1) This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on February 22, 2021 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
2) This transcript is intended to serve primarily as a guide to the full conversation. We apologize for any inaccuracies and encourage you to listen to the podcast.
Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
So let's talk for a second about why students from under-represented and under-resourced communities seem to be opting out of higher education at this moment. So let's talk about what it is and what it isn't. What it isn't is that these individuals are no longer interested in higher education. What it isn't is that they aren't capable of balancing the work, the aca-, the work for economic resources, and the work for their studies. It's not because they aren't good enough, it's not because they aren't strong enough, it's not because they aren't qualified or capable. It has everything to do with the fact that they're exhausted.
Welcome to Innovating Together, a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I'm your host, Bridget Burns.
You're about to watch another episode of Start the Week with Wisdom, which for those of you who are at home, if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor. And we want to talk to them about how they're navigating the challenge of this moment. We're in a really unique time and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating, and hopefully it leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope.
And I'm Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. This week we're delighted to bring you a conversation with an old friend of Weekly Wisdom, someone who we haven't spoken with since the early days of the pandemic, Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College. President Sorrell is a passionate and powerful leader, someone who's been very vocal about how higher education should be leading during the pandemic. Today we're going to hear if he's changed his mind about anything about the pandemic and how he's thinking about the landscape right now. But Michael, welcome.
Doug, it's great to see you –
I pointed out that I'm wearing my purple jacket for Paul Quinn, and Doug is wearing a journalist tuxedo. Which is [unintelligible 00:02:16] all right. Well, just to kick things off, so you have – well, first, I guess how are you holding up right now? Give us a sense of what it's like to be you in this moment, so we can kind of set the context for folks.
Sure. You know, I think all of us, no matter how well prepared we may have thought we were, what plans we had, I don't know anyone that fully was ready to understand the emotional toil of nine and ten months of managing in a pandemic. We were prepared. I felt that I was personally prepared. And, but by the time we got to November and December, I was exhausted. I was emotionally exhausted. I was physically tired. Because you know, and that is with having made the decision not to have students on campus. You're still managing your own and family's own personal exposure to the pandemic.
And so by the time I got to the end of the semester, you know, I really was just – I needed a break, and was appreciative, maybe more so than ever before, to have the Christmas break. But now I'm back, fired up, ready to go, and you know, back guns blazing. But it was a long, it was a long semester.
We're not meant to go – I mean it was a sprint that turned into a marathon, and we sprinted during the whole marathon, and that's not a real viable approach.
That's a great way of explaining. That's what you feel. I mean, you know, I remember the first time, that I had [unintelligible 00:04:05] distance, I [unintelligible] I sprinted [unintelligible] and you're like, I'm out of gas. Now I just have to find a way to finish. And last semester was very much of a let me try and find a way to finish.
You're not alone. I think the fatigue and the exhaustion was really hitting folks, and it's interesting to see where folks are feeling right now. So I guess I'll jump ahead as well. I just want to ask, you know, we've been sharing your advice that you gave in April, I think it was maybe March or April, for the whole year. It's really resonated. But I am curious about how your leadership and your perspective has evolved as a result of 2020. Like how are you a stronger and better leader as a result of this past year?
Sure. You know, I don't know if I think I'm so much different in that I have always felt that you be authentic and that you give people insight into who you are as an individual. And so I have been candid with my staff. You know, I share with them, like hey, I was exhausted by the end of the semester. I was at my wits' end. And I told them, I said listen, you didn't get the A-plus version of me. You didn't get the A-plus leadership model of me that you have come to expect. And let me tell you why. And let me tell you how that has impacted me and impacted us.
And you know, giving people the opportunity to see how you evaluate yourself, being that transparent, and then teaching them how to be forgiving, because I had to forgive myself. I had to stop and say, you know, I'm disappointed. But I just, I was in a place where I just, I just needed a break. And what I was hopeful – what I hoped people took away from that is that there will be seasons in our life that we are extraordinary, and then there will be seasons where we have to just get through them. Right? I mean just find a way to move forward. And for me, I had, you know, the end of the semester was my season of stick-to-it-ness, my season of inner strength to just keep going. And you know, I found that my candor resonated, because at all times, you know, as a leader you still have to be human and you still, you're modeling for people what some of them may aspire to become, what some of them are experiencing.
So I just, I have tried to be honest. I've been honest. But then I also wanted to show, now once you get through your season, you've got to turn it back up. The A-plus version of yourself has to return. And you know, I think my staff would tell you, it has returned, with a tenacity and a fervor that maybe some of them wish I was back to my A-minus version of myself.
So that's the thing, balancing high performance with empathy and recognition that people need to take care of themselves is, it's a tricky thing for a leader, and it sounds like I think you're sort of, that your own willingness to show vulnerability probably goes a long way toward allowing people to recognize that they can show some weakness but still strive for – to be excellent. But that –
Well, Doug, let me say this, just – I think it's how we define weakness.
So I don't see any of that as weakness. I see it as just being human. You know? You know, I think back to the time, one of my really good friends died of cancer, and he left a wife and two little boys. And when, you know, he was in the last stages of it, and I was asking, I was at our staff meeting, because we do all-staff meetings, right? Like once a week, everyone who works at the college comes in, we sit and we talk. And now we sit and we Zoom, right? And I was sharing with my staff that, you know, I need you to pray for him, I need you to pray for his family, and as I began to talk about it, I just broke down in tears. Right? Like I mean just lost it, right? Not the cool like, you know, [unintelligible 00:09:07] no, no, I mean I was ugly crying, right? And it wasn't planned. I didn't – but to see the way that people responded and the comfort that they provided and, you know, there's a model of leadership that would have said that that was me at my weakest point.
And I would tell you that I actually think it probably was me at my strongest point. Because it was at my most human point. And so I'm especially conscious of these things because of my physical stature, right? Like I'm six-four, I'm 200 – I'm trying to be 225 pounds, right? But typically, you know, and I'm a Black male. Right? So in that space people typically find it really easy to be intimidated. And I don't feel as if it's my responsibility to make people feel all warm and fuzzy, but I do think it's my responsibility to be conscious of what all those things, how they come together and create a dynamic of how people engage with me.
And so I just, I don’t think being human, I think showing the things that make me laugh, that make me cry, showing people how much I love them, sharing with them my journeys as a parent, as a husband, I don’t think any of that makes me weak. I think it just – and if people do think it's weak, they probably shouldn't work at Paul Quinn, right?
That's helpful. I think – so you know, for folks who have seen or heard you speak before, you talk about, you know, having a real health scare and nearly losing your life and how that gives you perspective of really seeing what really matters and what is B.S. and just kind of, you know, using that in your leadership. And I'm just wondering how do you turn that, how do you turn that on and off when you're also trying to push people to go hard and to push their best, push for their best? How do you walk that line of, you know, actually, you know, we're not curing cancer here, but at the same time I need you to be as aggressive as possible? Like, can you talk a bit about how you use that kind of, you know, perspective taking, I think you provide, and then at the same time push people to go hard?
Oh. I mean listen, Bridget, I think it comes down to why are you here, you know? Why are you in this space? Why do you work at UIA? Why do you work at Inside Higher Ed? Like why are you at Paul Quinn? Are you here because it's a transactional experience for you? Is it here because it checks a box? Are you here because you need the money? I mean we all need – well, most of us need the money. But you know, why are you inhabiting this place and time?
And if you're inhabiting it because it's a transactional experience, then there's not a lot that is going to get you to continuously push past the point where you think your transaction has been completed, right, where you've gotten what you want from it. And, but if you're here for something greater, if you're here for a cause, if you're here because you're motivated from a place of love or a place of personal mission, then I think you can sustain a higher level of performance for a longer period of time.
It's why I think – so this is not to be critical of people. But I think college presidencies have become transactional experiences. So people tend to stay places until they've checked the box for them, right? And if they're there from a transactional place, then it's easier for them to become, to become, to feel tired enough to want to go do something else. I think those individuals with extended tenure are those individuals who have tapped into places that resonate with them personally, and emotionally, and so you know, if you work at Paul Quinn, there's some things that you made peace with.
One is that every single semester, you're going to be pushed past the point that you thought you were capable of performing. Because the work is that – I mean trying to eradicate poverty demands a high and sustained level of performance. And there are going to be days where, you know, you feel as if you're pushing the boulder up the hill. But my response is, think about how the mother or father who come home and the lights don't work, and they don't know how they're going to feed their children, and they're living with the constant disappointment of the inability to do simple things simply; we don’t have the luxury of not performing for those people.
Because too many things in our society happened. So if we have the opportunity, if we are blessed to have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives, then we damn better show up at the highest level we can every day. Because it is an honor to serve. And we, you know, we use that type of language. Like I don’t use leadership-speak per se. You know? I mean I've read many of the books. They seem interesting. But I think they miss some fundamentals. Now maybe that's what's necessary for running behemoth organizations. But I think that there's a place in our society for, you know, really mission-driven opportunities where people, people engage because it's what their heart tells them to do. [unintelligible 00:15:07]
So I think we probably want to dig into that in a second. But I want to ask you about the pandemic. You were very outspoken last spring about sort of institutions making decisions about the fall and then probably having to backtrack, and where I think we're seeing somewhat the same thing happen right now, where a bunch of institutions set some goals for opening this winter or spring and some of them are having to backtrack because, shockingly, the pandemic is not just still around but in certain places getting worse.
So my sense is that you have, you and Paul Quinn have stuck with your original approach of remaining virtual. Talk a little bit about, kind of fill us in on kind of where you and the institution are, what you're thinking about next fall and sort of how to prepare to, for this pandemic. We obviously have seen, and this is the part that probably worries me the most, we have certainly seen a lot of students, particularly those from under-represented minority groups and other disadvantaged students, adults and working learners, sidelined more than everybody else during the fall, and I suspect we're, you know, we haven't seen the full numbers for spring yet, but – so how do you mix those two things? And just fill us in on kind of where your current thinking is about that all?
So there's a couple things; I want to make a note so that I don't forget something that I want to share. So let's talk for a second about why students from under-represented and under-resourced communities seem to be opting out of higher education at this moment. So let's talk about what it is and what it isn't. What it isn't is that these individuals are no longer interested in higher education. What is isn't is that they aren't capable of balancing the work, the aca-, the work for economic resources, and the work for their studies. It's not because they aren't good enough, it's not because they aren't strong enough, it's not because they aren't qualified or capable. It has everything to do with the fact that they're exhausted. I mean, think about it for a moment.
Let me share a little piece of data. We discovered that last semester we had 90 percent of our students working 40 hours a week or more, who are actively engaged and trying to work 40 hours a week or more. We were very concerned about that, because we didn't know how long that was sustainable. Well, we now know it turns out that 42 percent of those students who were working and going to school under those conditions last semester did not return to school this semester. Because it's too much. It's too much. You know, we pride ourselves on making things easier for our students. Well, there's only so much you can do under these circumstances.
And so now, you know, we're spending a tremendous amount of time engaging those students, keeping them encouraged so that they know that they can come back, that you know, this isn't always going to last, which leads me to my next point, which is – and I don’t know if I talked about this the last time I was with you all, but there's an amazing book called Good to Great, right? And little family story. My wife was actually sitting in a restaurant reading Good to Great the first time that I met her, right? Like it provided an interesting opportunity for conversation.
But I read the book, and there's a part in the book called the Stockdale Paradox. It talks about Admiral Stockdale, who was the person who had been a prisoner of war the longest in history. He served in the Vietnam War. And when he was rescued, people asked him, how did you survive? And he said, listen, there were lots of people that I was here with, and they kept saying we're going to be free by X date. But they had no ability to control when that date – or no ability to control the facts that would make that a true statement. But they pinned all their emotional capital on being free by that particular date in time. And so what happened was that as, each time those dates came and they weren't able to be freed or they weren't free, it cost them emotionally, which eventually cost them physically, and they died; they never were able to make it to the freedom. General Stockdale, Admiral Stockdale said, I took a different approach. He said I never once questioned whether I would be free. He said but I also never failed to acknowledge the horrors of my present condition. He said but I knew that those horrors wouldn't last forever. So I maintained my sense of hope while going through this hellish experience.
I say that because that's the approach that we take at Paul Quinn College. There's no question we'll get to the other side of the pandemic. But there's also no question that this is tough stuff right now, and that we are going through a difficult time in our collective lives, one which is testing our resolve, testing our resilience, testing our spirit. And so I share that with you because for us, we didn't make a big announcement about what we're doing in the spring because in the fall, we articulated a set of standards that would need to take place for us to feel comfortable bringing people back to campus. There needs to be widespread testing, and there needs to be a vaccine.
Well, the testing, you know, we finally got to the place, and now, you know, we have a vaccine, but it's not readily available yet. We have been told that it should be readily available by the middle of the summer. When it is readily available, we will bring everyone back to campus. Now, bring everyone back to campus doesn't mean that we go back to business as usual. You know, we think that we will be back on campus some point next fall, that that feels as a reasonable thing. But we're not going to bet the farm and suffer a Stockdale Paradox moment. Right? We're going to acknowledge it, we're going to plan for our success, our inevitable success. And then we're going to do everything we can to help make that a reality. So we are participating in, like we ran our own testing program. Now we're working very hard to be a vaccination site. We want to do everything we can to make sure our students can be back by the fall. Because we have so many good things happening.
Two new buildings are almost finished. They'll be ready for the fall. We've added two new high schools, one a charter school, a KIPP school, another a Dallas Independent School District International Baccalaureate Academy. Both of those will be up and running in the fall. Not to mention all these amazing new academic programming. So while we have been during – while we have been virtual, we haven't stopped working. We didn't – our mentality wasn't a virtual mentality. We doubled down and went even harder than we would have gone in any other circumstance. So when our students return, they will be – when they return, they'll be returning to a different, stronger place.
So you have, you took some, had some strong comments for some other higher ed institutions and decisions that were made last spring and into the fall. Do you, you know, how are you, I'm curious about the reaction you got to that, but also more curious about, you know, a lot of those decisions I think were financially motivated or at least financially played a meaningful role in those decisions. Do you continue to feel that institutions are making some bad decisions now or you just, are you focusing more inwardly right now?
Well, I think now what's happened is that people now understand why institutions have made those decisions. Right? I mean I think prior to this time people were sort of not being completely honest. And now honesty has just overwhelmed everyone, right? Like you don't have to tell people the truth, because people know the truth. But it's also – look, it's hard. I mean we don’t exist in a vacuum. And you know, if we had said we're coming back to school, we would have maybe another 50 to 75 students enrolled. Right? Maybe even 100.
You know, but that wouldn't have made it the right thing to do. And it – look, we're tightening our belt. But we ran a beta test to give our athletes an opportunity because they, you know, they really, really wanted to try and play. I mean we created probably the – what I think is one of the most well thought out and comprehensive bubbles and it didn't even withstand the first encounter with people outside the bubble. Which wasn't a shock, because you know, when we went down that path, you know, I pointed out, I said this is going to be amazing, up until the point we run into an institution that doesn't practice the same level of caution and concern.
Maybe they don’t feel like they don’t have to. Maybe they feel they have it under control. Our approach certainly is a more intensive and restrictive approach. And that's exactly [unintelligible 00:25:51] didn't survive the first encounter. So I think you know, look, I mean right now I'm just focused on the realities of the constituencies that we serve, people from under-resourced communities who currently are being shut out of the testing process, making sure that all of the programs that we've – because we've implemented a lot of new things. And so [unintelligible 00:26:18] it doesn't do us any good if we were this incredibly ambitious model and we failed in the implementation, and our students come back and the experience isn't a pleasant one for them. I think they're going to have an amazing experience. But I am cognizant of the possibility of not living up to the promise. And we were born to live up to the promise.
Thank you. I want to – before we wrap, I wanted to make sure to give us an opportunity – you've been pretty vocal about the tension between higher ed navigating calls for, you know, calls around diversity and equity and inclusion. But also there's this tension with the response of higher ed to the prior administration and racist practices. Just wondering if you wanted to address that.
Sure. You know, one of the things that I would tell you, in life you learn you cannot serve two masters. All right? We as an institution, we as an entity, as an industry, cannot be on the cutting edge of equity and diversity while not forcefully addressing the issues surrounding white supremacy and white nationalism and this attempt to silence diverse voices of our democracy. It doesn’t work that way. And once you, once you are silent, once you acquiesce, then how do people ever really trust you? Right? Because at the moment when you were being tested, you failed. And so when I look at this, when I think about the fact that we can have different political opinions, OK, like I don’t care whether people are Republicans; I care whether they are people who believe in democracy, whether they are people who believe in the right for people who look like me to have the same amount of opportunities in our society that everyone else does.
And you know, it's fascinating. One night I spoke as part of a panel on a conversation around ethics that was sponsored by the Holocaust Museum here in Dallas. And I came down pretty aggressively against people in our community, because you know, again, I live in Dallas, I live in Texas, as you can imagine lots of red hats, right, in this part of the world. And I spoke out aggressively about people who somehow had made the – I think the ethical compromise of living with these Trumpian decisions and declarations and practices and, but those practices included blatantly racist acts. I mean look, the people of Charlottesville weren't very fine people. They people who stormed the Capitol, the people who committed treason, those aren't very fine people. If you're carrying around a Confederate flag, you're not my guy. Right? Like you're not. And so I talked about how when you don't speak up against that, that you are enabling them.
And, so someone that I used to practice law with many, many years ago, when I still practiced law, sent me this long email after the event and he talked about all the wonderful community service projects that he and his wife do and the money that they give and all this other stuff. He was personally offended and hurt by my stance. And I told him, I was personally offended and hurt by his support of a candidate who very clearly was anti- my very person, and that made fun of the disabled, who made fun of and disrespected women, and all these other things. And I said I don’t understand what justification you can have for supporting people who very clearly have made ethical and moral compromises. I say, I just don’t.
And so I look at this – because it's not over. I mean this is the part that I think we have to understand. There will be another season of people who try and force these ideas into our public consciousness. They will be – those individuals will be smoother, they will be more articulate, they may present it in a package that goes down a little easier. But at its core, it will still be racist, it will still be sexist, and I just – I think we as higher ed, we have to ask ourselves, when does our bell toll? At what point do we acknowledge our role in the moral development of our country in terms of what democracy will look like? Because it turns out, where people really aren't against – they're really not against democracy, they're against democracy that involves diverse voices. Right?
So when do we stand up for that? Because you cannot promote and create entire offices of your college around diversity and inclusion and then not stand up for diversity and inclusion because it's inconvenient for you to do so. So you're either going to be all in or you're a phony. And I just think that we're going to have to make a – and if you want to be a phony, be a phony. But then stop it with the claims that you are anything other than what you are. And I think we have to make a decision in higher ed around – I think frankly in society we have to make a decision around that. Who are we going to be? And for whom are we going to be that?
I don’t think there is a better way for us to start this week in terms of inspiring to wrestle with the right questions and to think about how they can inspire their team and how they can, you know, really I think address some of that complexity that you're flagging, that inherent tension. So thank you so much for continuing to be a voice elevating the issues that we really need to wrestle with in higher ed and continuing to model the kind of leadership that inspires people despite the level of exhaustion and fatigue that you discuss.
So thank you again. Doug, thank you for being an excellent co-host. And for those of you at home, we look forward to talking to you next week.
Always great to see both of you.
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 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. 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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