As the president of a Minority Serving Institution (“MSI”), I spend a lot of time trapped in conversations of the “America no longer needs your kind of colleges” nature. Additionally, it seems as if every article I read is inundating me with research findings that purport to confirm the inferiority of MSIs or studies that lament the damaging impact of gifted students attending our schools (code name: “under-matching”). At a time when higher education is searching for more ways to educate minority and under-resourced students, MSIs find themselves in the ironic position of being attacked while the methods they have successfully used to nurture and educate students for over 100 years are being copied by majority-run institutions.
My role, and the role of so many others who toil in the MSI vineyard, is that of the contrarian. We cite data, respond to misinformation, and beat back the aggressive advances of our adversaries using achievements that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. We do all of this with the firm conviction that we are right in our belief that MSIs are more vital to the American Dream of social mobility than a country full of premium universities that primarily educate the already educated. But, as we ready for yet another battle against overwhelming odds, the relentless tide of animosity and negativity forces us to at least ask ourselves the question: what if we are wrong?
For me, the answer to this question can be found in the faces and life experiences of the three Paul Quinn College seniors currently competing for class valedictorian honors. While their academic accomplishments are impressive, it is their individual stories that make them, like so many other students at MSIs, special.
I found Valette Reese at her home church of Anderson Chapel, A.M.E. in Killeen, Texas. She had graduated in the top 15% of her high school class but somehow spent her first year post-high school at a vocational training school studying to become an auto-mechanic. I told her that if she would rather own garages than work in them, we could help her with that. Four years later, she is a Presidential Scholar, will graduate Summa Cum Laude, is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., has been student body president, and after three separate internships with GE, she will join that company after commencement with a full-time job.
Artemio “Eddie” Vazquez. Eddie is an undocumented citizen of this country. He graduated from both high school and community college near the top of his class. He is bright, charming, and entrepreneurial. In a different time and place where dreams become laws, students like Eddie would not be forced to work two and three part-time jobs (while achieving near perfect grade point averages) to help offset their lack of access to federal financial aid. As a result of his citizenship issues, Eddie’s post-commencement plans are up in the air.
Quentin Smith-Burley aka “Tony Staxx”. Paul Quinn is Quentin’s third college. The first two primarily saw him as his alter ego, successful recording artist “Tony Staxx.” If these schools had scratched beneath the surface, perhaps they would have found the businessman Quentin Smith-Burley, he of nimble mind and striking intellect. If they had looked, those institutions would have found a young man who responds to mentoring better than almost anyone I have ever met. Quentin will complete his studies this spring and head off to a graduate school in the state of Texas.
If my allies and I are wrong about the need for MSIs, then the Valettes of the world will become mechanics in their hometowns; young men like Eddie will be the most popular mixologists at local bars; and America will have a never-ending array of Tony Staxxes staring at them from their YouTube channels.
I suspect that somewhere buried deep inside their institutional souls, our adversaries know that MSIs are neither inferior nor outdated. After all, if MSIs were so inadequate, why are there so many MSI success stories? Maybe it is time for the foes of MSIs to ask themselves: what if they are wrong?
Michael J. Sorrell is president of Paul Quinn College and a member of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions’ Advisory Board.