The Dallas Morning News/Staff
Michael Sorrell is fighting poverty one Paul Quinn College student at a time
by Cheryl Hall | April 21, 2019
Michael Sorrell’s biggest challenge is proving to Dallas that the reincarnation of Paul Quinn College isn’t a pipe dream.
After 12 years under his leadership, the small, historically black, faith-based college in southern Dallas has gone from near death to a financially stable, reimagined four-year higher-ed school that’s becoming a template for colleges around the country.
“This goes exactly to the heart of the tale of two cities — which is our city,” the 52-year-old says in his office just south of downtown off I-45 on Simpson Stuart Road. “A large segment of our city does not believe that anything of significance that is positive happens south of downtown.”
Sorrell is the charismatic tour de force behind the nation’s first urban work college — one dedicated to giving students viable employment skills and a job at graduation. And he’s racking up kudos for his innovative thinking.
Last year, Fortune magazine named Sorrell to its annual “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list. At No. 34, Sorrell was sandwiched between Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and actress Reese Witherspoon.
Time magazine listed him as one of “31 People Changing the South.”
Yet mention Sorrell’s name — pronounced So-relle — to many locals, and you’re liable to draw a blank.
“Hey, I think I’m pretty well-known on my home turf, but it would be hard to beat Legally Blonde,” Sorrell says, referring to the movie that boosted Witherspoon’s fame.
Tom Luce is well-versed on Sorrell and his accomplishments to the south. The prominent Dallas attorney hired Sorrell as a young lawyer two decades ago and spotted a servant leader’s heart worth nurturing.
“Michael was looking for a way to make a big difference. He obviously found it in Paul Quinn,” says Luce, who heads a public policy group grappling with the thorny issues of education. “He was the doctor called into the emergency room to revive a patient in critical condition; he stabilized the patient, and now the patient is a model for the country for tackling and changing the trajectory of social mobility.”
Paul Quinn, affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded in Austin in April 1872, at the height of Reconstruction. Its mission 147 years ago was to educate freed slaves and their offspring.
The college moved to Dallas in 1990, taking over the campus of the defunct Bishop College.
It’s been largely out of sight and out of mind for most of Big D since then.
Those paying attention know that much has transpired since Sorrell took over in March 2007 as the fourth president in as many years. Fifteen derelict buildings — two-thirds of the campus — were razed, infrastructure was upgraded, debt was reduced to zero, academic accreditation and state certification were established, dress codes were adopted, and the football field was turned in an urban farm.
In August, the school broke ground on its $18.7 million Trammell S. Crow Living and Learning Center, the first new building on campus in 40 years. It will be a multipurpose residence hall and health and wellness center with classroom space, dance studios and a gym that holds 1,500.
That same month, the school launched its first satellite campus 37 miles to the north in Plano, where it is using apartments as housing for students engaged in corporate work programs.
Big man on campus
The man behind all this is the effervescent, inspiring and politely audacious Michael J. Sorrell.
Sorrell sees his mission as building reality-based education.
“We help students develop skills that they’re going to need to be successful in their lives,” he says. “This is about creating a new version of higher education, having the ability to implement that vision and then be unapologetic advocates for people who don’t have advocates.”
Oncor Electric Delivery executive Don Cleavenger says that without Sorrell’s vision and drive, Paul Quinn probably would have been lost to history instead of an enviable model for every small college in the country.
“When Michael first came to the board and said, ‘The new strategic plan is we’re going to turn this into a work college and cut the tuition by X percent,’ we all looked at each other like, ‘Is he serious?’” says Cleavenger, a board member for 11 years who’s been its chairman for the past three. “He did it. He’s gone back to what every college should offer — an affordable college degree with a job at the end without creating crushing debt.
“It’s one of the real success stories for Dallas that doesn’t get as much praise locally as it does nationally.”
For the past six years, Sorrell has mentored Byron Sanders, president and CEO of Big Thought Dallas, a creative learning initiative.
“Michael’s a visionary, which anybody with two eyes and a couple of ears can see and hear. But he’s also very practical,” says the 35-year-old. “He talks about how to make big-vision ideas come to life while understanding my top priority, which is my family. He talks about how you can be a world-changer, like he is, yet be everything you need to be for the people who are essentially your first list.”
Arielle Clarkson graduated in 2017. The 27-year-old mother of an 8-year-old daughter is taking time off from being a community organizer as she awaits a kidney transplant.
“I don’t know how to put this in words, but [Sorrell] has definitely walked me through a lot, including the issues I’m having with my kidneys. He’s showed up at the hospital when I was hospitalized. He’s gone to doctors’ appointments with me and my family. He helped me get my daughter into school. I know he does this for a lot of students.”
Trezuer Butler will be among the 58 graduates in May. She just learned that she’s landed a full-time job at MW Logistics, the transportation company where she’s been interning.
Both she and Sorrell are apt to be teary-eyed when she receives her business management diploma.
She considers him her adopted dad.
“My father decided he didn’t want to be part of my college process. I was kinda abandoned,” says the 21-year-old from San Francisco. “You can imagine me being 17 and starting college and not knowing anyone, not having any family out here. I could tell [Sorrell] things that I was going through and he’d step up. I didn’t even have to ask him for help.
“He was like, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Focus on school. Whatever you need, I got you.’
“If I didn’t have him as a mentor, and like a best friend and father figure, I don’t think I would have survived Paul Quinn or college in general because I need emotional support.”
Education as Job One
Sorrell has a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree, both from Duke University, and a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
But it’s how Sorrell started on his road to higher education that’s most revealing.
His late father, who was 56 when Michael was born, owned a highly successful New Orleans-style barbecue restaurant in Chicago. His mother ran a social-work agency for the elderly.
“I grew up in a home where both my parents were the decision-makers in their businesses,” Sorrell says. “I grew up with an appreciation for entrepreneurship and the difference it can make in your life. Entrepreneurship took a man who never stepped foot on a college campus to being the father of a son who is a college president.”
Education was always his parents’ top priority. Michael and his younger sister, Kellie, attended elite private schools. Michael graduated from Saint Ignatius College Prep, where he was a star basketball player.
Jimmy Hill, who buys and sells aircraft and aircraft engines for CFM Materials LP in Grand Prairie, was a high school teammate. They’ve been buddies for 35 years.
“I love his love of people,” says Hill, who was a year ahead of Sorrell in school. “He’s always trying to help somebody — whether you’re friend or foe. He’s always been a caring, giving, loving individual. It’s reflected in how he treats his family, his friends and his students.”
When it came time for Sorrell to choose a college, his parents made it clear that he could only accept a basketball scholarship from a highly rated academic school.
Since Duke, Stanford and Georgetown weren’t knocking on his door, the 6-foot-4-inch shooting guard verbally committed to play for Oberlin College. That was before he saw the campus.
“So you know where this story’s going,” Sorrell says with a laugh. “It’s in the middle of rural Ohio. We get there, the snow’s starting to melt. It’s ugly and cold because it’s March. All I’m thinking is, ‘I cannot go to school here. I have a picture in my mind of college, and this is not it.’”
After the visit, he tried to back out. But his mother secretly forged his acceptance forms, sent in his deposit and then bragged about her subterfuge at the dinner table.
“What you have to understand is my parents were really big character people. If you give your word, that’s it,” Sorrell says. “I’m still a guy that respects a handshake deal.”
The 17-year-old protested that he and Oberlin weren’t a good fit. “And she said, ‘It absolutely isn’t a good fit. But in your discomfort, you will unlock your gifts.’”
Finding the key
Oberlin brought out Sorrell’s entrepreneurial side.
“Whatever wasn’t there, if I wanted it, I had to create it,” he says. “I didn’t like the music that was played in the club on campus, so I taught myself to DJ and wound up DJ’ing parties for the last three years of college.”
He graduated in 1988 as the Oberlin Yeomen’s fifth all-time leading scorer and two-time captain. Academically, he earned a Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowship that financed graduate school at Duke.
Sorrell was accepted at law school there, thinking he’d be the next Thurgood Marshall or Charles Hamilton Houston and enact social change in the courtroom.
But he took a gap year off to work as the statewide Community Reinvestment Act coordinator for North Carolina Legal Services, where he advocated for people red-lined and excluded from traditional bank lending.
“That year taught me that the fight wasn’t in the courts anymore. The fight was about economic development and economic opportunity,” he says.
Sorrell wanted to ditch law school and called his mom to tell her so.
“She proceeded to give me what is known in our home as the ‘Peter Pan lecture,’” he says. “She’s like, ‘Michael, doggone it, you just don’t want to grow up.’”
Confronted with that challenge, he stuck it out, figuring he’d practice law in Charlotte for a few years, get elected mayor, then run for the U.S. Senate.
He came to Dallas in 1994 as a summer clerk for Jenkens & Gilchrist and was impressed that everybody here seemed to be driving gleaming new cars.
Sorrell was enjoying happy hour at the 8.0 Bar in the Quadrangle one evening when a stranger standing in line for a drink started chatting.
“He said, ‘Dallas is a place where if you are entrepreneurial and willing to work hard, you can make anything happen. It’s not like cities where you’ve got to know the right people or marry into the right families.’ And then he disappears.
“He was kinda my drunken angel, you know?”
Sorrell chose Jenkens & Gilchrist over several other offers to test his entrepreneurial mettle.
“Here we are 20-plus years later and that story still really impacts my decision-making process, because it’s true.”
In 1997, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Clinton administration, traveling the country to study race relations among the nation’s youth.
After about a year, Sorrell moved back to Dallas, where he did a short stint with a small law firm before being hired by Luce and Del Williams, now general counsel of Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood.
“To have the experience of the White House followed by Luce & Williams was about the most extraordinary apprenticeship that anyone could have,” says Sorrell, his clasped hands showing cufflinks that are made from “P” and “Q” Scrabble tiles. He is a man of minute details.
“Working for Tom and Del was an apprenticeship in power. I learned how things really do get done and the power of relationships, the power of difficult conversations and how to have them.”
Sorrell says he’s a jock at heart. So in 2006, he jumped at the opportunity to join a group trying to buy the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. Sorrell had picked out a condo overlooking the Mississippi River and was preparing for a Range Rover lifestyle. “I [was] mentally out of here,” he says of Dallas.
A few years earlier, Sorrell had brazenly told Paul Quinn’s AME bishop chairman that it would be a mistake not to hire him as the college’s next president because the college needed someone entrepreneurial, not another academician.
“It wasn’t my most charming moment,” Sorrell admits. “The bishop doesn’t take kindly to my suggestion and proceeds to hire an academician — a nice guy but the complete opposite of what the school needed.”
As a peace offering, the bishop named Sorrell to Paul Quinn’s board.
“It was really an unpleasant experience, because the board was so diametrically opposed to the way I felt the school needed to go,” Sorrell recalls. “I decide to resign from the board when a new bishop becomes chairman. Perfect time. We’re buying a basketball team. It’s gonna be great.”
This time, it was a fax angel who stepped in.
“I type up my letter of resignation, and my fax machine doesn’t work. So I put the letter back on my desk and never sent it.”
Several months later, as Sorrell was headed to Oklahoma City to scout University of Texas star Kevin Durant at the Big 12 tournament in hopes that his group might be able to draft Durant for the Grizzlies, Paul Quinn’s new bishop chairman calls and offers Sorrell the presidency.
Sorrell told the bishop he’d give the school 90 days of his time while the group waited to find out whether its NBA bid had been accepted.
It wasn’t, and Sorrell is still on campus — despite a really rocky start.
Battling on two fronts
In his first two and a half years as president, Paul Quinn lost 80 percent of its students amid fallout from its financial mess and an accreditation crisis.
At its lowest point in January 2010, the school’s enrollment dropped to 151 students. It had a graduation rate of 1 percent with 92 percent of its students calling it quits after their first year.
Today, Paul Quinn has 520 students with a retention rate of 71 percent. One in four will graduate. And the vast majority who do will have jobs along with their diplomas.
The school posted surpluses of between five and seven figures in 11 of Sorrell’s 13 fiscal years and is debt-free. That’s due to federal funding for Paul Quinn’s urban work college model, the largesse of a dozen or so major donors and corporate sponsors, and extensive downsizing that cut things like the football program.
By requiring students to work and use part of their paychecks to defray the cost of attendance and cutting tuition and fees by almost $10,000, Paul Quinn has created a model where its students won’t graduate with insurmountable debt.
The school is accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and is state-certified. It currently offers seven degree programs.
The endowment is paltry — less than $10 million.
“That hasn’t been our priority,” says Sorrell. “We had to stabilize ourselves first. Sometimes the most radical innovation you can do is simply blocking and tackling.”
Debt of gratitude
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk says the city owes Sorrell a debt of gratitude.
“It’s not too much to say that if it hadn’t been for Michael’s personal commitment, passion and downright stubbornness, we wouldn’t have Paul Quinn College, and that would be tragic for Dallas.”
The two met in 1994, when Sorrell rolled up his sleeves to work on Kirk’s first mayoral campaign. Ron’s wife, Matrice Ellis-Kirk, introduced Sorrell to his wife, Natalie, who is the deputy chief investment officer for the Employees’ Retirement Fund of the city of Dallas.
“So the Kirks are pretty biased about him,” says Ron, a 64-year-old Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher attorney. “My daughters have commented, ‘Well, Daddy, he’s sort of a taller, smaller, better-lookin’ version of you.’ Thank you, girls. I take that as a compliment in my own perverse way.”
Sorrell was one of three finalists for the DISD superintendent job in 2012, but he withdrew his name before Mike Miles was chosen.
“Michael would have been magnificent,” Kirk says. “He’s an extraordinarily decent, smart, passionate young man committed to helping kids who need help the most. I don’t know what could be a higher calling.”
Quinn chairman Cleavenger lives in constant fear that Sorrell will get recruited away. “I have no doubt that larger institutions are pursuing him strongly. Thankfully, for now it seems, his mission in life is to be at Paul Quinn.”
Sorrell says he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I feel we are just warming up,” he says. ”I am passionately committed to addressing and eradicating poverty. We’re building an institution that does that. That’s special.”
He knows he could be making more money. Paul Quinn “can’t pay me a million dollars or $800,000 a year,” he says. “But if we define every decision we make in terms of money, we can oftentimes miss out on some of the greatest blessings and privileges that life has to offer.
“The work that I do matters. That’s a blessing.”
Sorrell keeps a gavel on his desk as a reminder to be just in his dealings and not become too full of himself.
He may need it as the national awards continue to flow in.
Is there a Michael Sorrell calendar in the works?
“No,” he says. “No calendars. My ego is not quite that big. My wife still makes me take out the trash.”
AT A GLANCE: Michael Joseph Sorrell
Title: President, Paul Quinn College
Education: Bachelor of arts, government, Oberlin College, 1988; master’s in public policy in 1990 and juris doctor in 1994, Duke University; doctor of education in higher education management, University of Pennsylvania, 2015
Resides: North Dallas
Personal: Married to Natalie for nine years. They have a son, 8, and a daughter, 4.
SOURCE: Michael Sorrell
Paul Quinn College
Founded: 1872 in Austin; moved to Dallas in 1990
Accreditation: Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools
Enrollment: 520 students, 58 expected to graduate in May
Faculty: 47, full and part time
Graduation rate: 24 percent for those starting in 2013
Endowment: Between $5 million and $10 million
Full-time tuition and fees: $15,795 for 2019-20 school year
SOURCE: Paul Quinn College
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