Michael Sorrell, 51, is the 2017 BASE Ball keynote speaker and president of Paul Quin College, a small, faith-based college in South Dallas. He took over the struggling college in 2007 and rapidly transformed it into an innovative institution helping to revitalize the economically depressed neighborhood in which it’s located.
Perhaps his most celebrated move was converting the school’s football field into a 2-acre working farm, known as We over Me Farm. It has become the centerpiece of a student-work program that supports Paul Quinn’s New Urban College Model, one built upon three bedrock foundations: servant leadership, entrepreneurship, and experiential learning.
A Chicago native, President Sorrell starred in basketball at Oberlin College before earning graduate degrees from Duke University and Penn. In 2016, he was named HBCU Male President of the Year, one of many awards he has earned as an educator, lawyer, and lecturer.
What do you mean by servant leadership?
In too many cases people see it as poverty tourism. That is, community activity that leaves you feeling great about yourself but does not significantly improve peoples’ lives. We redefined it through the three E’s: educational, ethical, and economic leadership. We challenge people to embrace something radically different, namely leadership that improves peoples’ minds and character.
Economic independence is one key to this model, right?
Right. If you have a dream but not the means to fund it, then you don’t have the dream. You have the dream that the funders allow you to have. Through our work program, we managed to reduce tuition and fees and stop charging for books for our students, 90 percent of whom are Pell Grant eligible.
Has converting your football field into a working farm – a portion of what you grow is either donated to the community or sold to commercial enterprises – become your signature innovation?
Yes, but it took time to be comfortable with that. We’ve taken dead aim at urban poverty, yet for many the idea of turning a football field into a farm – in Texas! – was just unheard of. Well, what else would you have us do? We are in a food desert. No one seemed to care much about that. We had the ability to do something, though, and we did.
How does The BASE model, combining athletic and academic resources to serve urban youth, line up with Paul Quinn’s mission?
Both ideas, yours and ours, stand for an ideal. That through hard work, innovative thinking, and the willingness to dream differently, you can change peoples’ circumstances. Listen, I’m more jock than academician. For me, it’s about creating better methods of advocacy for young people who need it. The BASE uses baseball to accomplish that. We use the idea that higher education can be turned outward to address the needs of people in your own community.
Are you supported locally?
To a large extent. The issue many folks have is not trusting something they haven’t seen before. They like to think that innovation comes from elite places like Harvard, MIT, or Stanford. They’re all great, but that’s Neiman Marcus innovation. I like to call ours Walmart innovation. Something everyday people can use.
What message are you bringing to Boston?
That our responsibility is to each other. We live in an era when some people want us to become small. To close our borders. To pretend all that exists is our own little piece of the world. We cannot exist on an island, however. We must find ways to become the truest, best versions of ourselves. Our responsibility right now is to do more, not less.