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New UDC Chief Seeks Overhaul

Community College, Repairs Among Priorities

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008; Page B01

The man tapped to be the next president of the University of the District of Columbia yesterday outlined an unprecedented overhaul of the long-troubled institution, calling for turning part of the existing school into a community college, creating an honors four-year program and adding graduate programs that could include a medical school.

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Allen Sessoms, 61, now president of Delaware State University, said he plans to implement a "total reconstruction" of UDC, which has struggled with chronic financial problems, crumbling facilities, enrollment woes and low morale since it was founded in the mid-1970s as the city's only public institution of higher education.

"They convinced me to take it," he said in an interview. "It is different than wanting it."

Persuaded to accept the position by a search committee led by former University System of Maryland chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, Sessoms said he will hit the ground running to raise money from the profit and nonprofit worlds to help rebuild and expand the school. He said he doesn't know how much it will cost but doesn't expect the city government to fund it all.

His goals include finding a new home for UDC's accredited law school, "which is in a space that is awful," and establishing major academic programs that meet the needs of industries such as hospitality and tourism, defense and health. In the long term, he said, UDC should also have a medical school.

Sessoms said he expects the city to give him the independence to pursue his goals that no other UDC president has enjoyed. The city controls the school's capital budget.

"I wouldn't be going there if they [city officials] hadn't agreed," he said, but added, "Doing it is another thing."

Neither Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) nor Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) returned phone calls seeking comment. Sessoms said he has not spoken with Fenty but has had several positive conversations with Gray.

About a month ago, Fenty called for a pause in the school's presidential search, asking that the pool of candidates be widened. The search committee went ahead with Sessoms's appointment. Fenty said little publicly when the decision was announced late Wednesday, wishing Sessoms congratulations in a two-line statement.

The high-energy Sessoms, a physicist, former U.S. diplomat and father of four, comes to UDC amid a new debate about what role the school should play in a city where the public school system is widely seen as inadequate, unemployment is higher than the national average and the poverty rate is the highest it has been in a decade.

UDC was created to serve as a vital avenue of social and economic advancement for needy District residents. But it has suffered from instability, with 15 presidents and interim presidents and more than 26 provosts. The most recent president, William Pollard, was forced to resign last year because the governing Board of Trustees felt he was not making changes quickly enough.

A majority of the school's freshmen need math and reading remediation, and the student population has dwindled from a peak of 15,000 in the 1970s to about 5,700 this past fall. The median age of faculty members is 63, with only 4 percent younger than 30. The median length of service is 32 years.

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