Michael J. Sorrell took the reins of Paul Quinn College knowing he'd be entrusted with lifting up an institution that he called "riddled in mediocrity."
The former corporate securities lawyer and businessman, only months into an initial term as interim president, announced a wide-ranging plan over the summer intended to put the college back on the right track: Class attendance would be mandatory and strictly enforced. The existing majors were reorganized and in some cases discontinued. He would boost fund raising and improve the bookstore and food service.
And, amid the on-campus improvements and organizational reshuffling, students would now be required to abide by a dress code.
Sorrell is careful to point out that the idea behind the policy, which came into force when classes started nearly two weeks ago, has some historical precedent. "Historically black colleges required students to dress in a certain manner," he said in an interview. "It’s just that as the years have gone by, many have relaxed those standards." In an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday, Sorrell wrote, "I grew up listening to my mother and other family members talk about Dillard University's 'expectations for dress.'
"A review of yearbooks from the not-too-distant past at Howard University, Spelman College and Hampton University, along with our own at Paul Quinn, shows students attending classes in ties and dresses," he continued. "They looked like the younger version of the leaders they grew up to become."
The rule -- which mandates business-casual dress from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday -- would also help students at Paul Quinn develop outside the classroom and prepare them for the potentially demanding world of business after college, Sorrell said. "We think that it is innovative to view education in more or less a comprehensive format, and that is to say that we are going to teach every minute that our students are on the campus," he said.
For the small private institution in southern Dallas, many of whose students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, according to Sorrell, putting a public face on restoring its prestige and credibility are also a part of "rebranding" into the quality liberal arts college he said he wants to build.
"I think that all the changes that he’s making, they are necessary changes that we need to improve our school here," said Kenneth Boston, a senior majoring in physical education and the student government president, "in order to improve overall ambiance as a campus, as a whole."
It is also a move that is mindful of the historical place of the college, which was founded by African Methodist Episcopal preachers and retains a faith-based mission. "We are a historically black institution, and many of our students are from very humble origins, and people sometimes view them differently because of the manner in which they present themselves," Sorrell said. Traditionally, HBCUs have promoted images, such as the "Morehouse man," of well-rounded, morally upstanding students who dressed "up" and could present themselves as acceptable to the larger society. That view is enjoying something of a resurgence, with Morehouse's new president explicitly modeling himself as a "moral philosopher."
At Paul Quinn, low morale and a range of problems at the campus -- including a one-year probation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools -- led Sorrell, 40, to take a unique approach at turning around an institution whose Web site links directly to a PayPal account for donations. The former board member was tapped as interim president five months ago, the third leader within the space of a year. ("I came in with guns blazing, someone told me," he said.)
He has since turned to his partners in business and politics -- he was a founder of Victor Credo, LLC, a public affairs consulting firm in Dallas -- to attract funding and attention, promoting his goal of completely overhauling the institution and turning it into a liberal arts powerhouse. Sorrell said his outsider's viewpoint -- rather than a career as an academic, he has represented athletes and coaches and earned law and master's in public policy degrees at Duke University -- offers an advantage to tackling the school's problems, one he hopes he'll be able to extend into a full presidency if the board approves him for the job.
The dress code is just one example of Sorrell's approach. The rule applies to all students on the campus outside the dormitories; those not up to standard can't attend class or even eat in the cafeteria. The only exception is Fridays, when students can dress casually -- as long as they wear "Greek or school paraphernalia."
The consequences? For the first violation, Sorrell said, students will have to do community service on campus. For the second, students receive an automatic membership in the "president's running club."
"Saturday mornings I’ll come visit you and we’ll go for a little jog," Sorrell said. It's the perfect formula: "One, nobody wants to get up early on a Saturday morning and go running with the college president." And two, he noted, it "gives me an opportunity to interact with the students more."
Certain colleges and universities have instituted similar policies for various reasons. At Illinois State University, a department in the College of Business began requiring business casual dress this semester, to some controversy. Other private religious institutions may also in some cases have guidelines on what students can wear on campus.
One of the main arguments against such policies is that mandating certain dress standards can hurt students financially. Sorrell solved that problem by soliciting "gently used" clothing donations from churches, businesses and civic groups for a "College Closet" that would serve students who needed help filling their school wardrobe. He sent e-mails to numerous contacts he'd accumulated in the area, secured radio time each week so he could talk directly to citizens and built up a cache that was more than sufficient to meet the needs of students.
American Airlines (a Victor Credo client) sent two vans full of clothing. The Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware contributed. People called and asked to donate, some in $1,000 increments, Sorrell said. "We raised $5,000 in cash donations without trying."
"The closet is incredible," Sorrell marveled. "Some of the women donated St. John suits and Ann Taylor clothing [and] Armani suits for men."
Of course, there was some expected resistance to the idea once it was announced, but most (if not all) students seem to have come around to the idea since classes started on Aug. 23. "Yes, sir," said Boston, the student government president. "A lot of students felt like they couldn’t display who they really were by dressing [within] the 'dress code,' but ... as we come in and see the many different ways that you can dress the way you want to, I think many people are comfortable with it right now."
Boston said that before the policy, the dress on campus was "very lax," with some students baring tattoos, muscle shirts and undershirts. But now, he said, "they understand where [Sorrell is] headed with it; I think they feel more comfortable because they know it’s all going to benefit them in the long run."
Making an argument similar to ones offered by officials at Illinois State, Boston said, "I think when you dress a certain way, your attitude changes. When you have on pants and tennis shoes, you feel a little bit more comfortable, but your attitude is also relaxed. When you dress up, you feel like you’re important, your whole attitude changes and your demeanor is a little different."
Cynthia Marshall-Biggins, the dean of students, has noticed a similar change: "You look across the yard and see students walking ... they look nice, and of course you know, when they dress professionally, it does affect their attitudes."
A Paul Quinn student, Frances Hood, disagreed with the assumptions behind the new policy in a rival op-ed in the Morning News . "How is dressing professional going to improve our academic status? The only thing that would is our attitudes toward learning," she wrote.
Sorrell respectfully disagrees, even acknowledging that some students might leave to avoid the changes. "If wearing polo shirts, khakis and a pair of shoes leads you to transfer, then you weren’t really here in the first place," he said.
"Many of our students are students we have taken a chance on," he added. Some "need a little push" -- whether that's in coming to class or dressing the part.