10 percent of incoming freshmen aren’t recruited in some way by Paul Quinn. That closeness doesn’t end when they get to campus. “I firmly believe that you meet students where they are, and you love them, and you lift them,” Sorrell says. “I believe in authentic relationships.”

Credit: Courtesy of Paul Quinn College

Sorrell says he needs to put extra work into building trust with students because his background isn’t the same as many of theirs. He grew up upper middle class in Chicago, where his father owned a barbecue restaurant and his mother ran a social work agency, and he attended St. Ignatius College Prep, one of the best schools in the city. He got an offer to play basketball at Oberlin, but took a recruiting visit and hated it. “It really was an uncomfortable place,” he says. “People protest everything, they question everything. I wasn’t a social outlier, so I became the outlier.”

As it turned out, the decision wasn’t really up to him. Sorrell’s mother decided that choosing a college was too important to leave to a teenager and forged his signature on the Oberlin commitment. He was livid. That’s illegal, he told her. He could sue! “You’re gonna sue your mother for sending you to one of the best schools in the country?” she replied. “We’ll see how that goes.”

The dispute never made it to court. Sorrell went off to Oberlin and, as expected, felt like a fish out of water, a Chicago jock among the hippies. But he found his place—thirty years later he’s on the cover of the latest alumni magazine and is still the basketball team’s fifth all-time leading scorer. One moment in particular from his undergrad days sticks out as a sign of things to come. A friend pulled him into a dinner with Johnnetta Cole, then president of Spelman College. He agreed because, hey, free food. But then he started talking to Cole. “She was the coolest president I’ve ever met,” he says. “I told myself, This is what college presidents can be like? Sign me up.”

That job wouldn’t come until much later, though. After Oberlin, Sorrell got his master’s degree in public policy from Duke. He liked it so much he stuck around for law school. But while he had always figured he would end up as a civil rights attorney, the notion seemed less and less appealing as time went on. “I began to realize the struggle was no longer in the courts,” he says. He got his JD, but set his sights on business school. Once again, Mom stepped in.

“She gave me the Peter Pan speech,” he says. It was time to leave academic Neverland to grow up and get a real job. (Little did she know.) So in 1994 Sorrell moved to Dallas to work for a law firm. He then spent two years in the Clinton White House working as a special assistant on the president’s race initiative. (He told the Dallas Morning News that he was “way down the food chain” in the White House, but he evidently made enough of an impression that, this past summer, he was able to lure the former president to speak at Paul Quinn.) After his sojourn in Washington, he returned to Dallas, where he spent the next decade practicing law and doing public affairs consulting, including working on Dallas’s 2012 Olympic bid. Understandably, he took a special interest in sports, representing NBA players and even helping former college players heading into the NBA draft to create political-style campaigns to up their stock. His connections paid off with an offer to join a group that wanted to buy the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies; he would have been franchise president and gotten a small ownership stake. He was driving to scout then University of Texas phenom (and future Oklahoma City defector) Kevin Durant when the people at Paul Quinn gave him a call. How would he like to be president of the college?

As he’s fond of saying, when you get offered a job you didn’t apply for, that’s probably a good sign no one else wants it. Paul Quinn was on the verge of bankruptcy, of de-accreditation, of closing down for good. Why hitch yourself to that wagon when you’re about to be an NBA executive? As it turns out, there are two reasons: Michael Sorrell likes a challenge, and he wasn’t about to be an NBA executive. He agreed to take over for ninety days while the board looked for a permanent president. When the Grizzlies deal didn’t work out, he became that permanent president.

Even outside of the financial and enrollment struggles, things were bleak those first few years. In addition to the massive deficits and threats of de-accreditation, the campus had fifteen abandoned buildings, and the ones that were occupied were in terrible shape. Anyone could wander onto campus, and often did (faculty members were afraid to leave their purses behind them in classrooms for fear that they’d be snatched). With 140 acres of Great Trinity Forest to the north and east, the unwelcome visitors weren’t always human. Sorrell remembers driving a local politician around campus about six months into his presidency when they saw what seemed like a big dog roaming the grounds. “That’s not a dog,” Sorrell says he realized as they got a closer look. “That’s a bobcat.”

(Sorrell reckons the bobcats were pushed out by coyotes, which have since been replaced by stray dogs. After a southern Dallas woman was killed by a pack of dogs in May, Sorrell’s summer bridge class’s big project this year was developing proposals for dealing with the neighborhood’s stray dog problem.)

Sorrell surrounded the campus with a fence and stationed security guards at the front to keep out strangers (and bobcats). Thanks to a million-dollar donation, he was able to get all fifteen abandoned buildings torn down, exorcising the campus’s most visible past demons. He began creating pipelines to bring in students who could meet his more rigorous standards. It was a pace of work that could give you a heart attack. A year and a half after he took over, that’s exactly what happened. Sorrell’s heart stopped overnight, and he was unconscious for nearly three days before coming to in the hospital. The experience only deepened his resolve. “I just remember thinking, we’re going to win,” he says. “I am a man of deep faith. And I don’t think the Lord saves you to humiliate you.”

Sorrell dove into studying what other college presidents were doing. “When I started as president, I didn’t know anything,” he says. “And I hate not knowing anything. So I immersed myself in my craft.” He read and reread Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives and traveled the country visiting campuses, from nearby Prairie View A&M to far-flung Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. His biggest breakthrough didn’t come from a college visit, though, but a high school one. On a recruiting trip to Detroit Cristo Rey, Sorrell was wowed by the Catholic school’s corporate work-study program, in which students work once a week at local businesses. It was an idea ripe for expanding on the college level.

Sorrell’s heart stopped overnight, and he was unconscious for nearly three days before coming to in the hospital. The experience only deepened his resolve.

He spent the next year studying rural work schools like Berea College in Kentucky. A tuition-free institution founded by Christian abolitionists, Berea ranks number one on the Washington Monthly’s 2016 liberal arts colleges and Best Bang for the Buck lists. Admirable as it is, however, only seven rural colleges run on the work model, even though the idea has been around for a century. “The reason work colleges didn’t really take hold is partly because the work is drudgery,” Sorrell says. That’s because rural areas have few local employers where students can be placed in interesting, cutting-edge jobs. “In urban areas you can absolutely connect the work to what people are studying.” It was that insight that Sorrell brought to his board and students. Getting students real professional experience while lowering tuition costs was enticing enough on all sides to give it a try.

So far the new model has brought vast improvements in student outcomes, Sorrell says, though it will take a few more years for the statistics to catch up. While he increased the school’s official six-year graduation rate from 1 percent for students starting in 2006 to 13 percent for those who started in 2009, the latest figure comes right on the heels of Paul Quinn’s most turbulent period, in which hundreds of students left because of the shuttering of the football team, a disciplinary and academic crackdown, and lingering accreditation concerns. (The Washington Monthly’s current rankings only include an average of the graduation rates of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 cohorts.) The percentage of students who return after freshman year has since jumped from 33 percent at its low point to between 65 percent and 72 percent over the past few years, and Sorrell expects the graduation rates to follow. “The lagging indicators still measure the school that we were seven, eight, nine years ago,” he says. “We’re not that school anymore. When that graduation rate jumps, people are going to have whiplash.”

Sorrell expects that the work curriculum will only help retention. The We Over Me Farm, still Sorrell’s signature move as president, is the keystone of his model. While at first it may seem like another example of work college “drudgery,” students don’t only labor on the farm—they also work on the marketing and business sides, helping to solicit donations and make sales. While some of the produce is used in the dining halls, much of it is sold to Dallas restaurants and grocery stores along with larger corporate buyers like the Dallas Cowboys. And at least 10 percent of the produce every year is donated to charities in the school’s Highland Hills neighborhood, which sits in the middle of a food desert.

That’s where Sorrell’s plan to “end urban poverty” comes in. The work college model goes hand in hand with his idea of small urban colleges as “anchor institutions”; even a small school provides economic investment, employment opportunities, and cultural resources in inner-city neighborhoods. Thanks in large part to the success of the farm, for instance, a new grocery store is opening up across the street. Paul Quinn students organized to successfully fight off a city plan to significantly expand a nearby landfill farther into Highland Hills. Students marched multiple times, wearing “I AM NOT TRASH” T-shirts, and eventually Dallas relented and threw away the landfill plan. Now Sorrell is lobbying city officials for a light-rail stop in the neighborhood, which would serve his students (who often have to take difficult bus routes or drive to their jobs around the region) as well as Highland Hills commuters. And while Paul Quinn may be gated, it can still provide an artistic as well as economic impact: in addition to lectures and symposiums that are open to the public, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra plays a free show on campus every year, which Sorrell calls his favorite event the school puts on.

A system that keeps tuition low while allowing students to get real professional experience in preparation for entering the job market would be a godsend for small city schools that often struggle to do either of those.

Sorrell got his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania last year using the New Urban College Model as his dissertation. In it, he argues that his model can be copied across the country. There are 1,725 four-year colleges in U.S. principal cities, and about 70 percent have fewer than 5,000 students. “This model was built to be replicated,” he says. “I’m worried about what happens if it doesn’t catch on.”

The question is, can the model catch on without such a charismatic figure leading the charge? Sorrell has an astounding ability to command the room no matter who’s in it. He can banter with students, run a staff meeting, talk with education policy wonks, chat up church leaders, and network with big donors locally and around the country. Education reform is full of examples of brave new ideas that flourished under their innovator but faltered when tried elsewhere.

Sorrell counters that there are many different types of college presidents, and that his model can work with different kinds of leaders—though there’s one quality they need. “It’s replicable, but you need a champion,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need Michael Sorrell, but you need a champion.”

Paul Quinn College, of course, is lucky enough to have both.

On the day of the farm fund-raiser and the symphony concert, Sorrell is in the library trying to figure out exactly what he wants his message to be. Paul Quinn staff and students are writing words of inspiration on their bodies and getting photographed, the results of which will be posted around campus and used in the school’s new marketing campaign. Butler, Evans, and other students are writing, erasing, and rewriting slogans and hashtags on Sorrell’s arms in a flurry of markers and baby wipes. He has always been the face of Paul Quinn, but today he’s going to have to be the biceps, too.

As he poses for the photo, the students heckle from the sidelines. “We don’t want to be scared of our president!” Evans yells as Sorrell tries on a tough look. Later, at the concert, they’ll unsuccessfully lobby him to buy them dessert from one of the food trucks parked nearby. “We want some ice cream! Come on, do your fatherly duties!”

Ice cream aside, Sorrell’s fatherly duties—checking in on students before they even arrive on campus, meeting their families, looking after them on campus—may be his greatest gift to Paul Quinn. But his New Urban College Model could be his gift to the rest of the country. A system that keeps tuition low while allowing students to get real professional experience in preparation for entering the job market would be a godsend for small city schools that often struggle to do either of those. Paul Quinn College, no longer the underdog, is showing the rest of them how it’s done. Bringing the model to cities across the country and ending urban poverty might be farther down the line, but for now Sorrell still has to take it one student at a time.

After the concert, as students, staff, and community members are lining up to say goodbye to Sorrell, a boy pulls him aside. Robert, a high school sophomore who came all the way up from Houston, wants to tell him how much he likes Paul Quinn. They exchange email addresses, and Sorrell makes him promise to send him a note when he gets home. “You have it in you to do really, really well,” Sorrell tells him. “Your grades will matter. Drown out all the background noise. The lights come on, the teacher’s in front of you. Give it all you’ve got.”

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly works for a labor union in Washington, D.C. Previously he was an editor at the Washington Monthly.