UDC President Sessoms has D.C. Mayor-elect Gray's support in recharging campus

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Sessoms came in as a celebrated agent of change for the District's sole public university, an institution that had chewed through interim and permanent presidents at a rate of about two a year. He earned a doctorate from Yale, taught at Harvard and served in the State Department before taking the presidency of Delaware State, a historically black institution whose currency he raised.

Some in the university community contend that Fenty periodically thwarted the UDC president.

They say Fenty tried to sabotage the university's governing board by refusing to fill vacant seats. Seven seats are now empty. Fenty aides say the mayor submitted more than enough names to fill the vacancies. University leaders say his nominees were cronies.

Last summer, UDC sought the mayor's help in securing a $10 million appropriation from Congress to finance growth of the new community college. Congressional leaders asked for a joint letter from Gray and Fenty to justify the investment. Fenty "refused to support it," Sessoms said.

UDC's $62 million annual appropriation from the city has not risen since 1996. But Reinoso notes that funding has "remained level" through the downturn "and that in and of itself suggests that the university got better treatment than most agencies in the government."

Sessoms is all the more impressive, his supporters say, for what he has accomplished without the mayor's help.

In fall 2009, the university executed a long-awaited split. UDC had languished for decades under an unusual structure that housed two- and four-year programs and students under one roof - a university operating like a community college, with no entry standards, minimal tuition and single-digit graduation rates.

Sessoms preserved the heritage of open access in the new Community College of the District of Columbia, with no entry requirements and flat $3,000 tuition. Four-year and graduate study is now housed in a separate "flagship" institution, with entry standards and higher tuition. The community college is effectively a branch of UDC.

The president's plan sparked protests last year, with students and some elected officials decrying the tuition increases and accusing Sessoms of trying to destroy a tradition of service to low-income African Americans.

Since then, most of the opposition has melted away. The university drew one-third more applicants in 2009 than in 2008. First-time enrollment grew by 17 percent. The university admitted only half of those who applied to the flagship institution, giving UDC cachet it had lacked for 30 years.

"It gave our students and our alumni some instant credibility," said Joseph L. Askew Jr., UDC board chairman.

Sessoms is nearing his goal of offering community college classes in every ward. A new headquarters building opened this fall near Union Station.

A $40 million student center will open in Van Ness in 2012. The dull gray concrete campus is being renovated with murals and canary-yellow paint. This fall, the university opened its first student residence hall.

"For the first time since I've been around this, there's a real vision for the university's future," Gray said in an interview. "I think now there's an expectation that UDC will succeed on its initiatives. That's a sea change."

There are still hints of the old dysfunctional UDC. New federal lending rules caught the university flat-footed this fall, and students waited weeks for federal aid checks. Sessoms has made little progress in dislodging underperforming faculty. He has installed whites into some high-level jobs, stoking fears among faculty that he is neglecting the school's historic role in the black community.

"He's moving very fast," said Meredith Rode, a UDC art professor since 1968. "And it's putting a lot of pressure on people."

Gray has stepped in to help Sessoms at pivotal moments. The Gray-led D.C. Council funded the student center. The council awarded the UDC board emergency powers to conduct business with reduced membership. The panel awarded UDC independent budgeting authority last year, freeing it from city procurement procedures.

Both Gray and Sessoms predict a more harmonious relationship between the university and the legislative and executive branches of city government, all of them aligned for the first time since Sessoms's arrival.

Gray has pledged to fill the UDC board within 100 days of taking office. He and Sessoms say they intend to work together to increase the institution's autonomy, and to give the community college greater freedom from UDC, as recommended in an independent report last fall.

"To me," Sessoms said, "it's a very, very positive political environment into which we're going to be embedded."

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