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Weekly Wisdom Episode 2: Transcript of Conversation With Michael Sorrell, Paul Quinn College President

Weekly Wisdom Episode 2: Transcript of Conversation With Michael Sorrell, Paul Quinn College President

Note: This interview originally aired on April 20, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Weekly Wisdom Series that airs live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Michael Sorrell:
First thing to do is just be honest about being overwhelmed, right, it’s a fire hose, none of us have managed in a global pandemic before, OK.  Give yourself permission to be human and to say, I'm not going to get everything right.  

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to Innovating Together 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’re navigating and hopefully it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired and give you a bit of hope.

Jeff Selingo:
I'm Jeff Selingo, joining you from Washington D.C. where I'm an author, a journalist and a special advisor at Arizona State University.  Well and Bridget, I'm really excited today for the president that we have, because he’s really no stranger to the spotlight to a lot of people here in higher education, he’s been named one of the 10 most innovative college presidents in the country, one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world by Fortune Magazine.  Dr. Michael Sorrell from Paul Quinn College in Texas.  

Bridget Burns:
Welcome, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Michael Sorrell:
Oh, it’s always good to be with the two of you, you guys are people that I love spending time with.

Jeff Selingo:
Well thanks, Michael.  So, Michael, how are you holding up right now, what’s keeping you positive right now?

Michael Sorrell:
Oh, what’s keeping me positive is that every day I wake up to an amazing family, frankly if not for this, I would not get to spend the amount of time that I have with my kids and wife.  And it’s just absolutely – I mean, I am sensitive to what we are going through as a society, but I have to tell you that to spend my day with my daughter running in and out of my office and sharing my office with my son, there are worse things, there are worse things.  

Jeff Selingo:
And how are you holding up as an institution and as a president?

Michael Sorrell:
Yeah, I'm – I  have a little bit of an advantage over some folks in that my career, prior to higher ed, was spent being a crisis manager, so I am – I understand how you manage in these situations.  And we saw this potential disruption, not coming to this degree, but we started asking ourselves critical questions back in late January, early February because part of what I try and do is just read as much as I can about the things that may come into our universe.  And so we were having conversations about, wait a minute, what happens if there’s a disruption?  And we had made the decision that we were going to send our students home and literally the weekend that Harvard announced that they were sending people home, we had already gotten clearance from the board and all of that and were just waiting to make the announcement that next week.  

And so we had the advantage of not having to be so reactive that we could do a little bit of forward thinking.  So we miss our students, we miss our seeing each other as a staff, we miss that contact with each other very much, but we’re really – we’re very, very appreciative that our folks, up until this point, have managed to be OK in this situation.  

Bridget Burns:
Thank you for sharing that and already getting comments for folks who are online, Facebook and Periscope; the comments actually we can elevate.  Yes, gratitude definitely is the key, so I'm hearing all your notifications and it’s only making me aware of just how in demand you continue to be despite – even though your daughter can run in and out of your office, it’s never ending.  And so I'm wondering, as a leader who needs to keep your eyes on the prize despite all of the distraction, what is serving you right now as a leader, what kind of leadership framework or –?  How are you looking at this situation that enables you to focus on what really matters and sift through some of the noise, some of the drama, but also really just some of the real tragedy of today?

Michael Sorrell:
So I have a very, very simple and fundamental leadership principle I think that you should never lead people you do not and cannot love.  Right?  And people who’ve heard me speak, have heard me talk about leading with love.  I am far more concerned right now about just the wellbeing of my staff and my students.  In our staff meetings we spend time talking about just, how are you?  Right, we’ve created a safe space where people can talk about, I am struggling, I am sad, I am scared.  And I want people to know that they can do that and I will hear you and that so much of what you accomplish at work, while it is important, it – I just don’t think it means as much if you aren’t OK.  And so I spend a lot of time just asking people, are you OK, how are you?  

Jeff Selingo:
Michael, drawing on your past experience in crisis management, how do you separate out the work of the day from the chaos we’re living in right now?  Just keeping up with the news, but also keeping your eye on the ball for six months from now, eight months from now or even two years from now?  How do you – I think that’s what most people are trying to manage now, right, they have this fire hose coming at them and can you give us a little bit of advice on how we can manage those multiple levels that we’re all –

Michael Sorrell:
– Sure.  The first thing to do is just be honest about being overwhelmed, right?  It’s a fire hose.  None of us have managed in a global pandemic before, so give yourself permission to be human and to say, I'm not going to get everything right.  Right?  Just start from there, I know I'm not going to get everything right.  So I don’t try to get everything right.  I try to always make sure I'm asking myself the question, are we working to minimize our regret?  Right?  So I think that’s the second thing, first of all, let’s just be honest with yourself, be vulnerable to yourself and be willing to be vulnerable to others.   But secondly act to minimize your regret.  So be cautious, right, if sending everyone home seems like an extreme act, but that is what maximizes your ability to be cautious, send everyone home.  

No one has ever regretted being too cautious in these situations.  Right?  I think that’s important.  I also think it’s important to do an honest assessment, right, really look at the facts and then have the conversation with your people about what’s real.  The conversation we have at Paul Quinn is this: How do you bring people back before you can keep them safe?  You don’t.  Therefore, what does it look like to maximize keeping people safe?  And that’s where we start.  So we try and do those things, but the first place is just to be honest, honest with yourself and honest with those around you.

Jeff Selingo:
OK.  And how do you keep your eye on the ball for what Paul Quinn or higher ed might look like after this pandemic?  

Michael Sorrell:
So I think both higher ed and Paul Quinn are going to look a lot different when this is over.  So what we’ve done is we’ve said we’re going to plan to look different, right, so we’re going to have a much smaller freshman class.  So we’re going to use that, like an opportunity to beta test an honors college, right.  And to go forward with this really unique partnership, which I can’t announce right now, that we think is going to make an enormous difference in the experience.  So we are planning to be different, we’ve looked at it and said, where have we identified places in our institution where we can be better?  How can we instruct the students better?  How can we prepare them to succeed in the work college better?

So, while we’re at this period, why don’t we pour all in, push all the chips to the middle of the table and address those issues, those things have helped tremendously.  And I think in higher ed, and I said this last week, I just said, you know we have to stop being more in love with our traditions than we are our students.  And this is the time where we should put the wellbeing of our students and our staff before the historical traditions of our institutions and go identify the things that make sense, that work, and are best for the people we are in charge of caring for.  

Bridget Burns:
I love that.  So can you share a little bit more about – what I'm hearing is a sense of optimism.  You’re having had that and so I'm just curious if you can share, because I – if you readjust the headlines and said, whether it’s higher ed blogs or if you’re on the social media ads, you’re already seeing some of the doom and gloom stuff coming up.  And it’s really difficult, from my perspective, to lead an institution, to stay optimistic and to take care of the mental health of your students, while people are forecasting your demise.   How you are still optimistic about the future of higher ed and what you're seeing that isn’t leaving you inspired and hopeful.

Michael Sorrell:
Yeah, well listen, let’s just talk about my personal experience; I took over a school that people said was 18 months to 24 months away from closing.  We had 30 days of cash on hand, we were quit – a month, a month and a half into my presidency, we were put on probation by the accrediting body.  We got kicked out of one of our advocacy groups.  There is no reason for us to be here, right, so I know what it’s like for people to tell you you’re going to fail, it’s going to end and things are going to go away.  And then I know what it’s like to keep going and to be better on the other side than you ever were behind you.  And that’s the opportunity that presents us now, if you give up, you will never make it, right you will never ever make it.  

Yes, it’s going to be hard.  The hard is what gives you the chance to be great.  The hard is what gives your students the opportunity to have a road map for what the rest of their lives will be.  I am not someone who can ever hope quote biblical passages to you, but I am a man of deep, deep, deep faith.  I was raised in the church, I went to faith-based schools.  And here’s what I have been told, without the test you never have a testimony.  This is higher education’s test, right, I mean come on, if we’re going to fold and cry and go home, then what society are we planning on building?  What society will we have built?  Our students will take the cue from us and our behavior and from our institutional behaviors.  

If we want a society that is resilient and strong and capable, then we should be leaders who are resilient, strong, and capable.  We should lead institutions that are resilient, strong, and capable. That is so important.  So yes, I'm optimistic because I’ve been in the battle, I have led an institution that was supposed to have already been gone. 13 years ago, we were given no time.  We were given a year and a half to live, and 13 years ago, you hadn’t heard of Paul Quinn College, 13 years ago it was unheard of to imagine Paul Quinn College would be thought of as an institutional leader in any way. We were a wonderful little institution that took great care of people who were roses that grew out of the concrete, right? That’s who we were.  

And we were proud of that and I'm proud to be a president of institution with that history.  But we are now something more and that came because we went through a crisis and came out the other side.  So what I would say to everyone out there who’s feeling discouraged, that’s cool, I understand it, give yourself a moment to acknowledge the challenge, and to acknowledge how hard it is, and acknowledge your feelings and all of that.  And then get up off your – well and pray, if you're a praying person, then pray and then get up off your knees and start swinging, all right.  Believe in the inevitability of your success and then you will find a way to succeed, that’s what I would tell them. 

Jeff Selingo:
Michael, we have a question that came in on Facebook that I'm actually interested in, is how you’re keeping boards informed?  I sit on a board of a private college, I did a thing with an association with governing boards last week and I'm talking to people I know on boards, and it’s fascinating to me how very different this is.  Some boards are being highly informed, other boards are completely cut out.  How are you managing up and how should presidents manage up to their boards right now?

Michael Sorrell:
So, I don’t think this is the time to play games and hide things from your board.  Right?  So let me be very clear, I'm a strong advocate for telling people everything.  Right?  I believe in communicating.  We – I always try and be honest with my board, but we have been through a lot together, right, a lot of – many of my board members have been through the struggle, have been through the challenge and they’re great.  And they understand that there’s a path through that we’re going to get through, that it will be tough, but we have seen tough, we understand tough, tough is part of our DNA.  We’re an African Methodist Episcopal school, right, that we’re an AME Church School.  

Do you know anything about the history of the AME Church?  You know they had to sue for their right to exist and won a lawsuit in the federal courts in Delaware over 200 years ago.  There weren’t a lot of black people on the head of the – on the courts 200 years ago in Delaware.  All right, there weren’t a lot of people who were in tune with them 200 years ago in Delaware.  So my board, we’re in this together, I want them to know all the things we’re doing.  And we email constantly, we talk, I just – I think in situations like this, you can never communicate enough, that’s with your staff, that’s with your students, that’s with your board. Talk to people, share, it makes all the difference in the world.  

Bridget Burns:
Yes, you can’t see me in the back, in the green room, but I'm giving you slow claps each time.  Great, yes.  Thank you for giving us this helpful message.  So I do want to touch in, because you and I often talk about strategies.  What are you actually doing to keep yourself thinking positive, being positive?  How are you taking care of yourself?  In particular, interested in books, movies, anything that you have referenced in the past or read in the past that really is coming up for you today that you would recommend for folks that is giving you that calm perspective and enabling you to have this resilient mind.

Michael Sorrell:
So for something, one I want to give you some credit because when we’re going through the early stages of toughness, you and I had a conversation, Bridget, where you really were encouraged, right.  And it made me do what I – what has made me, I think, successful in some part and has the ability to step back and realize I was dreaming too small.  Right?  So I just ratcheted it up, OK, and I said, all right, we need a couple things.  One, in the HBCU space, we need a message of hope.  So I went out and created the National HBCU Commencement Celebration, which will take place May 16th, that gets announced formally this week coming up, which will be this opportunity to really celebrate the accomplishments of a sector of people about 60/70% of whom are program students, right.

Who are overcoming enormous challenges, who don’t get a chance to have their moment, right.  So focusing on other people’s joy and other people’s moment, I’ve always found to be incredibly helpful for me, right.  Because one, I really do believe in the principle of we over me, the needs of the community supersede the wants of an individual, so that has helped.  I am catching up on reading one – a couple of things that I am reading right now about, which is this really interesting book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  And then one which is a little slower reading, I must be honest, On Duties by Cicero, but those have been –  Oh, I'm also reading Building the Intentional University, by a good friend Ben Nelson and the Minerva Project, so I am – I'm just – and the other thing I'm doing too is spending time with my kids and my family and not feeling so pressed about it.  

So my daughter loves to play Uno, loves it, she loves to play memory games and she’s five, so I can’t play them all day, but stopping for a moment and playing games with her, oh it’s a joy, we’re fortunate, we have access to the gym at the school, so my son and I go down every night and shoot baskets in the gym, which is a joy.  So I work out all the time, and I try and get up and take walks, I want to take them every morning.  I’ve not gotten to that point yet, but I try and exercise because that is helpful to me, so I do those types of things.  And I just also keep in mind that, and this too shall pass, we will get to the other side and what we are, who we are on the other side will be completely dictated by how we approached the struggle that we are in now and I believe that.

Jeff Selingo:
And did you catch The Last Dance last night, Michael?

Michael Sorrell:
As someone that grew up in Chicago –

Jeff Selingo:
– I hope so –

Michael Sorrell:
– I was a college basketball player, I watched it, I recorded it, I will be watching it next Sunday and record it, I may even watch it all during the week, OK.  

Jeff Selingo:
I thought so.

Michael Sorrell:
As a school sports junkie, without having enough live sports to watch, I'm all in, all in.

Jeff Selingo:
Good.  One quick question on follow up.  You’re talking about dreaming big with Bridget, you were talking about – earlier you were talking about being more conservative during a crisis, right?  How though can institutions – there’s opportunities in crisis as well, right.  How do you balance those two things, not being too far out front, but also dreaming big and thinking about possibilities in a crisis?

Michael Sorrell:
Man, no I think that’s a great question.  I mean, listen, there’s the school of thought that says never waste a crisis, right?  If we are honest with ourselves as leaders, we know we have underperforming aspects of our institutions.  Now is the time to address those underperforming aspects of our institution.  And that to me, I mean you start with the business case, right, you start with making sure that fiscally you’re going to be OK.  And the fiscal aspect of it is absolutely a challenge, we are very, very thankful for the payroll protection piece because it allows us to continue to support the hard work of people who have given us their blood, sweat and tears.  And when you're at a small school like Paul Quinn, it’s personal, it’s way more personal, so if we get to a place where we’ve got – and let me say this, I have been in the place where we’ve had to do salary reductions.  

My first year on the job, I took a 25% pay cut after I’d taken a 40% pay cut to take the job.  Right?  And the VPs took 20% and directors took 15, faculty took ten %, so staff took five %, so I know what that’s like and I hated it, I hated it, it broke my heart, right, broke my heart to have to tell people who already weren’t making enough money that we couldn’t afford to pay you what we had contracted to pay you.  I just – I think you have to look at this through a very clear set of eyes and say, where can we improve?  If we could do anything in the world to improve, what would that look like?  Appreciate the fact that this is a unique opportunity.  We will probably never get this chance to do things this way again.  

Understand it’s going to be a year to 18 months before things come back to looking close to normal, so implement the things you want to implement, tweak the things you want to tweak that you know you should tweak.  But you wouldn’t really have the opportunity to do so, because we’re not going to have students back in the traditional sense in the numbers that we’ve had them for a while, so why not make those changes?  So – and then you communicate that, you talk to people about it honestly and earnestly, get them on the same page and then go forward.  

Bridget Burns:
Wow, that was exactly the message we were hoping that you would deliver for us; giving us a little bit of perspective, some wisdom for the week ahead.  So for those of you who are watching at home, thank you for being here with us today and for the comments and questions.  And just know that these – the video will be live on YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook and Periscope and you can re-watch and share.  But next week we are going to be thrilled to bring the president of Iowa State University, President Wendy Wintersteen as our next guest.  And just in general, I just want to thank you, Michael for your leadership, for your consistency of bringing a hopeful message that challenges people and in the right way.  

And I feel like in this moment, you were the right person for us to call, so thank you for taking the call and for folks at home we hope that this gave you a little bit of positivity for the rest of the week.  And we think you can get out there and do it.

Michael Sorrell:
Well thank you all for the opportunity; keep your great work up.

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: Jeff Selingo, author, journalist, special advisor at Arizona State University
Jeff Selingo is an author, a journalist, and a special advisor at Arizona State University.  He has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.

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 this unique and challenging time within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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