The HBCU Leader Creating a Revolutionary New Model for Urban, Career-Based Learning

For most college presidents, converting the school’s football field into an organic farm would be a career-ending move. For Michael Sorrell, it was just the beginning of what has become a historic turnaround at the 147-year-old institution where he serves as president.

Facing sagging enrollment, financial challenges and growing questions about the relevance of its mission, Paul Quinn College was a school at the crossroads 12 years ago. Since then, the Dallas-based Minority Serving Institution (“MSI”)  has undergone a stunning renaissance by reinventing itself as an urban work college that puts the needs of today’s students and their financial and career outcomes at the center of its mission. An outsider to higher education, Sorrell decided to demolish 12 abandoned campus buildings and then partnered with PepsiCo to transform the football field into the “WE over Me Farm,” a working farm-to-table operation that provides food for the campus community and career-based learning for students. Razing the football field and building an urban farm was both a practical choice and a symbolic rallying cry for a “whatever it takes” administration committed to putting student needs first.

Michael Sorrell grew up in a household that valued education and expected great things. His mother and grandmother, both educated at historically black colleges, instilled in Michael the significant value an education would have on his life and the difference he would make because of it. “They both told me that they had tremendous expectations of who I would grow up to become. That I had a responsibility to lead and to become a voice for the voiceless, become an advocate for those who do not have advocates.”

This charge has guided his life and path to the presidency. Today, President Michael Sorrell is working to repay the debt from college-educated parents and grandparents as an advocate for his students. As Paul Quinn College’s longest-serving president, Sorrell has taken steps to transform the school by introducing a new financial structure, redesigning the school’s model as an urban work college, and focusing on academic rigor, experiential learning, and entrepreneurship. Paul Quinn College’s approach focuses on addressing the most persistent problems of society, aiding all students who walk in the door, especially low-income students and first-generation college students.

“What sustained me is the idea that people deserved better. No one deserves a failing institution that has betrayed their faith. When you educate students from under-resourced communities and places of scarcity, you have a different relationship than you do when you educate middle class and affluent students. When students come from under-resourced communities, we owe them nothing less than being the truest and best versions of ourselves as people and our institutions must be the truest, best versions of themselves.”

During President Sorrell’s tenure, PQC has won international acclaim, including winning the HBCU of the Year, achieving recognition as a member of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and numerous other commendations.  For his efforts, President Sorrell has been named one of  the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine (as #34); President of the Year for all of higher education by Education Dive in 2018; and is the only three-time recipient of the HBCU Male President of the Year Award (2018, 2016, and 2012).