Paul Quinn College was a sorry sight when Michael Sorrell, the school's fifth president in as many years, drove onto the Dallas campus to see what he was dealing with. As Sorrell looked around campus, he had one thought. How do you save a school that everyone thinks is already dead?
Paul Quinn College was a sorry sight when Michael Sorrell, the school’s fifth president in as many years, drove onto the Dallas campus to see what he was dealing with.
The historically black college had been founded by circuit-riding preachers from the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1872, just seven years after the Civil War ended. It began as the Connectional High School and Institute for Negro Youth, where young men were taught the trades: blacksmithing, carpentry, leatherwork. In 1881, the school expanded its curriculum to include the liberal arts and renamed itself in honor of a bishop in the AME church.
But a century after it was founded, the school has fallen on hard times. By 2007, when Sorrell took over, enrollment had plummeted and alumni donations had dried up; the campus was pockmarked with abandoned buildings and grass was growing on the roof of the cafeteria. There were holes in the walls of the common areas, and mice scurrying through the dorms. The school was buried under a pile of debt, and a Board member was being investigated for embezzling thousands of dollars. Around Dallas, most people seemed to have forgotten Paul Quinn College existed.
As Sorrell looked around campus, he had one thought.
How do you save a school that everyone thinks is already dead?
Michael Sorrell didn’t follow the kind of career path that typically leads to the presidency of a small, struggling HBCU. He went to college on a basketball scholarship, then earned a law degree and an MBA.
He came to Dallas to work in a fancy law firm downtown, and on Saturdays he would play basketball at the YMCA. A lot of the guys he played with were Paul Quinn alumni.
“People would question why folks would go to school there, why you’d donate money there,” Sorrell remembers. “There was a perception that the school wasn’t delivering and there weren’t students there that people were particularly high on.”
And for some reason — he still can’t quite explain why — Sorrell decided that saving Paul Quinn was what he was meant to do.
It was 2002, and he was 35 years old.
To understand what happened next, it’s important to know this about Michael Sorrell: The man is, by his own admission, pretty damn cocky. His life goals, as he’ll tell anyone in absolute sincerity, include being appointed to a cabinet secretary position in some future administration, and owning an NBA franchise. So when he saw what was going down at Paul Quinn, he thought: well, obviously. I’ll just go to the board and tell them I should be president.
“They were like, ‘No,'” Sorrell says, laughing.
They gave him a seat on the board instead.
Four presidents came and went in the five years that Sorrell served on the board. After the last one left, in 2007, the board pretty much threw up its hands and said, why the heck not?
Sorrell was 40 years old. He had never taught a class or chaired a department, much less run a whole school, when he was handed the reins to the small, struggling, historically black college.
Sorrell’s first step? He ran the numbers and decided that Paul Quinn couldn’t afford football.
Darrell King was a student at Paul Quinn when Sorrell canned the team.
“It was an uproar,” King remembers. “I mean, it was Dallas, Texas, home of the Cowboys. And a lot of students just came for football. That was the sole purpose of going to college. And when that opportunity wasn’t there, the student population just pretty much took a hit.”
In 2008, one year into Sorrell’s presidency, the student body was half what it had been four years before: just 445 students.
The next year, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools stripped Paul Quinn of its accreditation. Losing your accreditation means no state or federal financial aid money; it’s basically the death knell for a college.
“I’m sitting there in my house and I just break down in tears,” Sorrell said of that day in 2009. “I was just tired. Just like, God, can we get a break?”
“A lot of my closest friends were scared,” says Dexter Evans, who was a freshman in 2009. “We didn’t know what to do. This was the college we had made home and we didn’t know if the doors would be open the next semester.”
Paul Quinn found a new accrediting body, but by the end of the year there were only 171 students on campus.
But it was around this time that Michael Sorrell noticed the football field, sitting there empty, waiting to be used to send a message that despite all evidence to the contrary, Paul Quinn wasn’t quite dead.
Tidy rows of arugula, sweet potatoes, and lettuce spread between the old goal posts of the former Paul Quinn Tigers football field. Elizabeth Wattley strolls down a tilled row and stopped. “We’re standing on the 40-yard line,” she says.
Wattley was working as Paul Quinn’s service learning director when Sorrell called her and told her she had a new job: to turn the school’s football field into an organic farm.
Wattley didn’t know anything about farming, so she turned to Google. What grows best in Dallas? What type of soil do we have? How many turnips fit into a plot between the 30 and 40 yard lines?
Wattley recruited a group of students to help sow the fields — much to the skepticism of outsiders. “The first thing we would get was, we’re putting the kids back on the field like in the slave days,” she says.
Wattley and her student workers planted rows of sweet potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers. They set up beehives and built a greenhouse and chicken coops. They called it the We Over Me Farm, after a slogan that Sorrell came up with for the school.
Junior Chanson Goodson started working at the farm when he enrolled at Paul Quinn as a freshman, not out of any great love of vegetables, but because it paid more than any other gig on campus.
“The first day was enlightening,” he remembers. “Eight o’clock in the morning in the middle of November, 40 degrees outside, and I had to harvest arugula. It was just a horrible day.”
Something started to change his second semester working at the farm, and, gradually, the farm became a place of refuge.
“Whenever I’m stressed out or, you know, I’m cramming for finals and I just need to get away from anything book-related I’ll just come on to the farm and just weed a row or listen to the chickens scratch around and stuff,” he says.
The farm’s vegetables go to local restaurants, and to the owner’s box at Cowboy’s stadium. It’s not a lot of money — most years, the farm just breaks even.
But as a symbol that the college was reinventing itself? The We Over Me Farm worked really well. It looked great when potential donors saw Goodson and the other student workers caring for chickens, or harvesting bell peppers. And for a school that needed a story to tell, looks mattered.
That meant the look of the students, too.
At the old Paul Quinn College — the Paul Quinn of the time before Michael Sorrell — the standard of dress was, to hear former students and staff tell it, extremely relaxed.
“Pajamas,” says Darrell King. “Like, ‘Hey I’m up, let’s throw some pajamas on, let’s go to class.'”
Sorrell would bring donors to campus, and they would see students walking around in sweats or pajamas, looking like they just rolled out of bed. They weren’t making a good argument for investment.
So Sorrell decided to clean them up. He instituted a business casual dress code for all the students. Collared shirts, dress slacks, and loafers for men; suits and dresses for women.
Students caught out of dress code got a warning and then, a $200 fine.
Eighty-four percent of Paul Quinn students are eligible for Pell grants … which means they’re low income and don’t have a lot of extra money for clothes. So the school launched a clothing drive in black churches around Dallas. Parishioners donated literally tons of clothes.
“Turns out when you start talking to black churches about making black students look better, they’ll give you everything,” says Sorrell.
Those clothes, and the heaps of donations that have come in since, are stored in Paul Quinn’s Career Clothes Closet, a windowless room in the basement of the student center. Racks of lightly used professional clothing, organized by color and type, share space with purses, belts, shoes, a wall pinned with diagrams on how to apply office makeup, and a section full of jeans and Carhartts for the students who work on the farm. Students can take five items at a time, free of charge.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a group of students browsed in the racks, pulling out blazers and dress pants and taking them to the small changing room across the hall. Darciea Houston, who transferred to Paul Quinn last year to study health and wellness, was flipping through the women’s blouses. She was dressed in dark slacks and a blazer. Not her favorite outfit.
“I love tennies, jogging pants, jeans, hoodies,” she says. She sighs. “But when you bring donors on campus that can ruin a lot of things. You know if they look at me and in their mind see I don’t care about my appearance, that’s going to be a problem for people coming after us. I want to make sure I am doing my part.”
Visiting Paul Quinn feels less like hanging out on a college campus than it does visiting a particularly effective company that is totally nailing its employee morale workshops.
When President Sorrell showed up, he recast Paul Quinn as a hub of urban entrepreneurship. He told his students that they were his partners in fundraising, as responsible for the success of the school as he is. Students are taught to introduce themselves with the “Paul Quinn greeting:” name, major, hometown. They take a mandatory class called Introduction to Quinnite Servant Leadership where they learn the school’s guiding principles.
A campus that potential donors saw as an awful investment eight years ago is starting to look like smart money. Over the past few years, donations have rolled into Paul Quinn from corporations and wealthy Dallas businesspeople. One local white real estate magnate has given Paul Quinn more than $5 million. These days, the school routinely runs six- and seven-figure surpluses. The campus has been almost wholly renovated: abandoned buildings demolished, air conditioning installed, dorms, libraries and bathrooms redone.
But the farm, the dress code, the sparkling new buildings — in the long run, those things may matter less than another, more subtle change that is underway at this historically black college.
The four members of Delta Alpha Omega multicultural fraternity meet every Tuesday night in a lounge in Paul Quinn’s student center.
The other Greek organizations on Paul Quinn’s campus are “Divine Nine,” the nine national historically black sororities and fraternities.
Paul Quinn’s four DAO brothers are all Latino.
DAO’s outgoing president, Gio Macias, grew up in Dallas.
“I didn’t know I was born in Mexico until I went to go get a driver’s license,” he says. “They told me I didn’t have a social security number. I was like, what do you mean I don’t have one?”
Short and stocky, Macias played soccer in high school, and he hoped it would be his ticket to college. But when he told recruiters that he wasn’t a citizen, “they looked at me differently,” he says. Paul Quinn offered him loans and student aid.
“I was kind of iffy about the fact that it was an HBCU,” he says.
When he enrolled in fall 2011, he was one of nine Latino students on campus.
Now there are many more. Paul Quinn’s Director of Recruiting, Jessika Lara, is Hispanic.
Michael Sorrell said this reflects demographic realities.
“If we’re in Texas, how would we not have more Hispanics?” he says. “You would have to make a decision to not admit Hispanic students for your numbers not to grow.”
Fifty years ago, pretty much everyone at Paul Quinn, and at HBCUs across the country, was black. Now the number of Hispanic and Asian students at black colleges is rising. Today, about a quarter of HBCU students are not black. The biggest growth is coming in Latino students.
That’s all to the good, says Jarrett Carter of HBCU Digest.
“Historically black does not mean ‘black today, black tomorrow, black forever,'” he says. “It never has meant that. It’s always meant historically black — that we’re black and we’re here, because y’all wouldn’t let us in anywhere else. But it’s never been a statement of exclusion.”
There’s a saying at Paul Quinn that Michael Sorrell came up with, and which is repeated by students and staff across the school: “You can be our kind and not be our color.”
But some students wonder if, in all the talk about kind over color, something is getting lost.
Transfer student Leslie Polk was enrolled at Howard University before her mom got sick and she had to move back home to Dallas.
She says she worries that in attempting to reach out to everyone, Paul Quinn is losing the idea of what an HBCU is.
She says she often thinks about the African American preachers who founded Paul Quinn to provide former slaves with an education.
“If you lose the identity of being an HBCU, sooner or later that will just be passive information,” she says. “It goes back to our history and how important it is. If we stray away from it, we’ll lose our identity.”
For Polk, this point gets to the beating heart of what a historically black college is supposed to be … and what it is supposed to do. Howard, she says, taught its students what it meant to be black in America. That’s not really Michael Sorrell’s focus right now.
“Our goal is very simple,” he says. “Become one of America’s great small colleges. There has never been a school that has gone from where we were, arguably one of the nation’s worst, to one of its best. You can’t get there by doing the same old stuff. You’ve got to do something different.”
Sorrell sees the changes he’s making, including the growing Latino student population, as stemming directly from Paul Quinn’s legacy as a black college.
“In my estimation what [HBCUs] are meant to really do is provide opportunities for students who have some type of disadvantage in their background,” he says. “I’m not worried about what we lose. I’m not insecure about our institutional heritage. I’m not insecure about our African American heritage. In fact, I’m so secure about both that I can welcome others as well, and it doesn’t diminish mine.”