In early April, I received a call from Dr. Michael Sorrell. We’ve known each other since he first became president of Paul Quinn College in 2007. He actually added Philander Smith College where I was president as part of his tour to gather ideas about what he wanted to do at Paul Quinn since he did not have a higher ed background (he’s since completed a PhD in higher education). Of course, 13 years makes him one of the longest serving presidents in the nation now.
So when he called he said he had an idea. His students, just like many who attend HBCUs, were really struggling with the loss of commencement. If you have been to an HBCU graduation, you know how special it is. So he was thinking that maybe all the HBCUs could do a special commencement together. It was clearly something he had been thinking about: the Dallas Morning News did a story on his concerns at the end of March.
'It's just too much to take in': Why losing commencement at this Dallas HBCU is a very big deal
The sorrow in the voice of Paul Quinn College senior Jennifer Fletcher was heavy and resigned: "I'm packing. I'm…
That was an easy yes for me. Of course we would be able to do our individual ceremonies, but being part of a larger ceremony was appealing, and in 2020 if there was ever a time to do something new, this year was it.
So he pitched it to the major HBCU advocacy groups, UNCF, Thurgood Marshall, and NAFEO. Their teams pitched to their members. They all then began to court national sponsors and celebrity participants. Chase stepped up big as the key sponsor, with Essence and the NBA joining in.
So in about 5 weeks, an idea became a reality, and today over a quarter of a million people as of 9pm CT had seen the event on You Tube, with others watching on the Chase Twitter feed.
But here is the lesson: The vast majority of those watching don’t know anything about Paul Quinn College. They have about 500 students. They aren’t in the small circle of HBCUs that get mentioned all the time for everything (you know who they are…). And yet the president of this school initiated this wonderful event.
Most people don’t know Michael or his story. This is a guy who almost died early in his presidency.
Michael Sorrell Revived Paul Quinn College (and Almost Died Doing It)
"You're saying I died?" Michael Sorrell was lying in a bed at Methodist Hospital. It was September 14, 2008, and he had…
His work has been covered by every major newspaper- New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, and Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been featured by the likes of Texas Monthly.
And he’s be widely recognized for his work these 13 years. Education Dive named him 2018 president of the year.
President of the Year: Michael Sorrell, Paul Quinn College
President, Paul Quinn College We no longer have the luxury of romanticizing who's coming to college and what their…
In 2018, Time Magazine named him one of 31 people changing the SOUTH, a list that included Bryan Stevenson.
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And he was #34 on Fortune’s 2018 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders (THE WORLD)- along with Bill & Melinda Gates, Tim Cook, and Oprah.
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This dude that y’all don’t know, president of a school that you don’t know either. In 2017 Texas Democrats tried to get him to run for Governor (that’s right), but in 2011 couldn’t make the top 3 as a candidate for chancellor of a large HBCU not too far from me (epic failure).
He’s garnered more media coverage than any HBCU president over the past decade, and easily in the top 5 for all college presidents. I chastised my team back at Philander telling them if his little school can get kind of press, we could do even more (and we got good press- LOL!) But Paul Quinn, pound for pound, gets the most press coverage of any HBCU as well.
As an aside though he shared his secrets when I hosted a group of young presidents in New Orleans a few years ago and I have used those techniques because they work.
But there is a unique quality that Michael has, along with his work ethic and competitive nature as a former college athlete, that made today possible. When I hear people say they’re going to save a school like he did at Paul Quinn, it’s like people saying they’re going to be the next Michael… Jordan that is (#TheLastDance is a lesson for us all).
So you have to do it your way with the gifts you have. But the biggest lesson is that people need to stop clout chasing brand name schools- students, parents, professionals, faculty, etc. Sorrell took over a school that was losing its accreditation and made it a model as a new pathway for some schools to follow. High school students and families think that if they attend brand name school that success and fame is automatic. But there are plenty of Ivy League grads working as baristas (read Anya Kamenetz’ 2006 book “Generation Debt”).
You can become great no matter where you go.
In fact, it is easier to stand out if you do the harder job of going to a place which needs to most work. In fact, that’s where the biggest blessing is.
I am sure Michael is being recruited HEAVILY for jobs. Big name schools. WAY more money and prestige. I don’t know what his plans are.
I do have an idea for him but we’ll talk off line (I’m serious).
Congratulations Dr. Sorrell for a job WELL DONE. Y’all read some of the stories I linked, follow him on Twitter/IG @michaelsorrell and tell Jack at Twitter to verify his account.