Michael Sorrell has a message for Cheyney University as it struggles to find its way past myriad academic and financial failings after years of mismanagement.

"When you're down, it can be quite liberating," he said. "You are unencumbered by a history of success. It just opened the door for us to be incredibly innovative."

Sorrell's advice comes from hard-earned experience.

When Sorrell became president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black school in Dallas, in 2007, it had about 30 days' cash on hand, faced loss of accreditation, and saw virtually none of its students graduate in four years.

"We had just received an evaluation by the Boston Consulting Group that determined the school was a year to 18 months from having to close," Sorrell said. "The problems were legion. We had financial issues. We had low morale. We had a deteriorating physical infrastructure."

More than a decade later, the college's fortunes have changed dramatically, as have its practices, and Sorrell — a lawyer and public affairs expert who said he found his true calling as a college president — has become nationally known for its turnaround.

Sorrell encouraged those trying to save Cheyney to aim for greatness, not mere survival.

"Don't remake Cheyney with a vision of mediocrity," he warned. "Remake Cheyney with a vision of excellence."

His advice comes as the 180-year-old Cheyney — the nation's oldest historically black college — awaits a possible decision Thursday from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education on whether it can keep its accreditation. Losing it would mean the school almost certainly would have to close.

Cheyney has been buffeted by soaring debt, unstable leadership, and falling enrollment for decades, and in recent years, an Inquirer and Daily News investigation has shown, the school's troubles have been deepened by gross mismanagement and lax oversight by those responsible for its operations.

Sorrell's approach to improving Paul Quinn was multifaceted.

He converted the school into a "work college," one of only eight in the United States. Every student works on- or off-campus jobs for 10 to 15 hours a week to help pay tuition. That was a key move for a college at which 90 percent of students come from low-income families, a population similar to Cheyney's.

To set a professional tone, Sorrell instituted a "business casual" dress code during the day for most of the school week.

He also took the controversial step of eliminating the school's costly football program and converted the football field into an organic farm worked by students, who sell and donate food to the surrounding community. One of the college's biggest customers is the Dallas Cowboys, who sell the food at concession stands.

Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College at the entrance to the organic farm on the campus of Paul Quinn College in Dallas.
BEN TORRES / For the Philadelphia Inquirer
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College at the entrance to the organic farm on the campus of Paul Quinn College in Dallas.

Sorrell also raised admission standards, slashed tuition, and traveled the country building recruiting relationships with high schools and gathering donations. And he launched $9 million in campus improvements, and started a summer program to help students adjust to college. To help achieve fiscal solvency, he reduced salaries, including his own, by 25 percent.

Paul Quinn no longer faces accreditation threat. For eight of the last 10 years, it has run six- or seven-figure surpluses. There's been a waiting list of applicants the last three years. The six-year graduation rate has risen from single digits to 19 percent, Sorrell said.

"It had a pretty amazing turnaround," said Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies historically black universities.

Gasman believes Cheyney should survive, too.

"I do think it needs to be changed fundamentally in terms of its approach," she said.

Cheyney, Gasman said, should hire an "energetic" president with a business plan in mind and a willingness to make hard decisions, jettison what's not working, and focus on its academic strengths.

Cheyney has an academic base to build on, with its successful Keystone Honors Academy. The academy, with 114 students — about 15 percent of Cheyney's enrollment — boasts a graduation rate of 72 percent and a freshman retention rate of 95 percent, said academy director Nicole G. Rayfield. That's exponentially better than Cheyney's overall numbers.

If Cheyney improves its dysfunctional admissions office, the academy may land more strong students.  Two years ago, Cheyney failed to send acceptance letters to promising Keystone candidates before the May 1 deadline. Many likely went to other schools.

At Paul Quinn, Sorrell cut tuition from about $23,850 to $14,495 to ensure more students could afford to attend. The pricing and work program are designed to help students graduate with less than $10,000 in debt.

The college had been experiencing enrollment decline for more than a decade before he took over. Enrollment fell even further during his first two years, from 550 to just 151, as students who couldn't pay their bills, meet academic standards or feared the school would lose its accreditation left. Enrollment has returned to 519.

Michael Sorrell meets with students including senior Ryan Abrams (right), 22, while organizing a speaking event at the school.
Ben Torres
Michael Sorrell meets with students including senior Ryan Abrams (right), 22, while organizing a speaking event at the school.

A native of Chicago, Sorrell doesn't have the background of a typical college president. He started in economic development in North Carolina. Then, after getting his law degree, he worked at various firms in Dallas. Then he moved to the White House, serving as a special assistant in the executive office under President Bill Clinton. After that, he worked in public affairs, starting his own firm representing NBA players and college basketball coaches.

Sorrell got his bachelor's degree from Oberlin College, law and master's degrees from Duke University, and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Some of his methods weren't popular. When he got pushback on ending football, he challenged critics to raise a $2 million endowment to pay for it; they didn't.

"You need to make a commitment that you're going to do what's right for the student," Sorrell said. "What's right for the student may not be what's right for the alumni. It may not even be what's right for the traditional stakeholders," including faculty and staff.

Sorrell advises Cheyney to "stop talking about survival. That language doesn't inspire anyone. People need inspiration, so you need to have a vision that is inspiring.

"I know it's a dark day for Cheyney, but it is not a situation without hope."