HBCU President Enforces Strict Dress Code
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
On the program, remembering the first African-American mayor of a major American city, elected 40 years ago today, and the best of what's out there on the bookshelves as we explore American Indian Heritage Month.
But first, imagine a college with mandatory class attendance, a dress code, including no pants sagging to the butt. Sound like a movie of the 1950's? A parent's dream? A student's nightmare? It's real. The president of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell, instituted these measures as a way to turn around that historically black college.
We wanted to know more, so invited Michael Sorrell to join us from member station KERA in Dallas.
Mr. Sorrell, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. MICHAEL SORRELL (President, Paul Quinn College): Thank you for the invitation.
MARTIN: What was going on at Paul Quinn that made you institute some of these new measures?
Mr. SORRELL: We essentially had a campus and a school that was underperforming. Our students were not doing the things necessary to attain the level of greatness and achievement that we expect of them. And when I started in March, the first day that I was there, I walked through the dorms around 11 o'clock that morning. And I would go to the students' rooms, and students were still there, sleeping. It was clear that they had not come back from their 8 o'clock class. They just had never been to class.
So I asked them what their grade-point averages were, and the majority of them 2.2, 1.9, 2.3's. These are students that obviously needed to be in class, and we needed to do something about that. So we instituted the mandatory class attendance, really, right then and there. In terms of the dress code, the students were just going to class in any fashion, and that had a negative impact on the classroom atmosphere, but it also damaged our ability to attract recruiters and employers to campus to provide them opportunities for the next stage of their life, which in reality, is why they were there in the first place.
MARTIN: Well, a lot of kids dress - well, how can I put it? They're - this is not a military academy. A lot of kids wear sweatpants to class and sweatshirts and things of that sort. You see that on Ivy League campuses. What made you think that that was so detrimental to the life of a college?
Mr. SORRELL: Well, you know, first off, what you see on the Ivy League campus doesn't necessarily mean that that's the right answer to the question. I think that's fine for some students, but historically black colleges have a history of expecting a certain level of dress as a way of preparing the students to combat the stereotypes which we know we all face. Okay? If I show up in my president-of-a-college attire, I am treated differently than if I show up in my shorts and T-shirt.
So we have students that we have to teach every minute that they're on that campus. We cannot assume that they came to us with a level of preparation that most of them didn't. So what we have said is, look, this is business casual requirement. All we did was essentially take my dress code from high school and institute it at the college: shirts with collars, khaki pants and shoes. If you wear that, you will always be in compliance with the dress code.
MARTIN: What about young ladies?
Mr. SORRELL: The young ladies are expected to wear shirts with collars or slacks or skirts or dresses, shoes. You just can't wear flip-flops. I mean, it really is just simply a business casual requirement. No blue jeans, things of that nature.
MARTIN: What about hair? Do the kids have to wear a certain hairstyle?
Mr. SORRELL: I don't have any hair, so…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, you could buy some.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SORRELL: I don't even have anything to attach the wig to, okay?
MARTIN: Well - but, I mean, do you restrict their hairstyles?
Mr. SORRELL: No. No. You know what? I thought about that…
MARTIN: Dreadlocks, braids, et cetera.
Mr. SORRELL: No. They can wear those things. I mean, look, the purpose isn't to recreate a military state. Okay. There is so much freedom in between the lines of our dress code. If the students really wanted to be creative at all, you can wear whatever you wanted to wear. You just can't wear jeans and T-shirts and sneakers. That's really what it comes down to. That leaves you a wide array of clothing choices. And in terms of hair, you know, look, I just - I'm not going to be the guy that regulates their hairstyles, because frankly, you know, I wish I had some hairstyles I could chose from.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So you're not hating?
Mr. SORRELL: No, no. I'm not hating. Exactly.
MARTIN: All right. What's been the reaction to some of these measures you've instituted?
Mr. SORRELL: Well, you know, it's very interesting. The business community has embraced it. We created a college closet so that students who didn't have the financial wherewithal to be able to participate or abide by the dress code would be able to do so. And the amount of support that we have received for that closet has been extraordinary. We've got suits for the young ladies. We've got St. Johns suits. We have clothes from Ann Taylor. And we have great stuff in that closet.
We are seeing an increase in the number of employers that are interested in coming to interview our students. The faculty has embraced it, because, you know, the reality of it is when you come to your workplace, you want to see people take that seriously. So the faculty is completely in support of strengthening the requirements and the standards of the institution.
The students, predictably, at first were against it, and we still have some students who are against it. But what we are beginning to see is an increase in the number of students who are benefiting from the attention that the dress code has brought the school. They understand it. They abide by it. And they like that fact - they look better. They appreciate being taken seriously.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Michael Sorrell. He's the president of Paul Quinn College.
Now, as I understand it, you're not an academic. You're a lawyer and a businessman. What made you want to take this position?
Mr. SORRELL: When I was a freshman in college - I went to Oberlin College in Ohio and had the unbelievable good fortune of being one of two or three students asked to go to dinner with Dr. Johnnetta Cole, who, at that time, was the president of Spelman. She's an alum of Oberlin. And for the first time, sitting there listening to her and listening to the stories of how she's referred to as the sister president and the things that she did down at Spelman, it created the dream that, you know what? I could be a college president.
And from that point on, I looked at it and said, you know what? This is going to be one of my three goals. You know, I - one of my goals is to own an NBA franchise. Another goal is to be a cabinet secretary. And my third goal was to be the president of a historically black college. I just didn't think that I'd get to it at 40.
MARTIN: You took one really radical step that I have to talk to you about. You cut the football program in Texas…
Mr. SORRELL: I did.
MARTIN: In Texas.
Mr. SORRELL: I did. Well, I'll tell you what. We didn't have a choice. We couldn't afford football. And all those people, they got upset about it and none of them have written any checks to support the football program. And I have told everyone, if we raise $2 million to endow the football program, we will bring football back so quickly that it will make your head spin. To date, we don't have a dollar. So for all those individuals that talk about football as a, you know, God-given right here in Texas, well, they should try supporting the program, and then we will do so.
MARTIN: I think some people will argue that as a path to college for some kids. I think that's what some people would say.
Mr. SORRELL: Okay. Well, they would, and there are lots of avenues to college. For example, we took some of the savings from the football program and created the presidential scholarship program, which has, you know, allowed us to recruit an entirely different caliber of individual to the institution.
You know, we do have some challenges. I mean, we're on probation by our accreditation agency. We have financial challenges. But this is the reality: those things were in place when I got here seven months ago. We have taken more steps to remedying those problems than any of my predecessors took in their entire tenures.
All right, the reality of it is if you want to make a real difference, if you are committed to making a difference and know you're following the right path, you can make a significant change. We are not going to take traditional steps to solving these problems, because the traditional steps don't work for us. So what - we've taken a look and we said, you know what? Let's go out here and let's do something special. We're not even interested in becoming a good black college. We're going to become one of the nation's great small colleges. That is where we're going. And everything that we do is geared towards that. And the first step to that is fiscal responsibility.
MARTIN: Have you lost…
Mr. SORRELL: And there's…
MARTIN: …any students because of any of the changes you've instituted - cutting the football program?
Mr. SORRELL: Absolutely.
Mr. SORRELL: Absolutely. And let me speak to the enrollment decline. We were at 700 students at the end of the school year last year. We are at 596 right now. So let's call it 600. Okay, we lost students because we cut the football program. And let me say this: I offered to honor the scholarships of any football player that wanted to stay at the school that had better than a 3.0, and none of them could take me up on that offer.
I understand the demands that college athletics placed on you, but I also understand the commitment and the discipline that's required for you to succeed. Too many of our football players were doing poorly in class, were involved in altercations on campus that required disciplinary measures. So we took a step that say we are going to create a great college, and in doing so, we may have to take a little bit of a step back to take a big step forward.
MARTIN: What is your vision for Paul Quinn? Let's say you and I are speaking five years from now. What will we be talking about?
Mr. SORRELL: Yeah. We'll be talking about probably one of the greatest stories in higher education that a school that has been generally considered to be a mediocre college is on the path to becoming one of the nation's great small colleges. We are taking a very different approach at education. We're saying, look. First of all, we're going to partner with the business community, and we're going to give them a stake in what we're doing here.
We are in a great city. Texas has three of the largest cities or metropolitan areas in the country. That gives us a tremendous student base. It gives us a tremendous corporate base to recruit from. And you know this, Michel. Once people have engaged emotionally and their time and their heart to a place, their dollars follow. So that's a path we're going to take.
So in five years, we will have new buildings under construction. We will have a new legal studies program. We will have a new real estate program. We will have a new hospitality management program, and you and I will be laughing about how crazy you thought I sounded five years ago.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: But what do you say to those who argue that part of what the academy needs to do is to speak truth to power? And that when you get that close to corporate America that you lose intellectual independence? You lose academic freedom? If you take that kind of support from anybody, whether it's the federal government, whether it's the academy, whether it's some big donor, that eventually, you lose some of the independence that you really need to do what you need to do as a university, as a place of learning?
Mr. SORRELL: Well, that's fascinating because for us, that alleged independence hasn't really proved to be very valuable. We are a teaching college. What we're going to do is we're going to teach our students. We're not going to be a research institution, okay?
So the intellectual freedom, which you speak to - our intellectually freedom is preparing our student for fantastic careers, preparing them to be partners in law firms and judges, preparing them to be investment bankers, preparing them to be entrepreneurs. We are here to teach them to be successful in whatever their chosen fields are for the rest of their lives.
So I think just because you understand what it's going to take to get a job doesn't mean that your intellectual challenges have been relaxed. I mean, what we're saying is these are the steps that need to be taken.
MARTIN: Michael Sorrell is the president of Paul Quinn College. He joined us from KERA in Dallas, Texas.
Mr. Sorrell, thanks for joining us.
Mr. SORRELL: No, thank you. And I'm happy to come back anytime.
MARTIN: I'm going to say, why don't you check back with us in a couple of months, and we'll see how things are going?
Mr. SORRELL: Yeah, I'll look forward to it. And you take care. And if you're ever in this way, come down to see us.
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