Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Michael Sorrell // Evolving in Real Time

Michael Sorrell is in a constant process of evolution – and he’s doing it before our eyes, on social media, and on campus. He leads the impressively innovative Paul Quinn College, a once-struggling school that is now a model of urban revival. Michael is so optimistic about the future – despite the pandemic – that he expects Paul Quinn College will be even better off on the other side of the crisis. During this episode, Michael reminds us to confidently chart our own path, be willing to make mistakes and keep going when we stumble, and tell our own story. That’s how we learn. That’s how we evolve.

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Notes from this Episode:

 Pay the piper saying

Campus Leadership in the COVID-19 Era: 40 Digital Leaders to Follow

Diverse Education: If Joe Biden Wins, Who Could Be the Next Secretary of Education?

Nation Building – Paul Quinn is always hiring! http://www.pqc.edu 

More About Michael

Dr. Michael J. Sorrell is the longest-serving President in the 148-year history of Paul Quinn College. During his 13 years of leadership, Paul Quinn has become a national movement for its efforts to remake higher education in order to serve the needs of under-resourced students and communities.

Included among Paul Quinn’s numerous accomplishments during President Sorrell’s tenure are the following: winning the HBCU of the Year, the HBCU Student Government Association of the Year, and the HBCU Business Program of the Year awards; achieving recognition as a member of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll; creating the New Urban College Model; demolishing 15 abandoned campus buildings; partnering with PepsiCo to transform the football field into the WE over Me Farm; achieving full-accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS); creating the College’s first faculty-led study abroad program; and rewriting all institutional fundraising records.

President Sorrell is one of the most decorated college presidents in America. He has been named Higher Education’s President of the Year by Education Dive; one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine; is the only three-time recipient of the HBCU Male President of the Year Award (2018, 2016 and 2012); and Time Magazine listed him as one of the “31 People Changing the South.” Washington Monthly Magazine identified him as one of America’s 10 Most Innovative College Presidents and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and PUSH/Excel honored him with its Education Leadership Award. Michael is the recipient of both the Dallas Bar Association’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice Award and the City of Dallas’ Father of the Year Award. In addition to being a member of the “Root 100” (a list of the top 100 emerging leaders in America) by the Root Online Magazine, Michael has received: the Distinguished Alumni Award from Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, Illinois; the A. Kenneth Pye Award for Excellence in Education from Duke University’s School of Law Alumni Association; the Social Innovator Award from Babson College; the Vision Award, Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Middlebury College; Luminary Award from SMU; and the TRACS Leadership Award. The Dallas Historical Society honored Michael for Excellence in Educational Administration. He is a past recipient of the Dallas Urban League’s Torch for Community Leadership and both the President’s and C.B. Bunkley Awards from J.L. Turner for his outstanding contributions to the Dallas legal community. Michael also has an honorary degree from Austin College.

Michael received his J.D. and M.A. in Public Policy from Duke University and his Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (where his dissertation defense was awarded “with Distinction”). While in law school, he was one of the founding members of the Journal of Gender Law & Policy and served as the Vice President of the Duke Bar Association. Michael was a recipient of a Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowship, which funded his studies at both Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (as a graduate fellow) and Duke University. He graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in Government, served as Secretary-Treasurer of his senior class, was a two-time captain of the men’s varsity basketball team, and graduated as the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer.

Among the entities that President Sorrell serves as a trustee or director for are Duke University’s School of Law, the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, JP Morgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways, Amegy Bank, the Hockaday School, the Dallas Advisory Board of Teach for America, the Dallas Foundation, and EarthX.

Michael is a member of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity and a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.

President Sorrell is married to the former Natalie Jenkins. Natalie is an alumna of Spelman College and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. They have two wonderful children, Michael Augustus and Sage Louise-Sinclair.

Connect with Michael

Josie Ahlquist:

Hello, and welcome to Josie and The Podcast. I’m Josie, and I’m so happy to have you with me today. This podcast features leaders who share everything from their latest tweet to their leadership philosophy. My goal is to connect tech and leadership with heart, soul and lots of substance. Before we begin, here’s a quick message from our podcast sponsor, Campus Sonar.

Are you a believer in social listening? Or, maybe this is the first time you’ve ever heard this concept of social listening. Regardless of where you’re at, you can stay on the pulse of the latest in social listening in higher education with Campus Sonar’s Brain Waves newsletter. Campus Sonar is a higher ed social listening agency on a mission to help campuses find online conversations that give higher ed professionals the insights they need to support their institution’s goals. And, with their newsletter, you’ll get access to questions and answers with Campus Sonar’s team of experts, access to their latest writings and research, and insights into what the team is paying attention to to stay current, themselves. You can subscribe today at info.campussonar.com/subscribe.

All right, let’s get into today’s featured guest. Michael Sorrell is president at Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college in Dallas. He was hired 13 years ago as a newcomer to higher education after working as an attorney to turn around the struggling college. Today, though, Paul Quinn isn’t just surviving; it’s thriving, even in a pandemic. During Michael’s tenure, the college has created the new urban college model, transformed a frickin football field into the We Over Me Farm and won HBCU of the Year, among numerous accomplishments. Michael said, “Paul Quinn is here to be a model for what’s possible. If we can do it, then no one has an excuse.”

Clearly this college president has a winning mentality. During this episode, we talked a lot about what Michael believes in, and his vision for the future. So, here’s just a little sneak peek into that. We get talking about life and leadership online and off. He’s learned over these last 13 years in ways that have given him tools to pivot during this crisis, even if that means it’s very different from what the rest of higher ed is doing. We also talk about him going live right away on Instagram Stories, face-timing with students, and now, letting other voices be heard more often.

We also get talking about the future of leadership in higher ed and who should be leading this revolution, what type of leader is needed right now and in the future, and his vision for what education should look like in this country. And, of course, you can follow us both on all the socials. The podcast is @JosieATPodcast. I’m @JosieAhlquist and Michael is @MichaelSorrell. Everything we talk about, resources, people and posts, is found on my website josieahlquist.com/thepodcast. Enjoy. 

I am so excited to have on the podcast today, Michael Sorrell, who I have been after for a number of years now in the most platonic way, just such a fan.

Michael Sorrell:

This is a family show. 

Josie Ahlquist:

This is a higher ed show, yes. So, I want to get to know you a bit more before we get into the meaty questions, all through your Twitter bio. And, again, while I have been pursuing you was also because of how much I wanted you in my book, which, I got you in the book even though I didn’t get any interview. I swear I’m not going to keep bringing that up, but I’m just such a fan of how you show up, and in a variety of different ways, even down to your Twitter bio. It says “Prez of @paulquinntigers. WE over Me + Four Ls of …” how do you … Quint, Quinton leader-

Michael Sorrell:

Quinnite Leadership.

Josie Ahlquist:

“Quinnite Leadership = #NationBuilding, the Urban College Model, and Reality Based education #WeGotNow.” You pack every possible character into that bio. So, what more can we learn from you just from that bio now that we got you on the podcast?

Michael Sorrell:

Oh, I think it just turns on what you really want to know, right? I believe in authentic leadership. I believe in production over protocol. I believe in common-sense acts, common-sense leadership. I believe in not taking oneself too seriously. I believe in always making sure your family understands they’re the most important things in your life, and I believe that we’re all going to screw up lots and lots of times in our lives, and what matters most is our ability to just keep going.

Josie Ahlquist:

Wow, well, podcast is over. That’s all we need to hear right now. I love that so much. Well, let’s hear from something you posted recently, and you can cheat if you need. What’s something you posted maybe on Twitter or Instagram that we can hear your process behind why you shared it?

Michael Sorrell:

Sure, well, why don’t we just start with what I talked about this morning? We’re the first urban work college in America. If you come to Paul Quinn College, you get a job, and that’s especially important because 80-85% of our students are Pell Grant eligible and they don’t have the relationship capital that produces the type of internships that positions you for next, right? They typically are just trying to meet now. And so, our work program allows us, quite frankly, to leverage my relationships and the relationships of the school to the benefit of our students, and they get jobs in places that they truthfully would not have had the opportunity to do so otherwise.

Michael Sorrell:

One of our students Ellie McRae, the place she’s interning in, JBJ Management posted a tweet about her starting there as an intern. The thing about JBJ is it’s not going to show up on the Fortune 100 list, but there are few places that will serve you better as an intern than JBJ Management, which is the home of possibly one of the most connected people … I would argue most connected people in Dallas, someone who I have … Willis Johnson, who I have enormous respect for and admiration for. I’ve known him for years, and he’s a guy who started out as a radio personality and has built a career on understanding where things are going.

Michael Sorrell:

And so, Ellie is interning for him. Now, what people sometimes don’t realize about historically Black colleges is they aren’t all Black. We have students from lots of different backgrounds, and 20% of our student population is Latino. But, Ellie is white, and so, she’s interning, but she’s also brilliant. And, I don’t mean brilliant in the way that you adjust your expectations. No, I mean, flat out, she is one of the 10 best students that we have had during my tenure. And, part of what distinguishes her is not just her innate ability, but is her coachability, which makes sense, because she’s also a member of the women’s basketball team.

Michael Sorrell:

And so, Ellie … and, I taught Ellie three times, so this isn’t one of those things where I don’t know what I’m talking about. No, I have taught her. She has been in my classes where everyone has been just dismantled and had to fight their way back. And, watching her fight her way back is an extraordinary experience. So, I posted about Ellie and about the fact that she’s one of my presidential scholars, which, by the way, she didn’t come in a presidential scholar; she earned that scholarship by her work.

Michael Sorrell:

She is a member of the women’s basketball team. She’s interning for JBJ. Let’s see, what else did I tell? Oh, she wants to go to law school, and I have been looking for someone to send to my alma mater at Duke during my time. I’ve got the fingers crossed, so I tag Duke so that Duke will always be on notice. And, I’m on the board there, so they were always going to get a fair shot at Ellie no matter what. And then, I also mentioned that we have this wonderful partnership with SMU, and we’ve had it for over a decade where our students can take courses at SMU, and it’s a financially, incredibly beneficial arrangement for our students.

Michael Sorrell:

But, she’s studying Arabic while she is doing … so, she’s on the women’s basketball team. She’s interning at JBJ. She’s a presidential scholar, which means she has an entirely different set of expectations. And, oh, by the way, she’s studying Arabic, and she’s studying Arabic because she’s part of our prestigious opportunities program where we’re positioning students to compete for Rhodes scholarships and Trumans and Fulbrights because, frankly, one day, I just got tired of the same schools producing all those recipients and I just thought, “You know what, we’re going to start producing a consistent stream of Rhodes scholars ourselves,” and she’s part of the program designed to do that.

Josie Ahlquist:

It’s such a cool example of how well you know your students, how much you champion for them and some innovative programs that you already have set up to get them to be successful. So, pre-presidency, maybe even pre-being-in-law, I’m curious: what was your earliest memory of technology in your life?

Michael Sorrell:

Outside of TVs, right, not counting TV?

Josie Ahlquist:

I mean, maybe that really made an impression.

Michael Sorrell:

Yeah, no, I was in a family where we couldn’t watch TV until the weekend. No, I take that back. You could watch the evening news after dinner, but then you couldn’t watch TV until the weekend, so I always really just remember watching the evening news, which is not going to help my street credibility at all. What I would tell you about technology, we could talk about answering machines and some of the dating disasters that that produced. But, what really stood out to me was: I used to have one of those … and, I don’t remember whether it was Casio, but it was the predecessor to the address books. It was an address book that you … digital address book.

Michael Sorrell:

I used to have this Rolodex, just an address book that I kept everything by hand, but I was given it as a gift, and I think it was after I graduated law school. No, yeah, it probably was law school or while in law school. I wrote everything in there, and then it crashed and I couldn’t get anything out. It took me back to, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It was great that you have it and it’s convenient, and it’s horrible when it falls apart.

Josie Ahlquist:

Oh, goodness.

Michael Sorrell:

So, that might not be my first, but that was a very vivid memory that I have.

Josie Ahlquist:

Memories, yeah, yeah, they usually stick with you, there. Well, fast-forward to today. This summer, I featured you on … well, I featured you a number of times whether you knew it or not.

Michael Sorrell:

Thank you, thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Of course, on a blog called the 40 Leaders in Higher Ed to Follow who are digital leaders, especially during COVID-19 because, almost immediately, I saw you popping into Instagram Live to do this series called Popup with Prez. Sometimes, you had people jump in with you. But, just like you said before we started recording, I’m an open book. I’m going to respond. I’m going to connect. I’m going to share honestly. Did that idea just come like, “Okay, now this is how I need to show up in this way?” And, what advice might you have to your fellow presidents about doing something similar even today, whether they’re back to trying to do face-to-face or fully online?

Michael Sorrell:

No, so, it’s interesting; I actually listen to my students, and I don’t have to have it filtered all the time, or rarely, because I teach, and I don’t teach once every five years. I teach every year. So, we have a summer bridge program, and this summer was really the first time that I didn’t teach in the summer bridge program because it was going to be a little hard this summer with everything else that was going on. But, normally, I become the students’ first professor, and I teach a course called, Introduction to Quinnite Servant Leadership, and it is a smack in the face to college because what I’m trying to teach you is that everything matters. So, you have to pass a minimum Quinnite competency exam.

Michael Sorrell:

The exam gets tougher as it goes along because we have more things that we can talk about as it goes along because it tests you on your body of knowledge in the class. You learn about we-over-me, the need to be accountable to each other and all these other things. And, it also tests your ability to learn and apply. So, a dirty little secret is: many people don’t pass the class, but they don’t pass the class because they give up on themselves because I will stay around on the last two days of class as long as people want to try and pass the test because you can’t pass the class unless you pass the test.

Michael Sorrell:

So, you could have an A on all your other work, but if you haven’t passed the Quinnite minimum competency exam, you don’t get to pass. But, the secret is everyone will pass if they just try. You may not pass the written part of the exam because part of it is you have to memorize If. You have to memorize Mother to Son by Langston Hughes. There’s some stuff, and Invictus, right? But, typically, if you memorize those three poems, I will pass you in the class, but you have to memorize the poems. But, you have six weeks to memorize the poems.

Michael Sorrell:

The amount of people who give up, just give up … and, the thing about that is, in life, you can’t give up. You can’t give up. You have to keep going. And, if you need to fail this class to learn that lesson … because, the other secret about it is you can retake the class in the fall and the F comes off. So, you don’t suffer long-term academic damage to it. This is more about the long game to teach you a very, very important lesson, which is, number one, no one’s going to cut you a break because you were poor or you came from an underprivileged background or your high school didn’t give you all the benefits that someone else’s high school can.

Michael Sorrell:

Because, I come from a sports background. At some point, you step on the court and you have to play, and you don’t play with an adjusted expectation of one’s, “Well, I’m only 5’11” and you’re 6’5″, so I’m not going to …” nobody cares. Coaches just want to know, your teammates want to know that you can produce, and that’s life. And so, I know my students because for six weeks, two hours a day, four days a week, I stand in front of them and teach them. And, when you do that, you get to know them. So, I know the students that, when they stumble, it’s just a stumble because I’ve seen them in their natural environment. And then, I teach courses during the school year, so I get insight.

Michael Sorrell:

I say that to say our student government association president this past summer said to me, she said, “Look, we’re accustomed to seeing you. You do town hall meetings at least once a semester. You engage with us. You go to our games. You do this stuff.” She said, “You’re doing a great job keeping everybody alert and keeping everybody aware of what’s going on and what you’re thinking. You’re writing emails.” She said, “But, we’re not really trying to read the emails, so it would be helpful if …” I was like, “Really, you’re not trying to read my emails? They’re so riveting. What are you talking about?”

Michael Sorrell:

So, she said, “You know, it’d be nice to see you.” Then, I had some other younger staff members who were like, “You should do these Instagram Lives,” and I was like, “Look, do students … do people really want to see me? Do they really want to hear from me like that?” They were like, “Yeah,” because I just don’t assume people do. My ego, I’m confident, but I’m not egomaniacal to the extent that I’m like, “Oh, everybody wants to see me on Instagram Live.” I’m not that guy, okay, but my students, my staff thought that was important and so we did it. But then, we got to the point where it didn’t make sense anymore. It wasn’t as effective so we moved on to something else. That’s something I would tell people is: don’t fall in love with your own ideas to the point that you can’t evolve from them. Do what works then. Be open to what works next, and just keep it moving.

Josie Ahlquist:

So, what’s been working lately, then?

Michael Sorrell:

I think a couple things. One, it’s taking a step back and allowing other voices to be in the room to communicate, understanding that in this era, people need to hear from their professors. They need to hear from academic affairs. They need to hear from me that things are okay and I provide that assurance. They like to hear from me because they know that I’m always up to something new, so they want to know: what’s the new hot thing that’s coming? And, it’s more now about personal connections. It’s about me texting certain students or reaching out on social media. I had a couple students who bombed their chemistry test at SMU, so it was about me being like, “Come on, now,” right? “You want to be pre-med. You can’t fail your chemistry exam. We expect more from you. I believe in you. Let’s get it together.” So, now, it’s less about using Instagram Live and it’s more about using text messages and phone calls and FaceTime and things like that to connect.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah, I’ve been hearing that a bit more in this, whatever phase we are in, the individual outreach from, like you said, phone calls, text messages, DMs to make those individual connections. I had to giggle a little bit about how your students are wondering, “What’s next? What are you up to next?” You’ve been at Paul Quinn for 13 years, the longest of the school’s tenure for a president. Before that, you were an attorney. You really have this reputation that you have transformed a struggling college into, now, one that’s looked at for a ton of innovation.

Josie Ahlquist:

I think just the way that you think and show up and, in many ways, now that we need to be nimble and have to pivot and problem solve, how has what you’ve learned over the last 13 years paid off now during the pandemic, and what are you still finding that you’re doing differently compared to what’s going against what the rest of higher ed is trying to do right now?

Michael Sorrell:

Sure, so, the first thing I would tell you is I have absolutely no desire to follow the status quo. I’m not one of those people that comes to a situation and thinks that the prevailing wisdom is the correct wisdom. I just don’t. Look, not to go all heavy about this, but I’m the descendant of slaves, so if the prevailing wisdom was always right, I would still be a slave. So, when you have that perspective, then you are freed from believing that presumably smart people will always get it right. So, for me, I just look at things and I’m like, “That doesn’t make sense.” It doesn’t matter what your industry is. It doesn’t make sense.

Michael Sorrell:

One of the advantages I have, I think, is not growing up in higher ed, not being someone that aspired for this as the pinnacle of life. I don’t have any disrespect for people who did. I just didn’t. The truest story about what even made me think about being a college president is I was in college, sophomore, junior, and I was coming from basketball practice. I was in the student union at Oberlin and was on my way to dinner. I was just kind of goofing around, and a buddy of mine was on his way to have dinner in the little restaurant that we had in the student union, and he said, “Hey, somebody backed out. Do you want to go to dinner with Johnnetta Cole?”

Michael Sorrell:

Johnnetta Cole was an Oberlin alum, but at the time, she was the president of Spelman. So, I’m like, “What, free dinner ? I don’t have to eat in the cafeteria? I’m there.” Then, I said, “Wait, dinner is with Johnnetta Cole, the president of Spelman?” He’s like, “Yeah.” This is just where my 18-19-year-old mind was at the time so I’m just going to throw this disclaimer out there. I’m thinking, “Wait, Spelman is an all women’s college. The sisters at Spelman are fine. There is no downside to having a relationship with the president of Spelman. This is going to hook me up.” Free food and an opportunity to access women to date was what motivated me to go to that dinner. It was trifling. I own it, but, if we’re going to know the story, you need to know the whole story. Now, the irony of this is my wife is an alumna of Spelman, so, just, you can’t make this stuff up. I didn’t meet her as a result of that, but it is what is.

Josie Ahlquist:

It was in the cards.

Michael Sorrell:

So, we go to dinner and Johnnetta Cole is extraordinary. I have never had someone … up until that point in time, I never had someone that I sat and shared a moment with that completely blew my mind. She was regal. She was gracious. She was brilliant. She was personable, and I remember sitting there thinking, “If this is what HBCU presidents are like, oh, I’m here for this. This will be one of my careers,” because, again, I tend to think of things in layers. And so, but the irony of it is it never occurred to me that I needed to go get a doctorate or I needed to go do anything traditional. I just naturally assumed, “I’ll get to be a college president because I’ll do so much stuff in life that, when I’m ready to be a college president, somebody will make me a college president.”

Michael Sorrell:

I thought it would be at the end of my career. I thought it would be after I made a bunch of money, after I was in public service, after I had owned an NBA franchise. I thought, “This is what … I’ll get fat and be a college president.” That’s how I saw it, not that all college presidents are fat, but, again, this is the 19-year-old version of me. And so, I had a career prior to higher ed of crisis management, and so I built a reputation on my gifts as a crisis manager, which proved to be very relevant preparation for leading Paul Quinn. And, leading Paul Quinn and crisis management proved to be exceptional training for leading in this moment in time.

Michael Sorrell:

To me, this has never been about just Paul Quinn. This has always been about: I think that higher education could benefit from some different perspectives in the room. Higher ed is the only place I’ve ever seen where we expect our revolution to come from above. In the history of mankind, revolutions don’t start from above. They don’t start because the queen and king are mad at themselves and they think they need to change something. They start because the peasant classes or the working classes or the ignored classes say, “Enough. We want a better future for ourselves. We want a country to live up to its ideals.” So, why we would expect Harvard to lead the revolution completely escapes me. Revolutions are led by places like Paul Quinn, which is exactly what we’re doing right now.

Josie Ahlquist:

So, do you see that as a future trend that we’ll see or hopefully see more of the leadership track coming from other places? What type of people are you looking for to place in leadership no matter their background?

Michael Sorrell:

Oh, yeah, I don’t care about your background. I hire people who have a history of being interesting and being successful. Literally, I don’t care if you have a doctorate. My academic affairs people care if you have a doctorate because they’ve got to meet standards for accreditation. But, when I’m hiring staff members, I just want to know: do you have fire in your stomach? Is there something you’re passionate about? Do you have a voice? Are you coachable? Are you … the single most … the two most important traits: are you coachable, and do you have a track record of success?

Michael Sorrell:

Because, what life has taught me is winners find ways to win and losers find ways to lose. That’s just the way it is. I’ve seen more people snatch their feet out of the jaws of victory because that’s all they’ve ever known, and I’ve seen people succeed against incredible odds because, for them, they are wired to succeed. I want people who are wired to succeed on my team. I want people who have voices. I want people who are coachable. I want people who, when they come to me with an idea and I’m like, “I think that’s a really good idea, but I think you have greatness in you. Go be great.” I don’t want them to then walk away be like, “You hurt my feelings because you didn’t love my idea.” I want them to recognize that that was my way of saying, “I believe in you and I’m creating an environment for you to just go do crazy amazing things.” And, if you fall short, cool, we’ll dust you off. We’ll put our arms around you. We’ll course correct, and then we’ll move forward.

Michael Sorrell:

So, one of the things that’s interesting about higher ed is everyone’s posturing for their next job, and I don’t want people who are posturing for their next job, because if you’re posturing for your next job, you’re not thinking about this job. If I led Paul Quinn for one second with an eye towards what I was going to do next, we wouldn’t be who we are because I could not have thought that most of the things that I’ve done would play well interviewing for somebody else’s job. So, I don’t want those people. I want people who have a sense of something greater than themselves.

Josie Ahlquist:

And what positions are you hiring for right now?

Michael Sorrell:

Here’s the thing about us: we are always hiring. I just want talent, and I’ll find some place to put you. This is the other thing: you just got to be open that your entry point might not be … I’ll give you an example. Who’s probably the best example? All right, so, my Vice President of academic affairs, I knew in five minutes that I was hiring him … now, not for that job. I hired him straight out of graduate school and he couldn’t find a job because it wasn’t a great market for PhDs in religion. So, but I meet the guy and I’m just like, “I love this guy.” He had a social justice heart. He was interesting. He’d gone to Abilene Christian. He’s not Black, but he’s got a deep-rooted understanding and appreciation and love for Black liberation theology and he’s irreverent and he’s funny and he was someone who I could always have an honest conversation with. So, in five minutes, I’m like, “I love this guy. I’m going to hire him,” and I hired him to be my special assistant, which, at Paul Quinn, the special assistant role is, if I were going to tell anyone, “Where do you want to be hired?” you want to be hired as either a special assistant to the president or a special assistant to the Vice President of academic affairs, or even special assistant to the VP of institutional programming.

Michael Sorrell:

Because, what you’re really getting is an immersive course in how an institution operates. So, he started out as my special assistant. Then, we had an opening, unintentionally, for the registrar. He didn’t really know anything about being a registrar, but he knew it … this goes back to being people who find ways to win, right? He just wouldn’t let himself fail, and so he served as a registrar for a little bit until we found a registrar, and that was for like a year, year-and-a-half. Then, he became the director of institutional research and effectiveness because he was intellectually curious. And, because he was the person, he and I would sit and talk and try and figure out what the data was saying, so he showed a strong understanding for that. Then, I made him my chief of staff. Then, when I finally got to a point where I was like, “We’re going to enact our aggressive vision of education,” made him the VP of academic affairs, and, truthfully, he’s going to be one hell of a college president if he decides that’s what he wants to do. But, I’ll tell you this much. Wherever I am, he will always have a job, always.

Josie Ahlquist:

That fire in the belly description is such a visual, and, it sounds like, being coachable, as well. Something interesting about that chemistry that you knew within five minutes, too. That’s pretty cool.

Michael Sorrell:

Yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

So, you, also, you’re doing work. You know your students very well. You’re literally teaching them in the classroom and showing up in Instagram online, but you were also putting yourself out there to tell the story of Paul Quinn, but in other modalities to be an advocate and sometimes instigator, pushing things within education, showing up on news outlets from CNN to op-eds, just letting it flow through Twitter. So, how do you see that role of a presidency and the leadership that you take on your campus versus that of a really public persona out in the media?

Michael Sorrell:

Yeah, so, it’s interesting. I thought of the model of the presidency with Rainey Harper at University of Chicago, Benjamin Mays at Morehouse, Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. I’m trying to think of the best way to explain this. I have always been a fan of people who left very real footprints. I became a lawyer because I just was incredibly inspired by Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the Supreme Court justice version of Thurgood Marshall that inspired me. I never wanted to be a judge. That never struck me as something that would be my calling. What I was blown away by was their ability to take the law and transform it as an institution to affect social change and use it in a way that no one had done before.

Michael Sorrell:

So, in a sense, it makes total logical sense, then, that, for me, I would look at higher education and I would look at the leaders as people who did outsized things. I’d look at the University of California system, University of Wisconsin system, look at the history of how University of Chicago got built. Because, the other thing people should know is, I grew up, for a large part of my life, 10 minutes away from the University of Chicago. So, we’d drive by that. One of my favorite drives is driving down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago where you got Lake Michigan there on the right. There’s something therapeutic about that. I love quiet drives around nature to this day probably because of that.

Michael Sorrell:

But, I think that institutions have a greater responsibility than themselves. I think their leaders have a greater responsibility than to just minister to the choir. I think you must expand the congregation. And so, when I took this job, it was never just about, “Let me see if we can transform Paul Quinn.” For whatever reason, I knew we were going to transform Paul Quinn. I was testing a model. I had spent my whole life fascinated by urban revival, and so I had a model that I had been, really, my mental notebook, my whole life, preparing for somewhere to implement.

Michael Sorrell:

I was going to implement it at Paul Quinn. I still think the model works. It’s just, 13 years ago, it wasn’t going to work at Paul Quinn, in part because of things I just didn’t realize. No one believed in … very few people believed in Paul Quinn, and, those that believed in it by-and-large weren’t the people external to it with the resources to help it succeed, so we had to fight our way. Everyone was down on us. Look, we had bad day— and so, what I would tell people is this: one, chart your own path. Chart your own path and start thinking that the size of a school’s endowment is what makes you relevant or makes you matter.

Michael Sorrell:

First of all, you didn’t have a goddam thing to do with building that endowment. You are the beneficiary of the people, so you’re really not testing yourself. This really isn’t about your ability to build. This is your ability to benefit from the others who’ve built, your ability to stand on people’s shoulders who did the work. No disrespect, I think if that’s who you are, fantastic. But, how about we really test ourselves? How about we see if we can take our talents … Those of us who believe that we are cut from a different cloth, let’s see if we can do for those who didn’t have the benefit of people who amassed enormous amounts of wealth or built great monuments to themselves or things like that. Who’s going to speak for those who don’t have their voices heard often enough? And so, using Twitter using all the … I learned that because no one was telling our story the way that we felt was fair, and so, I just realized, I was like, “Screw you. I’m going to tell my own story. We’ll tell our own story,” and that’s what we’ve done.

Josie Ahlquist:

So, talking about using your voice and the timing right now, is we have a little election coming up. And, consistently, you’ve used your platform for a variety of ways, but it is obvious that politics shows up in the feed. So, tell me about your process behind making it super clear about what you stand for, especially as it relates, for us, for US politics. And then, I get a lot of questions from aspiring executives as well as current about how to navigate that if they’ve got some concerns if they can actually do that based on their institution or the girth it does take to put yourself out there in such, sometimes, a divisive space like Twitter as it relates to politics.

Michael Sorrell:

You know, this is about being your authentic self. My whole life, I have had a political voice. People I’ve grown up with, people I come into… there simply aren’t very many people that don’t, at some point, expect me to have a life in politics in some way, shape or form. They know that the democratic party asked me to run for governor. They know I’ve been asked to run for the senate. They know those things. I would tell you I don’t know if that will ever come to pass because my son is 10 and my daughter is five, and I love being their father, and I don’t know how I would be the version of their father that I love and be okay missing their events while I’m sitting in town hall meetings, which you have to be willing to do.

Michael Sorrell:

But, listen, my kids are great. They are fun. They are funny, and I chaired a mayor’s committee for something and had to miss one of my son’s basketball games one time, and I never got right after that because I’m sitting there listening to people … that meeting should have been over two hours earlier and I would have made it, and I have to sit there and listen to folks where I’m just like, “I don’t know why you are still talking,” literally. So, my authentic self is one that engages in causes that I believe in. I was a government major in college. I was someone who, growing up, would ask his mother to bring home the minutes from city council meetings to just read.

Michael Sorrell:

If you are ever in my home and you’ll see my library, I have a whole section on biographies where I just read about … look, I got Daley like Richard Daley from Chicago. Literally, I’m just looking at the shelves because I’ve got the volumes on LBJ and Benjamin Franklin and Bill Clinton, George Washington. So, but here’s the thing: I believe in the common good. I believe in this country living up to its constitutional ideals and its founding documents. I understand the inherent conflict in those documents that people like me weren’t even acknowledged to be participants in this government, so I get that. I understand that reasonable people can come to disagreements based upon how they came forward in this world.

Michael Sorrell:

But, those disagreements have to be based on a mutual respect and an acknowledgement on each other’s humanity. So, you can be a republican and be okay with me, which takes a lot because I grew up in Chicago. I didn’t even know republicans existed until I got to college. I didn’t even know they could be cool until I got to Duke because the young republicans at Oberlin weren’t exactly the most popular people on campus. So, I don’t have a problem with you being on the opposite side of the aisle. What I do have a problem with is white supremacy. What I do have a problem with is homophobia. What I do have a problem with is sexist behavior. What I do have a problem with is naked cruelty. What I do have a problem with is disrespect of our governmental systems.

Michael Sorrell:

So, I understand, look, fit in your presidency is so important. Sometimes people aspire to be presidents of institutions that they just don’t fit. Michael Sorrell, this version of myself, I can’t be the president of Liberty University. That’s never going to work. Liberty can’t pay me enough to be the president of Liberty. No disrespect to Liberty, we’re just not going to be the same place. I am in a space where I have the ability to be who I am, and there are trade-offs for that. So, I’m not at a school that’s considered one of the Ivy League institutions or all those things. Okay, I’m fine with that. I think it’s important. I think this is so important. Josie, even for people who are rising the ranks of higher education, find institutions that speak to you.

Michael Sorrell:

Don’t make decisions just because you think that’s the right thing to do for your career because, you know what the right thing for your career is? To succeed, to find places where people pour into you, where they invest in you, where they see you, legitimately see you. I am so proud of the relationship that I have with my staff because my younger staff members, they know. Once a month, I do sessions with my … we call it emerging leaders, and anyone on my staff can come in and I’ll answer any of their questions. They get to pick my brain about how I think about things, what I see. We just do it differently.

Michael Sorrell:

Two people told me I should take this job when I took it. One was my now-wife. We were dating, so she might have just been trying to get on my good side some more. The other is a good friend of mine whose advice was, “You can’t make this worse,” so, not really a ringing endorsement. But, the prevailing wisdom was that I was going to destroy my brand and that this was too big of a risk. Well, those are folks who just assumed I was going to fail. Don’t surround yourself with people who think you’re going to fail. Surround yourself with people who will help you succeed, and they might come from places that look a little different. The irony of this now is, oh, I get lots of job offers now from the places that never would have thought about me years ago, and I appreciate that. I am thankful that people think I am not terrible at my job, but I just think fit is critically important.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, yeah, the access piece, authenticity, I think that’s definitely some themes I’m hearing over and over. Talking about your brand and getting some job offers, you were listed in Diverse Education’s article finding you as a potential future secretary of education nominee. I want to know, the people want to know: what are your thoughts about that? Was that something that you said you would not be surprised someday if you end up in politics? What about that position would be very appealing to you?

Michael Sorrell:

Well, first of all, there are a lot of people listed there. Look, I mean, it’s humbling. It’s absolutely humbling. I think the opportunity to put forward a vision of education in this country that would have access and reality-based education that would take on an expanded vision of what we’re capable of through our educational institutions is exciting, right? But, this is sort of like someone or people asking you, “Would you dance?” and the music isn’t playing yet. There’s a lot of things that have to happen before we even get to that possibility. So, what I would say to people is, if anyone out there thinks that would be an appealing concept, vote, vote.

Michael Sorrell:

I don’t have to tell you who to vote for, because I think you understand which way it would go for that to have to happen. I think it’s flattering, but whether I’m the secretary of education or not, I have a vision for what education should look like in this country and I’m going to push that vision forward. I’m working on a book now about that. We’re working on a model. Paul Quinn is here to be a model of what’s possible because if we can do it, then no one has an excuse. We didn’t do it because we had more money than everyone else. We had less money than everyone else. We didn’t do it because we had a track record. We didn’t have a track record. We have had to pull ourselves out of the gutter, and we’ve done it through the brute force of our will and the strength of our ideas and the refusal to take a knee. Well, I shouldn’t say take a knee: the refusal to just give up. We just won’t give up, and we want to be an example of what’s possible.

Josie Ahlquist:

I know there’s a lot of colleges struggling right now with what we’ve had to go through with enrollments, so, so inspiring … I love that underdog mentality and then getting it out there like open source framework, book, all the things. I’m very excited for it. So, what might we expect from you in these next few months leading up to elections and inaugurations and some days coming back to campus.

Michael Sorrell:

I think it’s important to understand that we’re just warming up. I haven’t even taken my best stuff off the shelf yet.

Josie Ahlquist:

Oh my.

Michael Sorrell:

I have promised folks that, on the other side of this crisis, we will be better than we were going in. We’ve already done one deal where we’re bringing a charter high school to our campus. We’ve got two new buildings being built. We’ve got two partnerships with Minerva Project to transform the delivery of online education. We’ve created an honors college, an urban scholars program. I’m working on a deal that I can’t quite give it away right now, but there are two more big things coming. I’m excited. I’m excited because there’s so much coming that’s going to be amazing.

Michael Sorrell:

And, I know it’s a dark time in our country, now, in part because of choices we’ve made whether we want to own that or not. But, they’re choices that we have made. My grandmother used to tell me all the time … she called me Baby Boy. She said, “Baby Boy, the piper will always get paid.” I didn’t really understand that. She said a bunch of things that it took me 40 years to process, but I get it. I get it. We’re paying the piper right now and we have to decide we want to stop making these choices. But, what we’re going to do, we’re going to continue to be advocates for students. We’re going to continue to be advocates for staff. We’re going to continue to be advocates for common-sense leadership. We’re going to continue to be advocates for selflessness. We’re going to continue to be advocates for the uncomfortable truths, and, you know, we don’t know any other way to be.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, I have two more questions for you to take it back to social media and leadership. If you knew your next post on Twitter was going to be your last, what would you want it to be about?

Michael Sorrell:

Why you got to be all morbid, Josie?

Josie Ahlquist:

I mean, maybe Twitter is shutting down.

Michael Sorrell:

Sure, like, listen, I don’t know if you know this; I’m a guy who, what is it, now, 12 years ago, survived a sudden cardiac death episode, so when we talk about things with finality, I’m like, “Oh, I’ve been there!” So, I think my last post would just be, “Thank you. Thank you to the universe for the amazing life that I’ve had the privilege to lead, for the extraordinary wife that I have, for the two little children that just bless me every day, for the gift that is doing something I love in service of people I love.” The only thing that I would ever want to leave this world with is an understanding of the immense gratitude I have for having had a place in it.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, family didn’t come up explicitly during our conversation, but the series of ManCamp and GirlDad are always fun to see in your feed. But so, for today, you are alive and well and rocking it.

Michael Sorrell:

Knock on wood.

Josie Ahlquist:

Knock on all of the things. What impact do you hope that especially your digital presence is making for why you’re choosing to lead online.

Michael Sorrell:

Well, you know, it’s funny again because I’m just always humbled that people read it, that it makes a difference to people. But, I hope what people take away is your ability to be vulnerable. You don’t always have to be coached as to what it is that you post. I am evolving in real time on these platforms. I am learning how to be better in my life. I read lots of really distinct and different things, and I don’t worry about whether or not people see me make a mistake or see me being vulnerable. That’s just not my problem. Of course I’m vulnerable. I’m human. I’m comfortable with my humanity.

Michael Sorrell:

So, I think people should use social media for what I believe represents its best use, and that is the acquisition of knowledge and use the different platforms differently. Who I am on Instagram is different than Twitter and different than Facebook. Twitter is probably … I don’t do a ton with my family on Twitter, but outside of that, Twitter is probably the unfiltered version, closest to unfiltered version of me. I’m thankful that so many people put such cool stuff out there for me to read and learn from.

Michael Sorrell:

I am always learning. What I love the most is the opportunity to be a student. I read much of what you do and it’s really informative. I never thought about how you look at the digital presence of other leaders. There are some folks that I knew about, but really looking at how they do things has been really informative. I just really love the opportunity to listen to other voices. So, one, I hope people will be their authentic selves and evolve. And, two, I hope that they give themselves space to be students, because it’s just a lot of really smart people doing wonderful things, and I appreciate learning from them.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, that phrase, “Evolving in real time,” that might be the title of this episode. That’s pretty great, love it.

Michael Sorrell:

Glad to help.

Josie Ahlquist:

Thank you. Where can folks find you to connect?

Michael Sorrell:

Oh, there’s no creativity on my social media handles. It is just @MichaelSorrell, @MichaelSorrell Twitter, @MichaelSorrell on Instagram. Facebook is some variation of that maybe. It’s some Facebook language, but you type in Michael J Sorrell so you can find that, but yeah, please, follow me and, with all due respect, I won’t follow you unless you tell me it’s okay to follow you. I just think that that’s … I don’t assume that people want that level of engagement. I try to be respectful.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, I sure am thrilled to get you on this podcast.

Michael Sorrell:

Oh, thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Such a great conversation, so much to learn from you. I’m just feeling uplifted during kind of a dark time. You have this very forward-thinking energetic perspective and, again, we’ll list your HR website for people that want to.

Michael Sorrell:

Hey, we call it nation building.

Michael Sorrell:

We are always looking for nation builders, people who want to eradicate intergenerational poverty and tackle the most difficult problems that society has.

Josie Ahlquist:

What you didn’t hear right before we pressed record on this conversation is, A, to use his first name, which I feel like I always have to ask, and B, that he’s an open-book kind of guy, and I hope, listening in, you got to read from the pages of this open book and found inspiration because he shared his beliefs, his values, the importance of perseverance, especially when you’re challenging the status quo. Despite being a small school, Michael has a very big presence, going live on Instagram instead of just relying on sending emails and then moving aside so now other voices are present on platforms, and then personally connecting through students through texts and phone calls.

He talks about innovation, though, and leading and evolving. As this episode is so fittingly called, he advises: don’t be so in love with your ideas that you don’t evolve. And, goodness, don’t we know right now evolution is not optional. We can have ideas. We need ideas. We need to love the work that we do, but we have to be able to evolve. That evolution also means taking different perspectives. He believes that’s why Paul Quinn College has been such an innovative campus. They don’t just rely on prevailing wisdom to guide their path. There’s a lot of institutions and leaders that could learn from this mindset.

He says, “Revolutions are led by places like Paul Quinn, which is exactly what we’re doing.” We also spoke a bit about the type of person who would be successful on Michael’s staff. I always sometimes ask college presidents, especially if I’m getting myself excited about their vision and the interest for those that might want to follow and be inspired by that vision to actually invest their careers in working with them, and he says they’re always hiring. He surrounds himself with people who are driven to succeed, who are vocal about their passions. And, what I also thought was so important to hear, especially if you are in a career transition or you are a newer professional or mid-level that you are coachable.

Speaking of being vocal, anyone who comes across Michael’s Twitter feed knows it is blending in with the political. Unapologetically, he says, “My authentic self is one that engages in causes that I believe in,” and that is at the heart and core of digital leadership. You connect your values with what is authentic to you and let that speak out into social. Michael Sorrell has a vision for education in this country and a successful model at Paul Quinn college. He’s evolving in real time, reflecting and relating even on this very podcast and definitely someone to be watching whether he ends up in the White House or not.

So now, I ask you, listeners, how are you evolving? Are you willing to be authentic and vulnerable with those that you’re connected with? I realize this doesn’t always come naturally, and that’s why I’m here. You can visit me at josieahlquist.com to learn more about my services for developing digital leaders and check out my new book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education for a data-driven framework and lots of practical examples so we can use our values to have a purpose-driven presence online. Thank you again, Michael, for joining me today. We’ll keep an eye out on your Twitter for those unfiltered views of the election, inauguration, and, of course, all things Paul Quinn and education.

Thank you so much for checking out this episode, today. I sure did appreciate it. If you are into this podcast, I would love it if you make sure that you’re subscribed. Maybe give a little review on iTunes or any of your favorite podcast platforms. And then, of course, let’s stay connected today and always on Twitter, Instagram. I’m @Josie Ahlquist. The podcast is on Twitter, @JosieATPodcast. And then, all those show notes are on my website, josieahlquist.com/thepodcast.

If you are interested in learning more about my speaking, consulting work on digital engagement in leadership or this new book of mine, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, please check it out at josieahlquist.com. Thank you, again, to our podcast sponsor Campus Sonar. Learn more about them at campussonar.com. I’m sending digital hugs, loves and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This has been Josie and the Podcast.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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