UDC president was fired without cause, attorney says

The president of the University of the District of Columbia was dismissed without cause and is eligible under his contract to receive a full year’s salary of $295,000, his attorney said Thursday.

Questions lingered about why the UDC Board of Trustees fired President Allen L. Sessoms on Wednesday night, midway through the academic year and little more than four years after he took the helm of the city’s only public university. The board’s leader, Elaine A. Crider, has not elaborated on a brief statement in which she said that the board wanted the struggling institution “to go in a different direction.”

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But it seemed likely that the politics of budget cuts and a community college affiliated with UDC were factors in the shake-up.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) told NewsChannel 8 on Thursday he was concerned about a budget-cutting plan that Sessoms and the board issued in October which was intended to help reduce the university’s dependence on city subsidies.

The mayor criticized a cost-saving proposal in the plan to move UDC’s community college from its headquarters on North Capitol Street back to the main campus on Connecticut Avenue.

“Which is the opposite direction that we should be going,” Gray said. “We need to put the community college programs in the communities that need it most.”

The community college was launched in 2009, a year after Sessoms took over as president, but its governance has been a nagging issue. Technically, it remains an arm of the university. Gray said in the television interview he wants it to move toward independence.

The mayor, who has appointed several of the trustees on the 15-member UDC board, said he was not directly involved in the decision to fire Sessoms. But he added, “There are a lot of questions about the direction the university was heading.”

Sessoms, 65, did not respond to requests for comment made through a university spokesman and through his attorney, Elliott Adler.

Adler said that Sessoms has indicated he will not contest the board’s decision. Under the contract he signed in 2008, Sessoms is entitled to a year’s salary in monthly payments plus health benefits if he is terminated without cause. A Yale-educated physicist, Sessoms also was granted a tenured faculty position through his contract that he can keep after leaving the UDC presidency.

There was no word Thursday on who will lead UDC temporarily as the board searches for a successor. A UDC spokesman, Alan Etter, said the school is operating under “collective” management.

At the Northwest Washington campus, where students this week finished final exams for the fall semester, faculty members who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the transition said they were happy that Sessoms was gone because they disapproved of what they called his unilateral management style.

But some on campus were bewildered.

“For me, personally, it’s a bittersweet experience,” said Connie Webster, a nursing professor who chairs the Faculty Senate. Webster said Sessoms had failed to make allies among the faculty.

But Webster said Sessoms had taken some positive steps, citing his drive to raise standards for four-year bachelor’s degree programs and various projects to rebuild the campus. Webster said she was puzzled over why Sessoms was fired and what the board meant in its statement about seeking another direction.

“It’s not really clear. What direction?” she said. “If indeed it wants a different direction, why was [Sessoms’s] not the right one?”

Maurice Toyer, 24, a student scheduled to graduate next spring with a degree in economics, said the university needs stable leadership. “Every time a president is terminated, there are too many questions,” he said. “Hopefully next year they’ll find a new president who can lead us in a positive direction.”

 
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