DALLAS — Michael Sorrell has been lauded across the country for his work as the president of Paul Quinn College, reviving the private, historically black institution in Dallas since taking his post in March 2007. Now, Sorrell is doing his best to manage his school through the COVID-19 crisis, while reaching out to his students during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
The Dallas Morning News education reporter Corbett Smith recently spoke with Sorrell to see how he's connecting and communicating with his students during these times, and to talk about what classes at Paul Quinn might look like for the upcoming semester.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed.)
Q. Your students are taking part in these protests; how are you communicating to them about staying safe?
A. "First, you recognize that they aren't kids. They are young adults who are passionate about the injustices they see. And, I think some of that is easier to do if you really, really agree with them, if you feel as if their cause is a just one — and their cause is a just one.
"Paul Quinn is an institution that's an (African Methodist Episcopal) school, and even in the realm of HBCUs, AMEs are a little bit different in that an entire denomination was founded in response to racist behavior. So rebellion and protest and activism is literally the founding DNA for the faith.
"'Safe' takes on a very different meaning in the face of a global pandemic and fighting police brutality. Because now, you have two antagonists."
"That takes us to this point: How angry must you be that you are willing to put yourself at risk in this way? When you protest, you go into it knowing that there is the risk of violence. Now, the flip side of this is when you do it now, when the very definition of a public protest means that you're going to have crowds, and crowds put you at greater risk. But you are so moved by what is taking place that you feel as if that risk is justified. That is a powerful statement of where this country is."
Sorrell said that around 40% of the university's 525 students come from outside the state of Texas, and the single largest homebase for those students is Chicago, which has been rocked by protests and police crackdowns. Over 2,500 people have been arrested in Chicago over the past 10 days. Sorrell said that the college has provided those students with contact numbers in case they "end up on the wrong side of this thing."
"We're not going to allow them to sit in jail. We would do whatever we need to do to support them and make sure that they are OK."
Q. How do you think Dallas' leadership — politically and in business — has handled the protests?
A. "I think that when you get to the point of a protest, that is typically because things have built up, or have broken down. The economic impact of allocating resources in the way that has been necessary to manage these protests, in a time where the city was already struggling financially, that's going to reverberate for a while."
"I think you can't understand the current response to this unless you understand the history of Dallas. Dallas has a really, really bad history in terms of race. Whereas you had all of these other Southern cities dealing with the issues (in the '60s and '70s), Dallas tried to squash it without it ever coming to light. And I think at some point, we have to own that and we have to address it in order to move past it."
Q. How hopeful are you that these protests will drive substantive change against systemic racism in this country?
A. In addition to his time at Paul Quinn, Sorrell has deep experience working on racial justice issues, leaving his job as an attorney in Dallas in 1997 to spend a year and a half working in the Clinton White House, serving as a staff member on the President's Initiative on Race.
He's not sure if George Floyd's death will be a flashpoint for systemic changes; for Sorrell, his breaking point was Eric Garner's 2014 death from a chokehold at the hands of New York City police.
"It's hard for me to believe that real change occurs until I see real change occur. That's not to say I don't think change is possible."
"I spent a year plus in my life working on this issue, so I got to see a lot of who we still were. I read some of the letters that people took the time to send us. They weren't 'Hey, I think y'all are doing a great job.' So, I do think the needle is moving. The question is has the needle moved enough for substantive change to occur — and be sustainable? Is this our Civil Rights Act moment? One thing we know: Donald Trump is no LBJ. And look at the price LBJ paid for that act — just the simple act of legislating decency. It changed the political affiliations throughout the South. ... Now, all we see is people pushing back against the right thing, at every stop. Have the protests created enough inertia to ensure that the right thing is done? That remains to be seen."
"Now that things are being unearthed, and we're seeing more and more of these, I do think there are good people of conscience seeing this is overwhelmingly bad, and asking, 'How did I not know? What does that say about me that I didn't know?' ... All of us have an opportunity to make a real difference, but it's a long fight. It's an exhausting fight."
Paul Quinn College will play its role in that fight, Sorrell added, from students organizing pushbacks in their respective cities, to faculty producing research on environmental racism, to the college's commitment to address the wealth gap through its work college model.
"It's who we are, it's what we've been, it's what we've done. The difference for us is that we just keep coming. We're going to push back on every bit of injustice. That's what we do. And we're going to keep doing that, unapologetically."
Q. Other colleges are facing real challenges in the face of COVID-19, losing students and cutting staff. How is Paul Quinn managing the pandemic, and do you see in-person classes starting up this fall?
A. The financial picture, while tough, isn't as bleak as most other colleges and universities, Sorrell said.
One reason is that between 80 to 85% of the students at Paul Quinn are on Federal Pell Grants, providing a layer of financial stability in a time where millions of Americans are without work and unable to pay the full freight of a college tuition.
The biggest reason, though, is the college's shift several years ago to become an urban work college, which requires full-time students to work in order to earn tuition assistance. The university cut tuition and fees by almost $10,000, and pared down its size, to make that a reality.
For now, an official decision hasn't been made about whether in-person classes will be held in the fall, Sorrell said.
"We don't think it's right to bring people back to environments where you cannot keep them safe, just because you need to do that for it to justify the economic decisions that you made prior to this moment."
One choice that has been made is reducing the size of the incoming freshman class, from the typical class of 200 to 250 students to closer to 100. Doing so will allow the school to effectively manage freshmen in an online-only environment if it needs to do so.
Without a large financial endowment, Paul Quinn doesn't have much of a safety net. But it hasn't had any furloughs or reduction in its staff to this point, something that few private colleges in Texas can boast.
"Right now, we have a path that — as long as we can get to a certain (enrollment) number in the fall — we should be fine. I am committed to making sure that happens."