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.
He was praised for his swift and cautious response to a shooting in September, in which a freshman from the District, Shalita Middleton, was fatally wounded and another D.C. student was injured. It was the first major outbreak of violence on a U.S. college campus since the shooting at Virginia Tech the previous April, so the response was scrutinized nationally.
At UDC, Sessoms will follow former president William Pollard, who was forced out last year by trustees who were dissatisfied with his leadership and wanted him to speed up the pace of change. Stanley Jackson, a top city official, stepped in to lead the school.
Jackson will stay at UDC as senior vice president for administration and finance.
The presidential search was unusual because the search committee included, for the first time in UDC's history, representatives chosen by the mayor's office and the D.C. Council.
In July, the mayor, who has made improving education a priority, sent a letter to the trustees asking them to pause the process. "It was my hope that the Executive Branch would have had the opportunity to recruit and vet candidates for this important post," he wrote. "It is my fear that, if the vote is taken too soon, we will not have picked a candidate from as strong a pool as possible."
Dyke responded, saying that the board had paused for two weeks to give city officials an opportunity to nominate more people. He said this week, "We have still not gotten any names from the executive branch."
Fenty did not return calls yesterday but issued a statement saying: "We wish Dr. Sessoms the best of luck in his new position. There is nothing more important than providing quality education for all District residents."
Dyke said he asked the mayor's office what its concerns were. He said he was told that city officials wanted to see the creation of a community college for the city and an audit of UDC's academic programs.
Dyke said UDC is finishing the performance review and is moving forward with plans for the community college. "I hope that will mean we will get the support we need from the executive branch," he said.
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.