Note: This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on January 10, 2022 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The transcript of this podcast episode is intended to serve as a guide to the entire conversation, and we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode. You can also access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
Welcome to Innovating Together, a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is a podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders that will help you improve students’ success. I’m your host, Bridget Burns.
Each week, I partner with a journalist to have a conversation with a sitting college president, chancellor, system leader, or someone in the broader ecosystem who’s really an inspiring leader. The goal is to have a conversation to distill their perspective and their insights gathered from their readership journey. Our hope is that this is inspiring and gives you something to look forward to each week. In this episode, my co-host is Insider Higher Ed co-founder and CEO, Doug Lederman.
Before we turn to our conversation about wisdom and seeking counsel from one of our favorite superstars, Doug, you have some big news today.
We do. Inside Higher Ed announced this morning that we’re going to become part of – join forces with Times Higher Education, the British higher education publication. The two of us together are going to be an international global powerhouse, covering post-secondary/tertiary education, as they call it in a lot of other places in the world, and we’re really excited. It’s going to be an interesting adventure going forward. Scott Jaschik and I are sticking around for the foreseeable future, so we’re excited about that and look forward to partnering. We’re excited.
Congratulations. That’s big news. You’re buying the next time that we go anywhere. Times Higher Ed is really going to be a fantastic partner. It’s a really great convergence of two exemplary brands that prioritize students around the world. That’s fabulous. Congrats. Now, we’ll head on to the show.
Yes. We are joined today by Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Texas, who’s been on the show before, and one of the more thoughtful presidents and leaders in this industry. Really excited to have you here, Paul – Michael.
That’s alright. I’ve been in Paul Quinn so long, people now just assume my name is Paul.
Happy new year, to you, and welcome.
Thank you. Congratulations, Doug. You are now my exit strategy role model.
We missed the opportunity to break the news live on air and have your reaction, but we gave you a little bit of a spoiler because the news broke out earlier. We wanted to try and have a conversation today that would be kind of a level set. Folks came home. People were very burned out before the break. There’s a lot that’s happened in the past few weeks, and where we are in terms of COVID. President Sorrell, you have been a longtime friend of the show. You’ve been on the show many times and your wisdom has always been a useful guide for people. I’m hoping that today we can just have a conversation about how you’re leading in this moment, the kinds of inspiration you’re providing for folks, and just help us think about the next week and the next few weeks with as much optimism as possible.
First of all, it’s always good to see you and Doug. I always enjoy being here and just continue to commend you all on the work you’re doing during really difficult times. You’re still setting a high bar and encouraging people to dream bigger and to think. That’s so important, especially now. Let’s be very, very clear. People are broken. People were told that – I think there was an element where people thought, "Well, this might be a sprint." Then people said, "Well, it’s probably not going to be a sprint. Maybe it might be a middle distance race." Then it became apparent that this might be a marathon.
The problem we face now is somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind is folks are beginning to start asking the question of "Is this now my life? If this is my life, I don't like it." Let us be very, very clear about Americans. They are horrifically spoiled. They want what they want when they want it, and they don't want to be told no, and they don't want to have to make great sacrifices for extended, sustained periods of time. When they do, they start to behave in the way that people who are accustomed to getting they want behave. That’s what we’re seeing now.
The reality of it is, this might be our life for a while, and it might be our life from now on. It doesn't mean it will always be what it is right now. There are going to be variants. Those variants are going to pop up. We’re going to have to make peace with the fact that we’re going to need to be vaccinated. What we are seeing – let me tell you what I think has happened here and has made this so difficult.
We’ve never had a sustained national crisis. None of us have lived through a real world war. We haven't seen things that require us to change our modus operandi for extended periods of time. Viruses, pandemics evolve, but we had no context for that. Each healthcare scare either was compartmentalized or was able to be pretty quickly addressed. We haven't been able to do that. You had the CDC, which has been overwhelmed. Our whole lives we’ve had this comfort that the CDC got everything right. Because nothing was as complex as this. But this has been a perfect storm. You had this happen at a time where you had – look, let’s call it what it is – you had a presidential administration that really didn’t want any part of these type of complex issues. Wanted to reduce everything to just it’s not what it is, it’s simple, it’s whatever.
So, now, what we should have done from the beginning was say, "Hey, we don't really understand this and we’re not going to understand this maybe for a long period of time. We’re going to do the very best we can, but we’re going to make a mistake. We’re going to set as our North Star saving the greatest amount of people’s lives and preserving their health as possible. And doing so is going to require sacrifices, and it’s going to require us having to step on some toes in ways that we may not like." But we weren’t in a place as a country to have the conversation and to hear that.
What people remember is: "I made enormous sacrifices for a period of time when it was terrible." For many people, they still haven't recovered economically. Many people haven't recovered emotionally. Just when you think you can breathe, here comes the delta variant. For me, when we got to delta, I was sort of like all bets are off now. This thing – I have to change how I’m thinking about all of this. I now have to govern myself, my emotions, my family, and my institution from a perspective of there’s going to be ebbs and flows with this, and we’re going to have to gear ourselves up for it, and we’re going to make decisions at all times. We did establish that North Star. We’re going to function in a way to preserve health and safety, and that’s going to make people uncomfortable, and we’ll fight with anyone about that.
Now, we just have come to realize with omicron – when omicron came around, we were sort of like it is what it is. So we’re going to have to turn back, we’re going to delay the in-person start of things. We’re going to make some modifications to try to preserve sanity as much as we can, but we’re also now not compromising on tough decisions. Not that we ever did, but now we just realized that we have to continuously communicate the tough decisions are going to be part of our everyday lives.
Let’s go there in terms of decision-making. First, I had other questions to ask you about. At some point, I want to hear how you stay optimistic and focus as a leader with all of this noise. But I want to go to decision-making first. Over the past two-plus years, I assume that your style of decision-making has evolved because you’ve had to deal with much more complex issues, more rapid, less information, maybe too much information. As a leader, and you reflect on yourself, personally, on how you have made decisions, what strikes you the most in terms of that change?
It’s interesting, Bridget, I actually crisis manage differently now. For those who don't know, my background was in crisis management. That’s what I grew up doing, as a professional. Crisis management is really a very lonely place. What this sustained crisis has allowed me to do is to invest in my cabinet differently. So, for example, I created a chief administrative officer. She’s been with us for years, over a decade. She was our VP back for academic affairs. She was VP of institutional programming, our sponsor programs. Now, I’ve moved a significant segment of things under her authority. So she’s our COVID czar. And as the COVID czar, she also has direct reporting responsibility through student affairs. Our academic affairs people, we really sort of narrowed their scope of responsibilities to just academic affairs. Because things are changing so rapidly, you can no longer engage in the same kind of planning processes. You’ve got to have faculty members able to shift rapidly. Shift their method of delivery, their mindset, where they are, very, very quickly.
The CFO, his issues are different, right? Because at any given point in time – you know, well, let me say this. His issues are different because we’re going to have to rethink the educational model. Let’s think about this for a moment now. There are lots of reasons why people come to college. People come to college because of the transactional nature of it, absolutely. I think going to college is going to help me provide for myself and my family better than if I don't go. That’s still true. People still understand that. But the part of it that’s changed is this huge social dynamic. I’m coming to college because of the experience, because it’s fun, because I get to go to parties, I get to join a fraternity or a sorority. I get to do all these clubs. We can do all this stuff. You can’t do that the same way now. You can’t. You just can’t.
So now you’re seeing people sit around and say, "Well, this changes how I look at going to college. Because if I can’t do all those things, then I have to introduce a different set of decision-making parameters." Now it’s how do we as institutions, how do we as an industry respond to that? Because it’s going to be different. We’re now in a place where this is the third year, this is the third year, that’s been impacted by COVID. So we’re looking at a class of seniors next fall that COVID will be all they know. There’ll be large numbers of people with no context for what college was like before this. So how you communicate why you should come is very different now. We need more voices at the table. You need people prepared differently to participate in those conversations and that decision-making. So my leadership style has evolved, and I’ve also had to really understand the impact that all this is having on me and my family and carve out the opportunity to decompress and realizing that Christmas break just wasn’t enough time. It just wasn’t.
Can you expand upon that in terms of we were just chatting before the break, or before starting, about just like where folks’ head space is? And it depends, because we’re all kind of disconnected. We’re not out in the halls of a conference any more. We can’t kind of pressure test whether or not we’re really right or wrong. And we’re all in these small clusters of communities, or who we talk to is limited. What I’m picking up is that people were super burned out before the break. They went away. They thought that would help. They came back. January 6 was way more triggering for certain folks than they expected. Omicron, on top of it, it’s just – I think people thought they would come back with a renewed sense of optimism and instead they’re come back with a bit more like, uh, exactly what you said. Of like, this is really it.
And, especially, Michael, before you start, you talked about the track analogy. Part of the problem was that we thought it was going to be a sprint. I’m not a marathon runner, I’m not a distance runner, but you don't sprint very much when you know it’s a marathon. But because of the way it’s unfolded, we’ve been sprinting a heck of a lot. One of the questions now is, in terms of messaging, in terms of trying to encourage people to think in certain ways, it seems important that we acknowledge the long-term nature of it. But figuring out how to do that without making people feel worse, I don't know, it’s a real balancing act. I’m curious how you think about that sort of honesty, transparency.
Listen, Doug, I think what you bring up is this. Where does hope come from? Does hope come from an honest place? Does hope come from –
You trick your mind a little bit.
Are we building hope on a foundation of sand? The only way I’ve ever known to do things is to give it to you honestly. That hasn’t always served me well. Let me just be very candid. I think it’s really important. Because it level sets, and it allows you to say, “Look, everyone, we don't know when this is going to be over. We don't know if this is going to be over. What I can tell you is this. If this is our new reality, we will create a way to thrive.” And that’s not what people are saying to folks. That’s the mistake. Because, to me, you can tell people it’s going to be hard, this is tough, things have changed – I don't know, but you got to tell them, "But we’re going to win." You don't have to say, "Here’s my five-point plan for how we’re going to win." You can say, "But together we can create a plan to win." However you communicate, but you have to give people a path forward.
And right now you have a lot of leaders who are just sort of like, "I don't know the path forward, and this is hard. This keeps getting harder than I wanted it to be." I fundamentally believe we’re going to win. I know at Paul Quinn, we’re going to win. Because I’m sitting on ideas that we’re developing now that acknowledge the landscape has changed. So we’re not going to sit around and mope about how the landscape has changed. We’re going to change and prepare to thrive in this new landscape. Because things aren’t coming back any time soon the way they were. So by the time they do come back, no one will have remembered, who are students, what the experience was. The faculty remembers, the staff will remember. I mean, how long does it take to change your behavioral patterns? So you change. You plan for a different version of today and tomorrow. And then you build it so that people feel as if they can still win. That has to happen.
Bridget, I thought lots about the January 6 stuff. Here’s what I’ll tell you. I think part of the issue is there’s still no agreement in many circles about what exactly happened. And this assault on facts and this assault on reality is horrible. Because here’s what happened: Folks tried to overthrow the government. Now, they didn’t try to overthrow the government in the way that people think about governments being overthrown in foreign places that they like to think of as exotic. But that’s what happened. But because we’ve built up such great protections, they weren’t successful. They couldn't get the military to storm the capitol. The things that we’ve seen on TV, those weren’t really present. They saw people they looked at and said, "Aw, that’s my nutty neighbor," or "These guys are crazy," or this and that. What people I don't think have fully appreciated, this might very well have been a beta test. I take a step back and I look at it, and I’m sort of like this is sort of the way we do things at Paul Quinn. Not as nonsensical as some of this, but we beta test. We see what’s going to work. We then come back, make modifications to go forward and thrive.
So if you look at it from that perspective, what didn’t work? Well, you couldn't overturn election results because you had people who were honest in those seats. You couldn't overturn election results because you have people who had voted honestly. So you’ve got to attack the people who aren’t ever going to vote for you and get them out of the equation. You have to do a better job of messaging that. Even though there’s no factual data to support that the election was stolen, you’ve got to get credible people to begin to keep saying those things – “credible” in quotations – to keep saying those things. I think that’s what we’re living in now.
So now, you fast forward, there hasn’t been adequate protections devised to protect the legitimacy of the vote. We don’t have a national voting rights act to protect people’s rights to vote. You have people in states electing folks specifically with the agenda of over throwing legitimate elections. So what happens next? I think that given the pandemic, that’s awfully hard for people to understand. Because it takes you to a place that right now people don't have the emotional bandwidth to manage. That’s where you need your leaders to provide the emotional bandwidth. And I don't think we’ve seen that at the level that would bring any people comfort.
I hear you say you have a sense of how to help Paul Quinn win. What I’m interested in is, given especially what you just talked about, especially as you have a political contingent that is defining itself on an anti-education agenda, that is feeding into the disinformation, misinformation, this confusion about a very clear assault on democracy, I’m curious about how does higher education change its behavior, despite being distant, despite being remote, so that we can help America win. By that, I mean the people who are being left behind and how we can actually respond. I just think that the way that we have typically talked about the value of higher education, it always needed to evolve and change, and we didn’t keep up. We were able to kind of bat down criticism or skepticism prior to COVID. But now it’s just really building. What I’m looking at, as someone who sits in the center and gets the institutions to try and work together, I see certain leaders who have figured out ways to think about this moment and think about the role of higher education that, to me, embodies the kind of leadership we need, and what we want is for all those people to come together so that our sector can respond and actually step up in a way that supports America winning, whatever winning looks like. And yet, we’re remote and everybody is focusing on their own institution winning because we’ve got to for survival.
Well, let me tell you what, I think people have done a little bit of that. Also, they had to regain their psychological, emotional, and intellectual strength. Because there is a price of leadership. The price of being strong, for others, means that sometimes there’s no one to help you be strong. So you have to summon that internal strength again, right? Because, look, let me tell you something, I say we got a plan to help Paul Quinn win, but we never think about it as just Paul Quinn. Everything we do we’re doing with an eye on what the industry and what America can do. Because what we know, what we understand, is there are just more people in the categories that we minister to than there are in other places. I say this all the time when I give speeches. The majority of people in the American educational system are coming from low-income and poverty-stricken backgrounds.
It’s nice to talk about what the privileged class wants, but at the end of the day, we need to be talking about what the marginalized and the at-risk group – I don't want to say “at-risk” – the marginalized and the people from under-resourced environments, what they need. This isn’t what people want. This is about what those people need. And what they need are institutions that respond to them directly. That means more people have to come to college. People have to come to college. And we have to open up a way – and we know the way. In fact, January 20, we’re going to announce a pilot program where we are beginning to show what this looks like. I am so excited about it because it's critically important. We’ve got to say to people, “We’re not leaving you. We’re not leaving you. We’re going to grab you, and we’re going to hold you, and we’re going to pull you up, and we’re going to make your life better.”
But here’s the other thing. Every single person that has been involved in putting this country at risk from a democracy standpoint, all went to our schools. They all have degrees from our institutions. We also need to fix our shop. Because this isn’t right. This isn’t right. Folks have fed into our own myopicness, and we’ve produced myopic leaders as an industry, and we have to change that. Now we have to go back and really, really engage more broadly. That means that you’ve got to take on your legislature. Because it’s harder for state-funded schools. Because they’ve got to answer – those presidents, those leaders, have to answer to – you can look at what happened in Florida, right? They’ve got to answer to legislatures and governors that have very, very different responses. But the reality of it is we no longer have a choice to be small. Being small hasn’t served the country well, it’s not serving the institutions well, it’s not serving our students well. So you know what? We might as well shake our heads and claim the big steps and claim the big mantle, and lead forward, push forward. Fight the fights that matter.
I can’t remember what that commission was called? What was it? The 1776 Commission, was that it? Come on. Why didn’t anybody really speak out against that? How long are we going to sit by and just write off, you know, in many families you have a relative that shows up at family reunions and – when we used to be able to have family reunions – and just would say crazy things. And everybody would be like, "Oh, you know, that’s your cousin so-and-so." And they were entertained. They were allowed to say this stuff. That’s what we’re doing now with people who mean harm for our country. How about we call them out? How about we go after them and not allow this to happen? Because acquiescing, we are standing on the verge of paying an incredibly harsh price for acquiescing. I just don't think it’s worth it.
I think that’s right, and I would just end with: I know that you do this sometimes where you see somebody on your team that needs to get a little pump-up. You pull them aside, well, maybe it’s on Zoom, meet me in a chat room. When you have that huddle. If you were to have that huddle with higher ed, what would you say as your closing words today to keep our eyes on the ball and to actually do what’s necessary for the future?
What I tell my staff when they need it is like, "Look, I love you. And I’m so honored to be here with you, and we’re going to go through great things. And it’s OK to be down. It’s OK to have a hard season." I come from – my mother and grandmother were steeped in the faith. They were praying women. I grew up in a family where my mother would say, "Son, I laid you on the altar." In Black churches there’s altar call. And you come and you get on your knees, and you pray for whatever is burdening you. And my mother would say all the time, she’s like, "I’m raising a Black male in a vicious society." She’s like, "I have spent my life at the altar praying for you."
This is a season where we have to lay our troubles at the altar, but this is a season where we have to plan for the next season. This is not all our life is going to be. We’re not always going to be in this moment, but this moment will forever shape us. We have all been altered by this important time. Who we are in the next season is yet to be determined, but if we do a poor job of planning in this season, we won’t have the next season. So, remember that I love you. Remember that I’m going to be here with you in this season and the next, but there is no question that in this next season we’re going to be better than we are now. Our next must always be better than our now. And we are going to get there. That’s what I tell them. So I might not tell all the higher ed I love them, but.
That’s the message we were hoping for. So thank you for that optimism and perspective today. Doug, big news day. President Sorrell, back on campus, or back online. Fresh new chapter ahead in terms of academic term. And I’m hopeful about what we’ll be able to do. I appreciate that context about this is just a moment and we’ll get through this. Thanks, everybody, for being here, and we hope you have a wonderful week ahead.
Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts
Guest: Michael Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College
Dr. Michael J. Sorrell is the longest-serving President in the 148-year history of Paul Quinn College. During his 14 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. In that time, Paul Quinn won HBCU of the Year among other awards, created the New Urban College Model, and achieved full accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). As one of the most decorated college presidents in America, President Sorrell was named Higher Education’s President of the Year by Education Dive, one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine, and one of the “31 People Changing the South” by Time Magazine. President Sorrell B.A. in Government from Oberlin College, his J.D. and M.A. in Public Policy from Duke University, and his Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. While in law school, he was a founding member of the Journal of Gender Law & Policy and served as the Vice President of the Duke Bar Association. A Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowship funded his studies at both Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Duke University. President Sorrell serves as a trustee or director for 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, among others.
Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.
About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.
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