People Issue

Michael Sorrell: The Prez

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Paul Quinn College in South Dallas is empty, most of its students home for the summer, but its president, Michael Sorrell, is here. Tomorrow he has to convince graduating high school juniors, seniors and college transfers that Paul Quinn is the place for them, the place to start their lives.

Five years ago, when "Prez" took over, barely anyone thought the school was a worthy institute. Barely anyone thought the school should still be open. It'd take an act of God, critics said, to turn this historically black college into a place its starved surrounding community would be proud of. Instead, it just took some action.

Sorrell cut the football team, raised admissions standards, blew up abandoned buildings. He got better teachers, recruited better students, planted a farm on the football field.

The 45-year-old greets me in the lobby with a wide, youthful smile on his face and his long arms already opening for a hug. Through the wall-length window are the grounds, and the grass looks greener, literally. The farm is thriving, and Sorrell says they're this close to opening a grocery store to provide fresh produce in the heart of the southern Dallas food desert.

Southern Dallas: That's what this is about. He defends it without the bluster and baggage of some of its other defenders. He went toe to toe with City Hall last year over the city's plan to send its trash to McCommas Bluff, the city-owned dump less than two miles from campus, and his student government association was named the historically black college SGA of the year. Sorrell himself in 2012 was named best male college president, and people are noticing. Ivy League kids are flocking to Paul Quinn to intern. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed a concert there just the other night.

The door to Sorrell's presidential suite opens. Two girls walk out. They're Paul Quinn students, and they're sweaty, dusty. It's late May. What are they still doing here?

"They got bad grades last semester," he says after they leave. He's making them stay and spend the summer sweeping the parking lot. "I told them if they want to get janitor grades, they can do janitor work." He pauses. "I'm not leaving them behind."

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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Greg Howard