When Michael Sorrell took over as president of Paul Quinn College, the position was supposed to be temporary. In 2007, the college was in dire financial straits when Sorrell was tapped to become interim president. Several years later, after a series of challenging decisions, the school is soaring to new heights and Sorrell has become an important leader, especially in the fight for voting rights.
In a conversation with Texas Signal, Sorrell walks us through the new Paul Quinn College, and why he remains committed to combating voter suppression.
Paul Quinn College is the oldest historically black college in Texas. It was founded in 1872 by a group of African Methodist Episcopal Church preachers in Austin (at the time it was known as the Connectional School for the Education of Negro Youth) to educate freed slaves and their families. After five years, the campus was relocated to Waco. Then in 1881, the school was officially named after a Methodist missionary named Bishop William Paul Quinn. In 1990, the school relocated again to its present-day campus in south Dallas.
After Sorrell became president, he began overseeing the transformation of the college. In addition to ending the football program, the football field was converted to an urban farm. The We Over Me Farm now regularly provides about 30,000 pounds of produce throughout the year to a variety of customers, including Legends Hospitality which works with AT&T Stadium. Paul Quinn is also at the forefront of a new tuition model, also known as the new urban college model.
The changes at Paul Quinn have been profound, but at the heart of every decision has been the student body. Sorrell is always thinking about the current and future “Quinnites” that are helping revolutionize modern education. “We serve students from under-resourced communities who have been overlooked, who have been marginalized and we push them, we push the institutions that are supposed to support them, and we do this unapologetically,” says Sorrell.
As the president of one of the most important HBCUs in the country, Sorrell has a large platform. Recently, he’s been utilizing that platform as Texas Republicans have been trying to pass the expansive voter suppression bill, Senate Bill 7.
Paul Quinn was the host of a recent voting rights rally that was sponsored by Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People organization. The event in June featured numerous Democratic state house members, including Rep. Toni Rose, who is an alumna of Paul Quinn. Michael Sorrell also spoke at the event.
When asked why it was important for Paul Quinn to host such an event, Sorrell notes that it was in line with the principles of the school. “We are always going to be an institution that is a community resource, and the things that our community cares about are the things that we will support,” he says.
Sorrell also points out that, while the event might have featured an all-democratic lineup, the right to vote should be nonpartisan. “People need to have easier access to vote, this is a right. That wasn’t about politics, that was just about principle and fairness.”
O’Rourke is actually no stranger to Paul Quinn. In 2019, he delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree. Sorrell is also committed to continuing the work of advocating for comprehensive voting rights legislation. “We will always engage in nonpartisan acts where people are trying to actually lift people up, and support people.”
Though that advocacy will likely continue as Republicans try to pass SB 7, Sorrell is also going to be overseeing a tough new year for Paul Quinn as students come back to campus for the first time in over a year. Sorrell acknowledges the hardships that the entire campus endured throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our students are coming back to us steeped in trauma,” he notes.
For Sorrell, the opportunities at a place like Paul Quinn, are exactly why he took the reins as president in the first place. “We are in the dreams business and we want to help people believe in things that they might have never thought they’d be capable of.”