'Change Agent' To Lead UDC

Allen Sessoms, 61, who taught at Harvard and served in the State Department, starts at UDC Sept. 1.
Allen Sessoms, 61, who taught at Harvard and served in the State Department, starts at UDC Sept. 1. (Courtesy Of Delaware State University - Courtesy Of Delaware State University)
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By Susan Kinzie and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Ivy League-educated physicist who has run a historically black state university for the past five years will be the next president of the University of the District of Columbia, a choice that school officials said signals dramatic change at the public institution.

UDC's trustees announced yesterday that Allen Sessoms will become president Sept. 1. Sessoms, president of Delaware State University, will arrive as the long-troubled school is struggling to redefine itself.

UDC is moving forward with plans to create a community college within its program, but some city leaders have said that it isn't strong enough to take on such a major initiative. James Dyke, trustees chairman, said Sessoms will show that UDC can be both a strong community college and university.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) played an unusually active role in the presidential search, calling for a "pause" last month so the applicant pool could be broadened.

D.C. leaders have long debated whether UDC should play the role of a community college, providing job training and skilled workers to help ease the city's high unemployment rate, or that of a university, offering opportunities to city residents who otherwise might not be able to afford higher education.

Over the years, funding crises, frequent leadership changes and other problems have left their mark on the 5,300-student campus in Northwest Washington, with its crumbling concrete buildings. School officials said they hope for a fresh start with Sessoms.

"He's a proven change agent," Dyke said, "willing to make changes, knowing sometimes you're going to catch some flak for that, but that that's the only way to move forward."

Sessoms was out of town and unavailable for comment yesterday, Delaware State spokesman Carlos Holmes said. Sessoms did not return messages.

Dyke outlined an ambitious agenda for Sessoms that includes building job-training programs, strengthening the academics of the four-year program, restructuring the university foundation to do more aggressive fundraising and marketing, and getting more autonomy from the city.

Sessoms, 61, received a doctorate in physics from Yale University, taught at Harvard and served in the State Department before becoming president of Delaware State in 2003.

During his tenure, he established the school's first doctoral programs, increased enrollment, established a university foundation and doubled the endowment in two years, according to his résumé.

His presidency was controversial at times. Some at the historically black campus bristled at his emphasis on raising money and admissions standards and said he was losing sight of the school's role in the black community.

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