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Building Community in the Classroom: A Conversation with Dr. Michael J. Sorrell

Dr. Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, recently sat down with Bridget Burns, CEO of the University Innovation Alliance, to talk about how he has successfully built community on his campus and in the classroom—as well as the eye-opening stumbles he made along the way.

Bridget: What kinds of challenging conversations can be models for transforming our traditional institutions?

Michael: We have all of these meetings about students—and yet the students are never in our meetings. I think we need to engage students more in the conversations about what they want and what they need, and we need to do that regularly. 

I will tell you a quick story: We spent all this time and money fixing the main driveway on our campus. It’s called the Avenue of the Roses—it’s beautiful. You come down the hill and you’re surrounded by roses. It is gorgeous. 

We did a campus tour with students, and one of them said, “Pres, we love the Avenue of the Roses, but you know none of us walk that way to get to class.” 

They told me they take the back route from the dorm to the administration building. I was like, “Back route, what is the back route?” It was the route that went behind the student union building. It was a dump. It was embarrassing. We didn’t fix it because we didn’t think anybody traveled that way. 

Once the students told us that, we created a beautiful walkway on the back route with lights and benches and gazebos. 

The point is, we asked the students; that’s where it starts: Ask your students.

Bridget: Can you talk a little about how to listen with intention? How can we be good listeners while also setting ourselves up to make decisions, and not succumbing to analysis paralysis?

Michael: First of all, I would tell people, “Do not beat yourself up.” Everyone is really busy. It’s hard to be omnipresent, to be in the cafeteria having a formal conversation with the students, going to student functions, and then going to your department meetings—it is a lot, and then trying to have a life. 

Set up a mechanism by which you can have regular contact with your students. It could be going to the cafeteria once a week. Just sit and eat lunch. Ask questions, see how the’re doing.

People will tell you what they think you want to hear to a certain extent, so you have to get out and see things with your own eyes. I think that is important. 

In terms of the paralysis point, it goes back to what I talked about failure. There is no permanent answer. We no longer live in a world where there are permanent answers.

I’ve been a college professor for 15 years. The job today is so different than it was 15 years ago. It is different than it was five years ago. Acknowledge that. Make the best decision you can make with the tools you have at your disposal right now, and move on—but in moving on, set up a mechanism by which you can evaluate the success of the decision you made. Make the decision and move on. Do not get consumed, do not let great be the enemy of good.

Bridget: You talked about failure, and I want to go there with you because I feel like you gave us good examples of how failure shifted you and changed you. What I’m hearing from people is that leaders need to lower the cost and risk around failure. They need to make it feel less scary. What kind of things do you do to lower the risk and the fear around failure? 

Michael: At Paul Quinn I do not care if you messed up while trying to speak to a need. That is not a failure. That is not a failure at all. That is part of success.

You cannot cut off someone’s path forward just because they stumbled. Look at why they stumbled. How did they stumble? That is a big deal.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on college presidents. Because there is pressure on us, many of us passed that pressure down to our staff. I don’t think people always do that intentionally, so I want to be very clear about that. Sometimes you do not recognize you are doing it. Our job is not to just point the finger—our job as college presidents is to provide cover for our people to go out and do great things.

Bridget: Which failure has changed you the most as a leader?

Michael: In my early presidency, like literally in the first few months, everything was a mess. I was so stressed out, I was working 18-hour days. Nothing was going well. I was going across campus and I got into an argument with a student.

We get to my office, and he breaks down in tears. I am sort of like, what in the hell? How are you going to cuss me out all the way up the stairs, and then you break down in tears? I did not manage it well at all. I showed no sensitivity, I was too far gone, too angry at him.

One of my former staff members comforts him and gets the young man out of the office. She comes back in, she sits down—and she is a quintessential Southern mother. 

She looks at me, she shakes her head, and she says, “Baby, if you only know tough, how would you recognize love?” She said, “I know you love us. But you’re tough on us. You understand tough love because you came from a background of tough love. If you want us to trust you, and you want us to follow you, you’re going to have to learn to be loved.”

That was the single best leadership advice I have ever been given.

It saved my presidency, even though I was only a month in, but it transformed me as a man because it told me that you have to be willing to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to actually tell people how you feel about them. You can’t lead people you do not love and I failed that young man in that moment. I worked really hard to never fail anyone like that again. 

The good news is that we have a wonderful relationship to this day. That momentary failure allowed me to access a leadership model that I think has made all of the difference in the world.

Bridget: What about building community in online courses? What you’ve been describing gives a sense that people build connections and relationships through shared experiences, which is hard to do online. 

Michael: It is harder, no doubt. But I don’t think it is impossible to do online. I think that the first thing you have to do is require everyone to turn their cameras on. In many respects, you have to make it safe to turn the camera on. 

Turning the camera off allows you to do two or three other things while you should be paying attention, let’s be honest about this. I love turning my camera off. Absolutely. I’m sure most people do. 

What you have to do is make it safe for people to just show up. Say there’s no judgment. Put the camera on. That’s one of the ways we show up. That’s how we engage in this class. You build up from there, but I am telling you, I don’t know how you build a community when everyone’s camera is off. Those folks are not in your class. 

Bridget: The last thing I want to talk about is how faculty can take care of themselves. What advice you have with self-care and nourishing oneself so you can actually show up for your students?

Michael: Listen. Burnout is real. It is absolutely real. What is difficult, I think, is recognizing that you are burnt out. You use the term burnout, and you talk about it as if you recognize when we are burnt out and we do not.

I am just coming out of what I recognize as a burnout. I looked up and I said I was tired. I’m tired of having the same conversations. I’m tired of doing this. I was trying to figure out, why am I so cranky? I was burnt out. In the pandemic, you carry weight. Every decision you make feels like it takes on a life or death characteristic.

Here’s what I will say to people: First of all, if you used to take an hour to yourself a day, take an hour and 15 minutes a day. Take a little bit more time and ground yourself. Find time in the day where you just exhale, where you recognize to be patient with yourself. Be kind with yourself. Know that you are doing a wonderful job. Be willing to talk about that. 

Listen, I know you have a syllabus. You want to stick to it. Someday, go to class and just tell the class, “I want to do something different. I want to talk about how we are doing. I would like to start with that. I want to tell you how I’m doing.” 

Give your students the space to be there with you and see you as a human being. Share that space and vulnerability. I think you would be awfully surprised at what happens after that.

Watch Dr. Sorrell’s full Education Summit ’22 keynote and Q&A with Bridget on demand here.

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