By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 8:00 PM
Student leaders at the University of the District of Columbia called for the resignation of President Allen Sessoms on Monday in a noon protest, alleging that the administrator has spent lavishly on himself while raising tuition and cutting programs at Washington's public university.
The rally comes a week after the release of expense records that show that Sessoms billed the university for a number of thousand-dollar, first-class airplane tickets over the past two years. But the students said their complaints went beyond the president's spending habits to his decisions about tuition and academic programs and his alleged unwillingness to listen to students and faculty.
Sessoms, president of UDC since 2008, has brought sweeping changes to the university. He split the school in two, forming a community college with open admissions and a four-year university with higher tuition and admission standards. Enrollment and revenue are up.
He also disbanded the academic senate - an action that alienated many faculty - saying the group wielded too much power. And his new tuition schedule effectively doubled the cost for a four-year student, sparking widespread student protest.
Monday's protest drew about 30 students, including the president of the student senate. They gathered along Connecticut Avenue NW, chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, Allen Sessoms got to go." The group entered the administration building and mounted the stairs to the president's office. Sessoms met with three student leaders at 1:30 p.m.; they emerged unsatisfied.
The allegations of overspending center on Sessoms's habit of traveling on refundable first-class tickets. In a news conference Monday afternoon, Sessoms said that's the only way he will travel. He has circulatory problems in his legs that, he said, require him to stretch out on long voyages.
"Yeah, I'm going to fly first-class," he said. "I'm not going to die for any job."
Sessoms said all the trips were for university business. The expense records released by UDC are incomplete. Sessoms blamed poor record-keeping for the disparity.
"Things get lost around here," he said. "I don't have to tell you that."
Sessoms said he has requested an audit of his trips. He said the president's office always spends less than its full allotment of travel funds.
The level of support for Sessoms on campus is hard to measure. The leader of the interim academic senate supports him; the faculty association president is comparatively critical. Michael Watson, student senate president, led Monday's protest, but he said a number of other student leaders remain loyal to the president.
A petition calling for his resignation had drawn 37 signatures by Monday afternoon.
"Why isn't UDC ready to admit that maybe they picked someone wrong for this job?" said Joanna Preston, 22, a senior who was crowned Miss UDC 2010.
Many faculty are upset over a proposal that Sessoms released last week to reduce or consolidate almost 20 academic programs. Faculty association President Mohamed El-Khawas said the president didn't consult faculty or trustees. Sessoms said the cuts are proposals and both groups will get their say.
"The president doesn't have to listen to us," El-Khawas said.
Sessoms resigned from both his previous college presidencies, at Delaware State University and Queens College. At both institutions, according to local news accounts, he was praised as an intelligent reformer but questioned on his spending. He also was accused of seeking to elevate the academic pedigree of both institutions at the expense, some said, of low-income and minority students, an allegation that is now fueling antipathy at UDC.