The 25th anniversary of SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility’s J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award Luncheon is coming up on Tuesday, April 12, and will salute one of the area’s top educators — Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell, who could have easily taken a different turn in the road to be a highly paid corporate executive or an elected political leader.
Instead, with an arsenal of education (BA from Oberlin College, Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and J.D. and M.A. in Public Policy from Duke) and professional experience (a special assistant on race relations in the Clinton White House and practicing law in a Dallas firm), Michael opted to accept a temporary position leading Paul Quinn until a permanent president was hired. It was far from a cushy job. The school was facing hard times, with the campus in disrepair and the student body struggling to succeed. Three previous presidents had up and left within four years.
Now, 15 years later, it’s a different story. Michael has become the longest-serving president in the college’s 150-year history and the college has been transformed from barely struggling to being a model for other educational institutions to follow.
Thanks to Michael’s creating partnerships with corporations, foundations and other organizations, Paul Quinn has become a staunch and productive member of the community. For instance, the partnership with PepsiCo resulted in its former football field being turned into the WE/ME Farm, producing more than 30,000 pounds of produce since its inception in March 2010. With 10% of the food donated to area charitable organizations, the rest is provided for Paul Quinn’s dining halls and local restaurants and grocery stores.
While others were hamstrung due to the pandemic, Paul Quinn continued to grow in partnerships and facilities, including the first two new buildings — Trammell S. Crow Living and Learning Center and The Health and Wellness Center (containing athletic facilities, classrooms, offices and dance studio) — constructed on campus in decades, plus The Quinnite Trail for running/walking through the campus and other improvements.
As Michael told Texas Monthly’s Skip Hollandsworth in 2018, “My goal is to create one of America’s best small colleges, with students who come from the margins, students who have lived lives of scarcity. I want Paul Quinn to be the place that lifts them up.”
Thanks to his converting the college to an “urban work college,” Pell Grants and other grants, Quinnites are able to achieve a four-year degree for a minuscule amount of money compared to other colleges.
Just recently, Michael threw his net out further when he had nearly 400 high-achieving Fort Worth high school seniors visit the college. He then surprised them with college acceptance letters not only for them, but also for two family members each.
Along the way, Michael’s efforts have been recognized with beaming headlines, awards and accolades. But for Michael, the standout of his tenure at Paul Quinn is reflected in the success of his students.
One can’t help but wonder if the college’s guiding principles — the “Four L’s” — weren’t the ones by which Michael has lived:
- Leave places better than you found them
- Lead from wherever you are.
- Live a life that matters.
- Love something greater than yourself.
The J. Erik Jonsson Award was created to honor “individuals who epitomize the spirit of moral leadership and public virtue.” On Tuesday, April 12, on SMU campus, Michael and the past 24 award recipients — Cary M. Maguire (2021), Ross Perot, Jr. (2020), Nancy Strauss Halbreich (2019), Bobby Lyle (2018), David Brown (2017),
Terry Flowers (2016), Lyda Hill (2015), Gail G. Thomas (2014), Nancy Ann and Ray L. Hunt (2013), Walter J. Humann (2012), Ruth Altshuler (2011), Bob Buford (2010), Ronald G. Steinhart (2009), Michael M. Boone (2008), Zan W. Holmes Jr., M.Th (2007), Roger Staubach (2006), Caren Prothro (2005), Tom Luce (2004),
Ron Anderson, M.D. (2003), Jack Lowe, Jr. (2002), William T. Solomon (2000), Stanley H. Marcus (1999),
Charles C. Sprague, M.D. (1998) and Curtis W. Meadows, Jr. (1997) — will be honored for their exemplary standard of ethics and leadership. Tickets and sponsorships are available here, but they’re going fast.