By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009
For the University of the District of Columbia, the witching hour approaches: The terms of four trustees expire at midnight Saturday, and there is no one to take their place.
Leaders of the District's sole public university say Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is allowing its governing board to fall into disarray by refusing to fill vacant seats. Two are empty, and four terms expire Nov. 11, which will leave 10 vacancies on the 15-member panel.
The impasse illustrates continuing tensions between the mayor and UDC leaders, who fought off Fenty's efforts last summer to delay selection of a school president after a yearlong search.
Fenty took control of K-12 education in the District after he became mayor in 2007, appointing Michelle A. Rhee as his handpicked chancellor. He has not been able to exert the same control over UDC; his role in the selection of President Allen Sessoms last year was confined to a single representative on the search committee.
Sessoms and board Chairman Emily F. Durso said Fenty and Rhee have declined invitations to meet with Sessoms since he became president in September of last year. "It's a fit of pique that just won't go away, as far as I can tell," Durso said.
Fenty met with Sessoms once, last December, according to mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. Two mayoral deputies have met with the president numerous times since then, Hobson said.
The mayor thinks the D.C. Council, not he, is to blame for any vacancies on the UDC board, Hobson said. Fenty has submitted more than enough names to fill the 10 open seats, and the council has failed to act, she said.
"Since January 2008, the administration has submitted 13 nominees to the D.C. Council for the open mayoral-appointed UDC board seats, none of which have been scheduled for a hearing or approved," Hobson said.
UDC board members, who normally serve five-year terms, were given a one-year extension by the D.C. Council in October of last year. According to a source close to the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of sinking any potential agreement, Fenty had agreed to fill the 10 vacant positions this month and next with a slate of appointees, half chosen by him, half selected by council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). But the deal fell through in recent days.
Fenty "did not send any names down this week and made it clear he was not sending any names," Durso said.
Durso and other trustees said the university is being hurt because of political disagreements that are only partially about the school. They contend that the Fenty administration has shut out the president whose appointment it failed to block. They also cite tensions between the mayor and an increasingly assertive D.C. Council, which last fall rejected five Fenty appointees to the UDC board.
Fenty twice intervened in the presidential search process last year with last-minute appeals to trustees. In a letter delivered by courier at one of the panel's final meetings with Sessoms, Fenty asked the group to "reconsider holding any vote until my Administration and the Board can quickly devise a selection process" to find new candidates, essentially asking the trustees to start from scratch.
The council passed a resolution recently that will permit the UDC board to carry on with reduced membership. The board faces important decisions in coming months on building the university's first student center at its Van Ness campus and leasing facilities for its community college and law school, Durso said.
"We have lots of things under way, and we're not stopping any of them," Durso said. She said current board members have agreed to stay on in an advisory capacity.
Sessoms was chosen to lead UDC in a search that netted 100 candidates, said Donald Langenberg, the trustee who led the search. The process "was perfectly conventional, routine and normal," he said. It was also the first time in UDC history that representatives chosen by the mayor and the council were on the search committee.
In early July of last year, when the field had been winnowed to four, Fenty asked the board to "pause" the search so that the applicant pool could be broadened. The board reluctantly agreed.
"We found it a little bit peculiar that, that late in the process, he had gotten around to submitting some names," Langenberg said.
Two weeks later, Fenty had not supplied any new candidates, and trustees resumed the search process where they had left off.
The mayor intervened again with the letter delivered by courier, questioning whether the search had yielded "a candidate from as strong a pool as possible." Trustees ignored the letter on advice of their attorney, who affirmed that it was the board's job to pick a president, Durso said.
"In no university that I know does a governmental bureaucrat have the authority or the power to appoint the president," said Langenberg, a former chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "It's just unheard of."
Fenty released a statement upon Sessoms' appointment in August of last year, wishing him success. Sessoms, 62, had been president of Delaware State University. He holds a doctorate in physics from Yale University and previously taught at Harvard University and worked at the State Department.
Sessoms has overseen the historic division of UDC this fall into a community college and a separate four-year university, with higher tuition and academic requirements. He and the board are working on the new student center and have opened some satellite facilities for community college instruction throughout the city. A 10-year plan calls for enrollment to grow from 5,500 to 45,000.
Sessoms said he has made several overtures to Fenty and to Rhee, whose public schools supply the largest share of UDC students.
"She's simply refused to meet, shows no interest," he said.
Jennifer Calloway, a spokeswoman for Rhee, said the district had "come up with some great ideas around ways to collaborate on future projects, and we look forward to reaching out to UDC and exploring these possibilities."