This story is a part of the series “Presidents Corner” about the unique experiences, vision and leadership styles of each president at our nation’s 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
The leader of Paul Quinn College, a small historically black college or university (HBCU) in Dallas, TX, is Michael Sorrell, who became the school’s 34th president in 2007, and has already turned Paul Quinn from one of the country’s relatively unknown Black colleges into a top small college in higher education.
Here’s what he had to say about leadership, partnerships with Public White Institutions (PWI’s), career trajectory, and strategic visions in an exclusive interview with The Buzz.
Robert: You and Paul Quinn nation are both known across the country for leadership style: servant leadership. Why this leadership style over others?
President Sorrell: I believe in authenticity in leadership and mission. Institutionally, Paul Quinn’s mission is to prepare our students to be servant leaders and agents of change of change in the global marketplace. Personally, my parents charged me with leaving places better than I found them and being a voice for the voiceless. The Jesuits at St. Ignatius College Prep (my high school) told us that we were to “be men and women of others.” These teachings combined to create my leadership style and personal mission of servant leadership. Thankfully, there is alignment between my values and the College’s. It has turned out to be a great fit.
Robert: What’s your vision for Paul Quinn?
President Sorrell: My vision for Paul Quinn College is for it to become one of America’s great small colleges. We will achieve this with students from under-resourced communities. Anyone can create a strong school by educating the strong. I think the greater challenge is to take those who fate has dealt an unkind hand and teach them how to bend fate in their direction moving forward. In the Quinnite Nation, we are teaching our students that they are the captains of their fate.
Robert: Recently, Paul Quinn has collaborated with Duke in a historic partnership. Talk about this partnership and how you all made this happen with a PWI.
President Sorrell: I received both my masters in Public Policy and law degree from Duke. I have been an active and engaged alum with both programs (I sit on the Board of Visitors for the policy school (now called the Sanford School and have been recognized by the law school and served in many alumni capacities). Therefore, when we had an issue with the city of Dallas voting to expand the city’s garbage dump and that decision would impact the community we serve, we turned to my alma mater for experts who could brief us on the issues surrounding environmental justice. The folks from Duke’s celebrated Nicholas School of the Environment were incredibly supportive. From that successful collaboration, we looked for other ways to continue working together. The Duke Immerse at Paul Quinn College is a product of the desire to continue working together.
It bears noting that this is not our first our only partnership with a non-minority serving institution. Yale University mentored us on the creation of the WE over Me Farm at Paul Quinn College; Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania designed (along with Nelson Bowman of Prairie View A&M) our major on Fundraising & Philanthropy; and we have also benefitted greatly from the relationships we have forged with Babson College and SMU. We have found that the strength and viability of one’s ideas transcend institutional designation.
Robert: What advice would you give to future HBCU presidents?
President Sorrell: Do not aspire to be a “HBCU president.” Strive to be a transformational leader who serves others through higher education. The difference is that if your goal is simply to achieve the title, you may tend to become vain and self-centered. The last thing any of us needs is another selfish leader. However, if you strive to become a transformational leader who serves others, your priorities will always remain in their proper place- serving others and you will value the people you serve instead of the position. I am honored to be the president of the Quinnite Nation. It is a humbling experience to have people send you their hopes and dreams in the form of their children. I take the journey of each of my students personally. When they succeed, I feel as if I have succeeded; if they fail, then I have failed. While I am proud to share the mantle of HBCU leadership with Johnetta Cole, Benjamin Mays, Norman Francis, Booker T. Washington, Bill Harvey, Charles Johnson, and others, this job does not define me. Rather, it is my calling to serve others that defines me.
Robert: You have secured the largest gift that Paul Quinn has ever seen in it’s existence (4 million dollar gift). How did you make it happen?
President Sorrell: This was a matter of building a relationship. Trammell S. Crow was the first person during my presidency to believe in what we were doing and that our plan deserved the opportunity to succeed. While this gift was his largest, it was far from his only one. He is a Quinnite through and through.