UDC President Sessoms has D.C. Mayor-elect Gray's support in recharging campus
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 10:01 PM
In the past two years as president of the University of the District of Columbia, Allen Sessoms led a campaign of reform to rival the efforts of his counterpart in the D.C. Public Schools, Michelle Rhee, supporters say.
The ouster of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty at the polls in September spelled the end for Rhee, his handpicked schools chancellor. For Sessoms and UDC, it is more like a new beginning. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray will enter the executive office as UDC's champion in chief. He pays regular visits to the university, holds frequent strategy sessions with Sessoms and made the institution's success a central theme of his campaign.
"He has just stepped up to the plate, and without being asked, for the most part," Sessoms said in an interview at his office. Of the election, he said: "We are both pleased with its outcome."
With only sporadic help from city government, Sessoms has quietly wrought the most sweeping changes in UDC's 33-year history. He successfully split the foundering school into two pieces, a community college with open admissions and a four-year university with higher tuition and entry standards.
Enrollment and tuition revenue are up. In June, UDC was named Emerging Business of the Year by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, ironic for an institution that traces its history to 1851.
In an interview this week, the District's deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, likened the president's accomplishments to those of Rhee, who attained national stature for closing schools and moving against low-performing principals and teachers.
"I think Dr. Sessoms has been refreshing leadership for the university and exhibited similar drive and focus in advancing the university's interests," Reinoso said. "When someone delivers, you give him props."
UDC leaders say the mayor has neglected UDC and its president, who, unlike Rhee, was not Fenty's hire. Sessoms was appointed by UDC trustees after a year-long search that Fenty delayed, bidding for a stronger role in the process.
Some at UDC contend that Fenty subsequently punished the university by ignoring it. Sessoms and Fenty met once, six months into the president's tenure.
"This university, as far as I can tell, has never been on the mayor's radar," said Sessoms, 63, a physicist and former diplomat who came to UDC from Delaware State University.
Reinoso dismisses the theory that the search process poisoned relations between the two men.
"I think people believe we had some candidate for the university, or that we didn't want Dr. Sessoms to be the candidate," he said. "We didn't have a guy for president. . . . We let it be."