Michael Sorrell: Reality redefines perception at Paul Quinn

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Perception defining reality is one of the great ironies of life. Some of our most commonly held “truths” are, at the end of the day, nothing more than a combination of emotion, hearsay and momentum. Yet, these perceptions can be far more difficult to dislodge than the actual truth. Once people begin accepting a mistaken or outdated belief as fact, it can take years to correct such a misperception.
Bridging Dallas’ North-South Gap

This is the dilemma facing Paul Quinn College. By now, everyone knows the story of the school. Twenty years ago, under the leadership of Dr. Warren Morgan and in the search for greener pastures, the institution relocated to Dallas from Waco. Its arrival was met with great fanfare and solid community support. However, in fewer than 10 years, the bloom was off the rose, and the relationship between Dallas and the college became frayed. In fact, many corners of the city began preparing for what they viewed as the school’s inevitable demise.

However, a funny thing happened along the way – the board of trustees, students, staff, alumni and donors, in addition to the AME Church, refused to allow the school to be buried.

While it would be difficult to debate that for most of the last 20 years Paul Quinn has struggled, it would be equally indisputable that over the last four, the college has turned the corner and begun transforming itself into something special. In the last 18 months alone, the Paul Quinn family has:

  • Produced almost $2 million in budget surpluses in fiscal 2009 and 2010.
  • Achieved unqualified audits for 2009 and 2010.
  • Invested more than $2 million in infrastructure improvements without adding any debt.
  • Formed a groundbreaking partnership with PepsiCo that converted the unused football stadium into a fully operational urban farm and has the potential to transform the way affordable, nutritious food is delivered to under-resourced communities around the country.
  • Received a seven-figure gift from visionary philanthropist Trammell S. Crow.
  • Was nominated “Historically Black College and University of the Year” by HBCU Digest.
  • Increased enrollment by 75 students from spring 2010 to fall 2010.
  • Maintained accreditation with one accrediting body, while earning candidacy status with another.
  • Established institutional fundraising records.
  • Launched an aggressive retention/student development program (the “Leave No Quinnite Behind Project”) aimed at remedying the nationwide dropout epidemic for black college students.
  • Overhauled the core curriculum to include a yearlong social entrepreneurship course, rigorous writing requirements and an emphasis on personal finance and business.
  • Begun razing 14 abandoned buildings, some of which have stood idle on the campus for more than 20 years.

These facts paint the real picture of Paul Quinn College. There is a renaissance afoot, and it is exciting to behold. No longer are we prisoners to negative experiences and missteps that occurred 10 to 15 years ago. We have closed that chapter of our history. Today, we celebrate a new truth, a new perception and a new reality. The work being done by the Paul Quinn family is critically important not only to Dallas, but also to under-resourced communities across the country. We are developing a model for others to embrace and replicate.

Each member of the Paul Quinn family acknowledges that we still have work to do to become one of America’s great small colleges. Somewhere in the Paul Quinn experience is the following advice and an offer for those who cling desperately and rigidly to outdated perceptions and allow those perceptions to define their realities: Stop living in the past. If you will start seeing us for who we are today, we promise to do the same for you.

Michael J. Sorrell is president of Paul Quinn College. His e-mail address is msorrell@pqc.edu.