Six years ago, wooing a high-profile commencement speaker was the last thing on Paul Quinn College's to-do list. The southern Dallas school, the city's only historically black college, was in disrepair, physically and academically, after years of mismanagement. With its accreditation set to be revoked, the entire institution was about to collapse.
What happened next was detailed in Greg Howard's cover story last year. The Cliff Notes version is that Michael Sorrell, a Chicago-born, Duke-trained lawyer, took the job as president and set about resurrecting the school.
His approach was unconventional, a self-conscious effort to jolt the school's mostly black and Hispanic students out of an educational malaise. That's why he turned the football field into a working farm, banned pork from campus, and helped organized protests against the city's plan to dump trash nearby.
It's seemingly been successful. Paul Quinn is not only alive but growing, and thriving enough to start looking for a big-name commencement speaker. A widely admired comedian, maybe, one who also happens to have a PhD in education to go with a reputation of speaking frankly of the need for young black people to take responsibility for their future. And that's exactly who Paul Quinn found.
This will be Cosby's second visit to Dallas in recent months. He had a stand-up show at the Winspear in June featuring his typical mix of jokes and storytelling. Expect fewer jokes at his Paul Quinn speech, with a heavier dose of his message that an urban culture that devalues education has a corrosive effect on young people.
Paul Quinn's commencement is at 10 a.m. on May 4 on the Allen Chapel Lawn.
Update at 11:35 a.m.: Tickets will be available to the public, according to a just-dispatched press release from the school:
Paul Quinn College is opening the doors of the commencement ceremony to welcome members of the Dallas community to attend. However, the college will require all guests to have a ticket. Tickets are free and will be available for pick up from noon to 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 30 through Thursday, May 2, in the Paul Quinn College Business Office, Room 219 in the John Hurst Adams Building of the campus. Each guest will be limited to obtaining a maximum of five tickets per visit to the Business Office. For more information regarding tickets, please call 214-379-5560.
Update at 3:29 p.m.: We got in touch with Sorrell this afternoon, who explains how such a small college was able to land such a big commencement speaker.
"We are very fortunate in terms of the relationships we have," Sorrell says. "I met him several years ago at a very small event convened by some folks about what we do in terms of educating African American males." They were put back in touch last year, which is when Sorrell asked about the commencement. Cosby called last week to confirm.
Students are "inching themselves. They're incredibly excited. but our students have begun to expect the unexpected. They know they are part of a school that is challenging the way things are done."
As someone who is deeply committed to creating positive change and unafraid to speak his mind, Cosby embodies the spirit that has reinvigorated Paul Quinn, Sorrell says. And while the school had a backup plan if Cosby couldn't attend, they're happy to have him.
"We're blessed that we have some great friends in the community that are also wonderful speakers, we would have been fine but this is a bit of a game changer, right?