Duke Law Graduation 2018 | Michael J.  Sorrell ’94 MPP ’90

Duke Law Graduation 2018 | Michael J. Sorrell ’94 MPP ’90

November 7, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Our distinguished speaker
today is Michael Sorrell from the Duke law class of 1994. Michael is the 34th
president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas. Under his leadership,
the school has become one of the most
innovative small colleges in America and is
rapidly becoming a model for what
higher education can be by focusing on academic
rigor, experiential learning, and entrepreneurship. Michael received a JD
and MA in public policy from Duke and an
education degree from the University
of Pennsylvania. At Duke law, he was one of the
founding members of the Duke Journal of Gender Law
and Policy and served as the vice president of
the Duke Bar Association. He was recently named one of
the world’s 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine. Michael, it’s an
honor and a pleasure to have you back at Duke. [APPLAUSE] So it’s a little odd not
being the speaker named David. Good afternoon, Duke
law class of 2018. It is an incredible honor
to be here with you tonight. It would not be an exaggeration
for me to say that so much of who I am as a professional
and the success that I’ve had has its roots here at Duke law. So it is a special moment for
me to be here with all of you. And as a basketball fan and
a former college basketball player, this ain’t bad either. Now before I get
into my speech, I want to let you
know that I fully understand how this whole
graduation speaker thing works. I know graduation speakers
are a necessary evil. Everyone knows you
have to have one, but no one knows exactly
why you have to have one. So I’m not going
to mess this up. The reality of it is,
what you really want to do is you want to get
your degree, you want to take lots of
pictures, and then you want to go out for
one last night of partying with your classmates. I respect that. And I intend to
adhere to the three Bs of commencement speeches– be brief, be good,
and then be gone. See? We’ve already bonded. Now last year, I understand
that your speaker was the attorney general of the
United States, Loretta Lynch. This year, you have
me, someone who is far more famous
for not practicing law than for actually
practicing law. Somewhere in there is a
statement about the way things are going in the
practice of law today. Given how this thing
is going, next year, your speaker won’t
even have a law degree. Now we all have the
same person to thank for this statement on the
state of the legal profession, and that is Dean Levi. Dean Levi, I want to thank
you for the invitation to speak here. It is no small measure to
stand at your alma mater and give an address. I love Duke Law. I started giving money to
Duke law when I hadn’t even paid off my student loans yet. In fact, it was maybe
the greatest con job I’ve ever had
done to me in my life because one of the development
officers came and said, listen, we’d like for you to
start giving back to Duke. I said, wait a minute. I haven’t even started paying
my student loans back yet. And she said, yes,
but our studies have shown that the people who
become the wealthiest alums are the ones who start giving
even when they’re paying off their student loans. I was like, sign me up. Sign me up. I haven’t seen her since
then, and I am looking for the rest of my money. I also would like to recognize
my beautiful wife, Natalie, and my two children,
Michael Augustus and Sage Louise-Sinclair. They are wonderful. They are my inspirations. And any time that we can
take a family road trip, I am all OK with that. So thank you all for being
here with me, as well. Now one of the things
you realize when you come back is many of your
professors who taught you are still on the faculty. The funniest thing is watching
them look at you kind of like, how the hell did you get here? Now I can’t recognize
all of them, but I do want to recognize
a couple of folks. First, I want to
recognize Professor Jim Coleman, who many, many–
let’s give him a hand. So many, many years ago,
he and I were housemates. We shared Professor Culp’s
home for a semester. He was doing a break from the
practice of law at big firm. I was a graduate in student
public policy doing anything that I could to get
myself into Duke law. So I agreed to house-sit
for Professor Coleman– I mean, Professor Culp. And also, while I
mention Professor Culp, I do want to acknowledge him. Professor Culp was the
first black tenured law professor at Duke law. He was an incredible scholar. But he was more than a
scholar, he was a friend, he was a mentor, he was a
kind soul to those of us who needed that. He gave me some of the very
best advice that I’ve received. And I miss him dearly. And I just think that
any occasion when we can recognize those
great individuals who have walked among us and
are no longer with us that we should do so. So please join me in
giving a round of applause to the late Professor
Jerome Culp. I would also like to
say hello and recognize one of my former professors,
Professor Walter Dellinger. Professor Dellinger was my
constitutional law professor. And I will never forget
the first day of class because he was the
person who taught us that the demise of Jim Crow came
at the hands of the commerce clause. Now we never did get around
to Marbury v. Madison. I can’t tell you what that
was supposed to be about, but I can tell you that for the
first time in my year at Duke law, the law came
alive and spoke to me in a way that has changed me. And I thank him for
everything that he has meant and what his career
has accomplished. Now professors
Culp and Dellinger both had enormous effects on
me, as did the two men who inspired me to pursue
a law degree, that would be Thurgood Marshall
and Charles Hamilton Houston. These scholars helped me
see that justice often resides in the space
between life and the law. You see, as lawyers,
we are taught to believe in the rule of law. We are told that laws
are essential elements to a productive, profitable,
and orderly society. We are schooled to
believe that embracing these man-made edicts, we
are doing the right thing. Well, what happens when
the right thing turns out to be wrong? What if our laws are flawed? What if what we
are doing doesn’t result in justice for all,
but rather results in justice for just us, those of us
who can afford justice? So this evening my
Duke law family, for the short time
that we are together, I want to challenge you
to imagine a world where the place you are
born does not dictate your relationship with justice. Tonight as you prepare
to enter a life away from the safe, friendly
confines of Duke law, I would like to talk
to you about a concept that I want you to embrace,
and that is justice for all. Ladies and gentlemen of
the Duke law class of 2018, you are entering the workforce
at a time when society, frankly, does not need
more lawyers who are in love with billable hours. No, these type of lawyers
are well represented. What our society needs, what
our country needs more of, are lawyers who are
in love with justice. If we had more lawyers who
were in love with justice, the stark disparities in
our society would not exist. If we had more lawyers who
were in love with justice, we would not have 45 million
Americans living in poverty. If we had more lawyers who
were in love with justice, for the first time in
our country’s history, the majority of our
children who are in public K through 12 education
would not be living free-and-reduced
lunch lives, which means that only
five days a week are they guaranteed to have a meal. Duke law, if we had more lawyers
that were in love with justice, we would not be a society where
billionaires made so much money last year that they could have
ended poverty seven times over and yet poverty still exists. If we had more lawyers that
were in love with justice, we would have trouble finding
lawyers who drafted legislation to gerrymander voting districts,
restrict access to bathrooms, and instill hatred,
intolerance, and fear. Those things would be far
more difficult to accomplish if we had more lawyers who
were in love with justice. [APPLAUSE] My brothers and sisters,
society does not need more lawyers who have
been trained in the law but behave as if they’ve never
been introduced to justice. Instead, what this country
needs, what this world needs, are more men and
women who understand that the law has always
been an instrument that has the capacity to
repair the breaches that exist in our society. Now you may be asking
yourself, how are we supposed to do all of that? We’re still trying to
figure out how we’re going to pay back our student loans. That’s fair. That’s fair. But just like the
person who told me that I was going to be
rich, I’m telling you, we need you to
figure this out now. So I’m going to tell you
how you can accomplish this. You demonstrate your
love for justice by engaging in the
issues of the day. For some of you, those issues
will be domestic violence. For others, it will be
homelessness or prison reform. For others still,
your quest for justice will lead you outside
the practice of law. That is what happened to me. You see, I did not expect to
find my voice and my passion leading a small,
failing, historically black college in Dallas. I didn’t plan for
my love of justice to manifest itself through a
fight to eradicate poverty. In full disclosure, when
I was sitting in your seat 24 years ago– and by the way, shout
out to the class of 1994. Next year is our
25th year reunion. It goes by quickly,
just like your hair, because I had hair when I
sat in your seat, too, OK? While I did expect my life
to have a public service component, I fully planned for
that public service component to be as a big city mayor and
then a United States senator, not as a small
college president. However, it was my
courtship with justice that led me to
Paul Quinn College. And it was there
for the first time in my life I was exposed to
poverty on a daily basis. And that daily exposure to
poverty changed my life. Witnessing the
choices that people make when they are forced
to live lives of scarcity changed me. Leading an institution where
85% of our students are on Pell grants, 70% of our students
get zero expected family contributions, and many of them
cannot afford to do the simple things in life simply, such as
purchase books, buy eyeglasses, or find the medicine
that you need, witnessing all of
that changed me. The love of justice and
the hatred of poverty is why you terminate
your football field and transform your football
field into an organic farm so that you can
fight food deserts. That’s what we’re doing
at Paul Quinn College. [APPLAUSE] The love of justice and
the hatred of poverty is why you reduce tuition
and fees from $25,000 a year to $14,000 a year and make
it possible for your students to graduate with less
than $10,000 of debt if they so choose. That’s what we’re doing
Paul Quinn College. The love of justice and
the hatred of poverty is why you provide jobs
for all of your students who are residential students
and bring their lives into the classroom as a
source of their education in a pedagogical model called
reality-based education because that’s what we’re
doing at Paul Quinn College. Class of 2018, your
path to loving justice won’t be the same as mine. It shouldn’t be. Your path should be personal. Therefore, while I cannot tell
you what your path will be, as I prepare to take my seat,
I do want to leave you with a gift that may help
you find your way. Let’s call it my seven
hopes for your future. My soon-to-be fellow
alums, I hope that you will live a life of leadership. I hope that when
you lead, you will lead from wherever you are. I hope that I can
turn the page– I hope that when you lead,
you will do so with humility because the last
thing we need are leaders who think it’s about
them when it’s really about all of us. I hope that when
you lead, you will be with courage and strength
because you will sometimes find yourself on the
outside looking in. And you have to know
when you are right and the tyranny of
the majority is wrong. And if you ever doubt
that, just remember that there was a
time where slavery was the law of the land. And that no longer is because
people stood up and fought against that which was wrong. I hope– [APPLAUSE] I hope that when you
lead, you will do so with a vision and a plan
because leaders without visions and plans are fools. And none of us need
more foolish leaders. I hope that when you lead,
you will leave places better than you found
them because that is the mark of a great leader. And finally, my
fellow Duke law alums, I hope that when you lead,
you will lead with love, you will lead with compassion,
you will lead with caring, you will lead in a way that
allows people to touch hem and you lift them
up so that they can stand on your shoulders. Because as leaders,
that’s what you do. We stand on the
shoulders of giants. So we don’t get the
choice to be small. You stand up. You count. You take a stand for
the things that matter. And when you do so and if you
do so– and you better do so– then understand this–
you are here because you must fall in love with justice. Don’t fall in love
with billable hours. Don’t fall in love with
just to name yourself when you’re a partner at a law
firm a people call you sir. Fall in love with the
issues of the day. We need you. We need you to be great. We need you to be the
truest version of yourself. We need you to be
something other than people who talk and don’t do. We need leaders who do. We need leaders who stand up. So Duke law class of
2018, I challenge you– stand up. Get up. Don’t be small. Be tall. And when you do, remember
we are coming behind you because we support you. We love you. But more than anything
else, we need you. Thank you and best wishes
for the rest of your lives. [APPLAUSE]