Ep. 74 How to Make College An ‘Engine of Social Mobility’

Michael Sorrell is president of Paul Quinn College, and he has turned the historically black institution in Dallas into what he calls “an engine of social mobility.”

He became president of Paul Quinn in 2007. At the time there were more than a dozen abandoned buildings on campus. Michael Sorrell has since been named HBCU President of the Year three times for his contributions to higher education, and this year he was named to Fortune’s List of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

Conversation Highlights

On becoming President of Paul Quinn College and defining community

Our pathway to success was never going to be seeing ourselves in a traditional narrow sense. So when we began to define community, we looked across the landscape for a broader definition and said ‘Well our community is going to be anyone from under-resourced communities anywhere in the world.’ But our special focus was people from urban communities at that point. And what we found were people who had needs that frankly, I had no experience in really addressing. And then we just decided that we were going to need to turn the entire institution outward and build an institution that would respond to the needs that people actually had in their daily lives.

On the new urban college model

Michael Sorrell surrounded by students, all are laughing.

Michael Sorrell with Paul Quinn students

The model combines experiential learning, project-based learning, with entrepreneurial thoughts and actions, and then something we call reality-based education. …

We are the first urban work college in the country. … Over 80 percent of today’s college students work more than 20 hours per week anyway. We might as well incorporate their need to work into the academic experience. So we provide jobs for all of our residential students, and then they have a pathway for applying what they’ve learned in class to a professional moment faster than anywhere else.

The second piece is in all of our classes we require our students to do group projects where they are focused on solving real-world problems. And then … the Quinnite Arts, which is our take on the liberal arts. Every class requires students to write papers, so we call that writing across the curriculum. Every class requires students to get up and give public presentations, we call that speaking across the curriculum. Every class requires students to think critically to solve real world problems, that’s critical thinking across the curriculum. And then, every class requires student to demonstrate digital mastery and build digital mastery, and that’s building digital mastery across a curriculum.

So, we have taken the things that people need to know today with the things that they care about which is the practical realities of managing their day-to-day lives, and we’ve combined them to use that to create a model that responds directly to what people need.

On elitism in higher education

What happens is, you get to a place where people define themselves based upon the “eliteness” of their institution or the “eliteness” of their ideas and that is fine, but the problem with that is in order for you to be elite it means you must look down upon someone else. … There are some unintended consequences to that mindset right? And one of them is you tend not to respond well to people who you don’t think match your portfolio. …

I just think in higher ed we can do better; like how  about we just judge people on the quality of their ideas and recognize that roses do grow from concrete, it doesn’t make them any less beautiful.

On being a new president when the college was in jeopardy

We were a year and a half away from closing. So, if I didn’t get it right quickly, I was going be the last picture on the wall. (We used to have all the college presidents’ pictures hanging up on the wall. And every day I would see the wall and my picture was the last picture on the wall, and I lived with the reality that if I didn’t get this right, I would be the last picture on the wall.)

The institution was founded in 1872. It survived reconstruction, it survived the depression, it survived Jim Crow. I did not want it to be incapable of surviving Michael Sorrell …

You know I like to tell people “we were unencumbered by a history of success.”

On the best advice he was ever given – to ‘lead with love’

It was during the first summer I was a college president and I was stressed out all the time. And I got into a yelling match with a student on the middle of campus. … And the student just abruptly stops yelling and breaks down in tears. … My staff member [Ms. Dickenson] stopped it, consoled him, comforted him, escorted him out of the office, then comes back in and sits down.

The thing you have to know about Ms. Dickenson is that she is the quintessential southern mother She said, “I met your mother. And you mother was tough on you, but your mother loved you. You have never spent one second of your life wondering if you were loved.”

She said, “If you use tough love, if you’ve never known love, how will you hear anything other than “tough”? I know you love them, but if you want them to know you love them, if you want them to follow you and to trust you, your going to need to lead with love.”

[That is] the single best advice I have ever been given because it transformed my leadership style.

It transformed my presidency, because it really showed me that I needed to show all of me. That it wasn’t going to be enough to show my intellectual capacity, it wasn’t going to be enough to display my fundraising acumen, that what people really needed to see was my humanity. They needed to know that I was with them…I needed to address those own issues within myself to be able to get to a place where I can say to my students I love you and I’m here for you, and to show that love.

On how universities can become engines of social mobility

I think their ambitions need to change. It starts just right there. I spoke at the [Duke University] Founder’s Day about really challenging Duke to do more, and that’s not to say Duke doesn’t do a lot. But, Duke is one of the few institutions in this country that could take on really important social issues and solve them…

Institutions like [Duke] could permanently change the course of American and societal history by deciding that they want to wade into the deep end of the pool. Not produce journals that talk about it, not hold symposiums that talk about the issues. But to actually say, “We’re going to hold a symposium and we’re looking for the 10 best ideas for ending poverty, and then we’re going to go out and we’re going to implement those ideas.”

It’s an activist mindset. And what I would encourage higher ed to do is to become activists. Because that’s what our society needs, that’s what our country needs, that’s why people are frustrated and angry with us, because have so much and yet we’ve done so little. And we’ve done so little that translates into the day-to-day lives of people. And, we may think we do a lot, but in the quiet of night we know that we haven’t done all that we can. And I’m waging a war on the quiet of night.

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