he run-on of requests for Michael Sorrell A.M. ’90, J.D. ’94 to hold forth on higher education’s peaks and rock-bottom lows landed him, this spring day, alongside two experts from colleges quite unlike the one he’d snatched from the brink of a slow, protracted death. “My constituency is probably the most vulnerable of those who will be impacted by this administration,” begins Sorrell, the president of Texas’ 145-year-old Paul Quinn College, the oldest historically black university west of the Mississippi River. From his seat on a panel of experts, Sorrell was calculating the human toll—if President Donald Trump’s budget proposal didn’t change—of paring federal Pell Grant funding and wholly eliminating the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and a host of other safety nets for the least resourced students and their families. For fuller context, consider some essential facts about Sorrell’s campus: One recent fall semester, he sanctioned some social-media crowd-funding to buy eye glasses for students who needed but couldn’t afford them. Eighty-five percent of Paul Quinn’s 521 students hail from households with incomes meager enough to qualify them for a Pell Grant. Seventy percent have earnings so low that their “expected family contribution” is zero. A fifth of them are Latinos. And, in that mix, some are quaking over both the president’s immigration crackdown and his directive for Congress to replace President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order with an actual law within six months. (At this writing, the future of DACA—which lets undocumented college student “Dreamers” continue their studies without being legal U.S. residents—is unclear.) “The day after the election, we had to call a town-hall meeting,” Sorrell tells members of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges convening at a top-dollar Dallas hotel. “Our campuses should be sanctuaries for all our students,” Sorrell riffs, answering a follow-up question about undocumented collegians during the discussion. By “all students,” he was acknowledging—no doubt—the particular barriers confronting those who don’t legally reside in the United States. But, really, he was homing in: Sorrell believes colleges and universities across the nation ought to welcome and accept exceedingly more individuals than they’re enrolling. Race, region, gender, and, unequivocally, finances, ought not be cause to leave any academic aspirant behind. As he forges ahead in his self-styled fight to help create a network of institutions akin to Paul Quinn—Sorrell’s “new urban college model” is bent on educating the poorest people, while improving distressed communities—the former corporate law-
yer and Clinton administration White House aide is doubling down. He’s upending conventions about who is educable in America. How do we ensure, he asks and demands, that the poor, working, and struggling middle classes also get into and graduate from the institutions that sometimes are egregiously out of reach and out of touch? He’s conveyed this to audiences at the Aspen Ideas Festival, TEDx, and Ashoka; the George W. Bush Presidential Center; at gatherings of the College Board, where he’s a trustee; in front of the corporate chiefs on Paul Quinn’s growing list of allies; and at a slew of universities, including Duke. That the message has been well-received points to Sorrell’s singular appeal because of his revival of Paul Quinn. There, “We over Me” is the slogan. Christian faith-fueled “servant leadership’’ is a core standard in classrooms and extracurricular campus and community activities. One of Sorrell’s most-noticed steps was to cut tuition in half. And his most recent, much-lauded achievement was to win the school’s certification as a U.S. Department of Education “work college,” where paid student internships are a graduation requirement. Paul Quinn became the eighth such college this past March. It’s the first historically black college or university and first urban institution with that designation. “I’ve come to believe that people don’t believe in the possibility of things they’ve never seen—until they see it. And that’s especially true of higher-education elitists, with all their class-consciousness” and view that only kids from certain kinds of communities and academic backgrounds are college-ready and -worthy, says Sorrell, who has twice been named HBCU President of the Year by HBCU Digest. After serving on Paul Quinn’s board of trustees, Sorrell became president a decade ago—having been turned down for the job twice. At the time he took over, the small college was mired in debt and administrative scandal. It was going to lose its accreditation. Fifteen of its twenty buildings were in shambles. (Sorrell, gauging cost-effectiveness, had them demolished as redevelopment plans also got under way.) Paul Quinn verged on being shut down. Key to keeping students coming through its open doors was the tuition cut in 2014, which put tuition for on-campus students at the private college closer to what Texas residents pay at that state’s public universities. It also meant that Paul Quinn Class of 2018 Pell Grant recipients whose families cannot help pay their colleges costs, for example, could arrange, if they choose, to graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt. That’s almost a fourth of what the average student borrower in the United States owes post-graduation. (Indeed, some
“We over Me” is the slogan.
Duke alumni and their families toured Paul Quinn’s We over Me Farm in October.
Published on Nov 29, 2017