When Michael Sorrell took over as president of Paul Quinn College in 2007, the place was nearly broke and faced a possible loss of accreditation. Sorrell wasn’t interested in following the usual playbook for running a college, so he took unusual steps right from the start. He cut the football program, for instance, and turned the playing field into an urban farm.
Just to put that move in perspective, this college is in Dallas, a city that has been called the football capital of the world. But Sorrel was focused on building a new model for higher education, one that mixes work-readiness with expanding minds, and at a price that more students could afford.
EdSurge recently talked with Sorrell about how his model of an “urban work college,” and he shared the roundabout way that this college got into farming. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).
One of your early decisions as president of Paul Quinn—which symbolizes how you are changing the place—was to eliminate the football team and turn the field into an urban farm. But it's not because you don't like sports. In fact, you played college basketball yourself, and you're in a place that loves football. Why did you do that?
People ask me what's my leadership style. I would tell them it's common-sense leadership. We couldn't afford football. It's that simple. We were losing eight hundred thousand to a million dollars a year on a football team that wasn't playing for National Championships, that wasn't producing students that graduated at a high enough clip, and was inconsistent with what we wanted to be as an institution. There's a cost associated with losing all the time and being associated with losing. It just didn't work for us.
The first week of my presidency we terminated the football program. We made sure people had places to go. We said we'd honor the scholarships of any students that had a B average or better. Again, we're not going to play for mediocrity. We held true to that. So, here we are. We cut the football program. We had this vacant football field, and we're in a food desert. We were closer to the city garbage dump than we were to the grocery store
The first two years of my presidency were extraordinarily difficult. I think we lost something like 400 of the 550 students in the first two years. I come back from lunch one day, and I get a message that a guy by the name of Trammell Crow had called. I didn't know Trammell Crow. He was the son of a real estate magnet, and I thought it was a prank. I thought one of my friends was being a jerk. I called him back, and it turns out it's legitimately Trammell Crow. Trammell said, "I'd like to go to lunch." So, Trammell and I go to lunch, and we hit it off.
I'm sitting there, and I got some advice from another college president who said, "When you're with people of means, you should just ask them for something. Get them in the habit of thinking that your institution is something that they should support." So I mentioned to Trammell, I said, "Hey, you know, people in our neighborhood, they don't have a grocery store. I think people should have a grocery store." Without missing a beat, he sidesteps the grocery store conversation and says, "You know, what I'm really passionate about are community gardens."
I hadn't really done much thinking about community gardens prior to that moment, but I quickly recognized we're not going to get a grocery store. My response was, "You know, I've recently become fascinated by community gardens myself." He said, "Well, would you guys have an interest in a community garden. Do you have anywhere to put it?" I said, "Yeah, we can put it on the football field." He says, "You can do that?" I'm like, "Yeah, I'm the president. We can do whatever we want to do." Right?
That started what then led to a relationship with Pepsi, and we turned the whole football field into a two-acre organic farm. Look, it was absurd. We had no agriculture programs. I called the woman who built the farm. She was our staff member who was responsible for it, and I said, "You're going to run a farm." Her response was, "We don't have a farm." I said, "We're about to have a farm." She said, "I don't know anything about farming. I was an econ major at Spelman." I said, "I don't care about any of that. Just Google it. Figure it out." Literally, she Googled, “What grows in Dallas?” That's how our farm started.
We've grown over 50,000 pounds of food since then. We give away ten percent of everything we grow. We call that tithing to the community. We have a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse. We've got chickens. We've got bees. We're working on an orchard. All of that started because we just were unafraid to fail. It was really a special experience.
You are one of the few colleges in the country that follows a model called a “work college,” and you are the only one doing that in an urban area. What is an “urban work college”?
At work colleges, students are required to work and go to classes. You work ten to fifteen hours per week. You take classes. You have a work transcript and an academic transcript. The work matters as much as your studies. You can be put on probation, academic probation, for not fulfilling your work assignment responsibilities. It gives the students an opportunity to graduate having four years of real-world work experience.
All those [other work colleges] are in rural areas. We're not. We're in the ninth largest city in the country. We needed a different version of that model. I went back and got a doctorate, in part so I could write a dissertation around this idea. I had this symphony on my head, and I needed to get it out. So, here we are. I'm doing the research. I'm researching why they didn't succeed for a part of my dissertation. It turns out, part of the reason they didn't succeed is that people couldn't figure out how to make the work something attractive, that the work they were assigning their students to do was drudgery. You see it in how the work colleges describe work. They talk about it being labor. Well, I've got students from urban areas. I can't sell, "Come labor," for four years. Nobody's going to buy that.
We're in a major business center. So why wouldn't we get our students off campus and into corporate jobs, so they then have these experiences of being effective leaders, and graduating with pre-professional training? Our version requires students to go work off campus for part of their four years in corporate work jobs. We take advantage of being in an urban area through that way. It has been an amazing success, and we're going to create a national network of urban work colleges.
There's a tension these days between whether college should prepare students for work, and to get that first job, or if college should be preparing students in this academic, big-picture way for the life they're going to lead holistically and not think so much about that first job. In your view, what is college for?
Let me preface this by saying, I went to the most liberal arts of the liberal arts colleges. I am a product of Oberlin College. I take the mind of the pursuits of the mind seriously. Okay. But, I also have a Master's in public policy. I have a law degree, and I have a doctorate. But to me, it is a bit unrealistic to expect people just to learn for the sake of learning with no regard for what happens next. I think that is disrespectful to the families who have made enormous sacrifices for their children to be there. You need to be able to draw a line for them, from point A to point B.
But, you shouldn't be a prisoner to the choices you made at 18. I started out college pre-med. That lasted one semester. It was a disaster. But in general, higher education hasn't always been an effective communicator about what's important. I liken this tension to the tension between W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Right? The idea of do we teach students to think or do we teach the students to do? It should never be either/or. It was always both/and. This is that same argument. We tell our families, we're going to teach your students how to think and how to do. Because in the shifting universe that is today's society, you cannot be trained to do just one thing. Then, you will never evolve, and you will be easily typecast. You'll be easily bypassed for people who have a variety of skill. I just don't know why we can't do both. We can do both. We challenge others to follow our lead in doing both.
There's an article in the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal Project that found that financial aid is really going to the rich much more than it is to students in need and that there’s a misunderstanding about that in our society. One quote in this was, "There is a very seriously warped view among many Americans, and particularly more affluent Americans, about where the money is actually going." I've heard you talk about college debt. How did higher ed get where it is on this score, do you think?
Well, I think everybody wanted to be Saks Fifth Avenue when what America really needed were Walmarts. Right. Think about it. We talk about innovation at our school. We're not Stanford and MIT versions of innovation. That's Saks Fifth Avenue. That's Neiman Marcus. Okay. We are innovation for everyone. That's Walmart innovation. Okay? Some of this is the US News and World Report rankings, right? Everyone wants to be elite.
We became broken as an industry. Everyone wanted to be one thing, and we forgot that some of us weren't meant to that thing. Some of us were meant to provide services to a different kind of student. 85 to 95 percent of my students are Pell Grant eligible. How do I not be concerned with the cost of education? How do I think that I can just continue to raise prices and it not have an adverse impact on them? Maybe you can do that if you don't talk to your students. You don't know your students. You can't do it if you care about them.
Just to be clear, as you talk about your 'work college' model, one goal is to get the price down for students, right?
That's absolutely right. We cut tuition fees by $10,000. We went from charging $43,800 down to about $14,400. We created this situation where students can graduate only less than $10,000 in debt after four years. This is in response to listening to what our students said. They were struggling. They were poor. They were poorly capitalized. It was hard for them. Why wouldn't we listen? Why wouldn't we take their needs into concern?
When you talk about Walmart and higher education, many in higher ed would bristle at that, right? Despite the access issue, it does seem like there's this huge tension and especially when you're trying to also say that you're a quality place. How do you communicate that?
Well, first of all, let's understand that only out of touch condescending people would think that Walmart doesn’t provide a quality service. That's part of the problem. People bristle because they fundamentally have no idea what everybody else's life is like.
It’s a class issue, right?
Yeah. It's a class issue, right? Look, I get it. My parents grew up ... my family made lots of money. Okay. I went to the best private schools. Here's the difference. My father never went to college. He was an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship in one generation took my family, on my father's side, from a man who never stepped foot on a college campus, to a son who is a college president. My mother grew up poor in the rural South. Her family was so poor that when she and her first cousin went to college together, and the family pulled their resources, they still couldn't afford everything they needed. They had one set of clothing. No problem, except my mother's five eleven and my aunt's five six.
I love elite education. I am the product of elite education. But, I love my students having better lives.
I didn't come to this profession just so that I could sit around and talk to other college presidents and other leaders in higher education about problems and not actually understand the students we're trying to serve. I'm here for my students. I'm here for the communities that sent them to us. Our institution should respond to the needs of the students we have. How warped is it that instead of finding and figuring out ways to educate students from our under-resourced communities, our inner cities, our rural poor, that we, instead, went looking overseas to places we can charge full price and not have to subsidize the students? I get it. It's a business. I'm saying it's a business for who? Who are we in tune with? Who are we trying to support and help?
I hear that you are moving away—or maybe already moved away—from textbooks. What do you do instead?
We use open-source material. Between the internet and other sources, you can find plenty of education. I'm a professor. I teach, so I don't expect anyone to do things that I'm not doing. I don't use textbooks. I use other sources. The other reason is, unintentionally there was a caste system being created in our classrooms: Those students who could buy the books and those students who couldn't buy the books. The students who weren't buying the books [it wasn’t] because they didn't care about the lessons. They weren't buying the books because they had other pressing financial demands in their lives that precluded them from doing that. You were getting a classroom situation where some of your students had the means to buy the books and some didn't. Why would you do that? Why would you make people feel worse about themselves and their circumstances? So, we got rid of it.