A Degree of Agitation In UDC Transformation

Allen Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia, backs a tuition hike.
Allen Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia, backs a tuition hike. (Courtesy Of Delaware State University - Courtesy Of Delaware State University)
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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The University of the District of Columbia plans to end its open-door policy for four-year students and raise their tuition sharply at the city's only public college, a rapid transformation that has riled students accustomed to a school open to anyone who wants to enroll.

Under President Allen Sessoms's plan, UDC will be split into two schools, one for four-year students and a community college for the rest. On Wednesday, a committee of the board of trustees will consider Sessoms's recommendation that tuition increase from about $3,800 to $7,000 a year for District residents seeking four-year degrees.

The changes will not come without a fight: Students plan to pitch tents on campus today, sleep there overnight and boycott classes tomorrow to protest the plan. Some campus and city leaders are alarmed at the pace of change and skeptical that the city's long-troubled public university can pull it off -- especially without an infusion of cash.

"I think everyone is upset," senior Joshua Lopez said. "We want to make sure the university sticks to its original purpose, to provide a quality and affordable education for residents of the District of Columbia, and other people who come to UDC, as well."

The changes raise a fundamental debate about the role of education at UDC: Should the school be open to all, regardless of past performance, and nurture student improvement, or should it raise expectations and demand college-level work from those with the ability and determination to succeed?

UDC, with nearly 6,000 students, has long generated controversy in the city, and the arguments are often laden with issues of race and class. To some, the school is a symbol of opportunity, a place where anyone can go for an education and a chance at a better life. To others, it's a symbol of government waste and inefficiency, a run-down campus that drains city funding but produces few graduates.

Sessoms, 61, the Yale-trained president who arrived at the beginning of this school year, is used to controversy. He faced protests at Queens College in New York when he wanted to end open enrollment, and at Delaware State University when opponents said he was trying to erase the school's legacy as a historically black college.

The UDC board, which ushered out the previous president, William Pollard, sought a leader who would make dramatic changes.

"We didn't invite Allen Sessoms to come here to color neatly between the lines," said Shelley Broderick, dean of UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law and a member of the presidential search committee. "That's not what the university needed. What we needed was a transformative leader."

Sessoms's idea was to take the school, which has suffered from financial problems, low morale and a rapid succession of short-term leaders since it was created in the 1970s, and rethink its mission. He wants to create a university system, with a community college open to all students and a more selective four-year flagship university with admissions standards and ambitious new programs, such as a center for urban education and doctoral research. Students could live on campus, and the Firebirds would compete in Division I athletics.

Students who need remedial classes or lack scores high enough for the four-year school would have to go to the community college first, but could transfer into the university to earn a four-year degree.

"We're not ending open enrollment," Sessoms said.

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