ALLEN L. SESSOMS took over leadership of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) four years ago with grand ideas to transform the school into a prized flagship institution, on a par with the best of this nation’s public universities. Mr. Sessoms’s vision — as with those of many of his predecessors — was out of step with the realities of the troubled school or, for that matter, the needs of D.C. residents. The abrupt decision to fire Mr. Sessoms last week is a sign that the university’s trustees may finally be serious about right-sizing the university and giving it a viable mission.
Members of the Board of Trustees voted Dec. 19 to terminate Mr. Sessoms’s contract in advance of its Aug. 31 expiration. A temporary replacement, psychology professor Rachel Petty, was named, and an interim president, who will serve for six to 18 months while a national search is undertaken, will be appointed by mid-January. The only explanation offered for Mr. Sessoms’s termination came in a statement read by Elaine A. Crider, chairwoman of the trustees. It cited the challenges facing the school, including the need to reduce staff and programs, and said, “The board has decided to go in a different direction.”
Mr. Sessoms made some worthy contributions, including, notably, the move to raise standards. But it had become increasingly clear that the overly ambitious path he envisioned for the school — complete with new dorms and refurbished athletic programs — was at odds with the board’s view, not to mention that of city officials who foot much of the school’s bill. The demand was for a top-to-bottom evaluation of academics that would winnow out ineffective programs in favor of those that could prepare students for careers. Nowhere was the division more evident than in the tension that surrounded the school’s community college: Mr. Sessoms created the college within the existing university, but disagreements over support and resources resulted in the departure of its highly regarded chief executive officer, Jonathan Guevarra.
An advisory board appointed by the D.C. Council to study how to strengthen the community college produced a stinging indictment of UDC’s academic failings and perilous fiscal situation. The board of trustees, while independent, knew it had to get its house in order if it expected the university would continue to receive financial support from D.C. taxpayers. In October the board formulated — without, sources told us, Mr. Sessoms’s full agreement — initial plans to shrink faculty and programs.
No one should be under the illusion that a simple change in administration will resolve historic and deeply rooted problems, but it appears to have been the necessary first step in what are bound to be many difficult decisions to redesign UDC into a school that is able to produce results for its students.