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The University of the District of Columbia’s problems are so deep and longstanding that some people thought it would take a rocket scientist to figure them out. So a year ago, its board of trustees appointed as president Dr. Allen Sessoms, the former Delaware State University president and Yale University-trained physicist who spent years sniffi ng out secret nukes as a weapons inspector for the U.S. Department of State.

Now Sessoms is widely seen by his supporters and detractors as a man intent on blasting UDC far out of its orbit. When classes resume this month UDC will be part of a “university system” consisting of a new community college and the university operating as the system’s selective “flagship.” Sessoms’ plans to end open admissions at the historically Black institution, raise tuition almost 100 percent and eliminate the undergraduate education major have generated a storm of controversy.

As a result, students, faculty, trustees and city offi cials are trying to understand his agenda for UDC’s future, some by looking at his previous presidencies, which include heading Queens College in New York.

“Thank God for Google,” says Dale Lyons, a student and one of three members of the UDC board who voted to oppose Sessoms’ plans. “It has let us learn that Dr. Sessoms was fi red from Queens College after misleading the trustees about what happened to millions of dollars he was supposed to have raised and … that he got up in front of a group of lawyers and referred to remedial students as being pieces of sh-t. Is anyone surprised that he’s only been here a year and The Committee to Save UDC is mobilizing the city council to fi re him, and that the faculty has already given him a vote of no confi dence?”

While some UDC students and faculty members see in Sessoms a hard-charging, controversial fi gure who wants to remake their university, others see someone with high standards, grand ideas and a proven track record needed to turn the struggling school around.

Sessoms seems to have big plans — and intense opposition —everywhere he goes. He tried but failed to establish a $30 million AIDS center at Queens College and was forced to resign when donations he said he secured never materialized. He caused a furor with a proposal to create a “university at Queens” with the merger of Queens College and Queensborough Community College, and for unsavory comments about remedial students. At Delaware State, he instituted changes some said diluted the university’s legacy as an HBCU.

His past fl ops, notorious statements and the UDC faculty’s no-confidence vote seem unremarkable to Katherine “Shelley” Broderick, dean of UDC’s David A. Clarke School of Law.

“As far as I know, the UDC faculty has given a vote of ‘no confi dence’ to almost every single president, provost and administrator who has ever served here,” Broderick says.

UDC’s enrollment dropped from its high of more than 14,000 in the late 1970s to approximately 5,400 last year.

“When Sessoms was president of Delaware State University, he built over 600 new dormitory spaces, started three Ph.D. programs and increased federal grants by about $30 million. Our research showed that he was so well liked that the overwhelmingly Black student body held a candlelight vigil to try to convince him not to leave and come to UDC. Every dean of all six schools at UDC voted unanimously to hire Dr. Sessoms over all the other candidates because the school is absolutely desperate for a transformation, and Sessoms is absolutely an agent of change.”

In an interview with Diverse, Sessoms said he was hired because he’s willing to take the heat.

“I want to build this place into a fi rst-rate university with doctoral programs, a campus students can be proud of, better sports teams, and a junior college open to every student who wants to attend. It’s time to change UDC or shut it down.”

Persistent Problems

UDC’s trustees believe radical changes are in order. The university has had problems attracting and graduating students. Its enrollment has dropped from a high of more than 14,000 students in the late 1970s to approximately 5,400 last year.

Education is one of UDC’s most popular undergraduate majors, and the greater Washington area is starved for qualifi ed teachers. But only 7 to 8 percent of UDC’s undergraduate education majors graduate in six years, and few education students pass the Praxis national qualifying exam for teachers. Just four to six of 150 early childhood education majors graduate each year. By comparison, 90 percent of the students in Howard University’s fi ve-year education program graduate in six years.

When asked if poor math skills are to blame for low Praxis passage rates, and whether intensive math tutoring would be a solution, Sessoms seemed to lay blame on the faculty. “It might be, but the fact that neither the math nor the education departments have developed successful tutoring after years of students failing says a lot about their attitude.”

Who or what to blame for UDC’s chronic problems has been an ongoing debate over the years. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni blames low academic standards. ACTA published an op-ed in The Washington Post supporting Sessoms’ plan to end open admissions and raise academic requirements. ACTA president Anne Neal told Diverse that change is often hard.

“You’re just not being fair to the students or UDC when it admits people who can’t do college work. The four-year graduation rate of only 5 percent and the six-year rate of barely 17 percent speak for themselves. The old approach is not working, and the UDC board and president clearly realize that bold action is required to give students a real and valuable education.”

“When the City University of New York was faced with massive remediation and low graduation rates, the trustees took similar bold action to end open admissions, put remediation in the community colleges and to raise expectations in the four-year colleges. Critics feared that minority enrollment would decline. But CUNY is now seeing a real renaissance, enrolling and graduating a larger number of African-American, Hispanic and Asian students than ever before. If UDC can show a record of success, it will attract more students and more resources, not less,” Neal says.

By contrast, faculty members say it’s absurd to cite open admissions as a cause of UDC’s problems, which include leaking classrooms, inadequate budgets and chronic administrative problems. They point to the governance of the university and it’s unusual setup with Washington, D.C. government. The mayor appoints the trustees, who manage the academic side of the school. However, unlike most universities, UDC doesn’t manage its own budget and maintenance. The D.C. government treats it like another city agency.

For years UDC’s tuition of about $3,500 a year has been a major selling point to students, but given the city’s fi nancial situation and cutbacks there has been no money to grow the school or make signifi cant upgrades. Sessoms has asked the City Council to give the university and its trustees the independence to run its own budget like virtually every other college in the country. Dr. Leslie Richards, professor of sociology and a member of the board of UDC’s faculty union, says the university is caught up in an egregious case of blaming the victim.

UDC board chairman Jim Dyke says policies that may seem radical are practical solutions that have been adopted by other HBCUs facing similiar competition.

“We’re accused of having a faculty that’s old and ossified, but whose fault is that? Years ago, our budget was cut 50 percent, and we were forced to fi re virtually all of our youngest faculty members,” Richards says.

As for academics, “We never get credit for our successes. We gave thousands of poor Black students the chance to get the educational help they needed to go on and succeed somewhere else,” she says, citing a 1996 study that indicated UDC, although lacking a doctoral program, produces a signifi cant number of Black doctorates by virtue of sending graduates to graduate school.

It should also be noted, faculty say, that some of UDC’s graduate science programs are doing well, and that its nursing program is well respected. UDC’s David Clarke School of Law boasts a competitive fi rst-time bar passage rate of 82 percent. According to several faculty members, UDC is faltering because powerful and elitist interests in the city never wanted it to succeed. In the early 1970s, when UDC was formed out of Washington Teachers College, Washington Tech and Federal City College, all the other local universities, including Howard, testifi ed that the District didn’t need a public university with a graduate school.

A UDC psychology professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, “The local business community doesn’t want Black people in D.C. to have higher educations; they want trained workers for the hospitals and hotels. Jim Dyke, a member of UDC’s board of trustees, is on the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Sessoms was hired to carry out its real agenda of creating a junior college that will suck all of the resources out of the bachelor’s and graduate programs.”

When asked to identify one of the “elitists” who never wanted UDC to succeed, Richards names D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“She is the only member of Congress to ever ask for money to send students outside of her own jurisdiction. The D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program is an insulting attack on UDC. It was specifi cally written so that District residents can use that money to go to Howard, a private HBCU in D.C., or any public university in the entire nation, but you can’t use a single penny to go to UDC, a public HBCU right here at home,” Richards says.

In response, Norton’s offi ce says the criticism is misdirected because the congresswoman played a critical role supporting and funding UDC’s only recent expansion, which was the creation of the David Clarke School of Law. It should also be pointed out that TAG’s intent is to give D.C. students more choice, allowing them to attend out-of-state public universities at in-state tuition rates. TAG also provides money for students to attend private HBCUs.

Dr. Meredith Rode, one of the most vocal UDC faculty members, says one reason that the university is in such bad shape is because it has been systematically underfunded and stripped of land, property and other valuable resources. As a land-grant university, UDC received signifi cant properties, but the city sold several UDC assets to raise money rather than raise tuition.

“The city took away the Brooks Mansion in Northeast, and the absolutely gorgeous Carnegie Library, which was to be the gateway to our downtown campus,” she says, adding that the city built its Convention Center on what was UDC property and sold off UDC’s once-popular and profi table radio station.

Dr. Arthur Brimmer, a noted Black economist and former head of the Congressionally mandated Control Board that ran Washington’s fi nances after the city’s near bankruptcy in the 1990s, conducted one of the most detailed analyses of UDC in 1998. Brimmer acknowledged that the board considered improvements to UDC a nonpriority compared with public schools, health care and crime.

The Brimmer Report seemed to accept UDC’s low retention and graduation rates as a logical outcome of its mission to embrace underprepared students from the District of Columbia’s failing school system. The assessment of the faculty’s abilities and commitment to teaching was somewhat positive. However, it implied that evaluations were so rare that virtually everyone received tenure whether or not it was deserved.

The worst marks were reserved for the board of trustees: micromanaging small details while having no clear statement of the school’s mission, neglecting formal planning, relying on quick fi nancial fi xes such as selling off assets, and failing to execute its basic duties such as reviewing the budget before submitting it to the City Council, and ensuring proper maintenance of the campus. Essentially, the report said that the trustees lacked the basic skills to run UDC and noted some members of the City Council felt that the board was not “ … an assertive or effective advocate in representing and defending the university’s interests.”

Managing to Succeed?

Yet, even while faced with UDC’s daunting financial and structural challenges, Sessoms believes he can succeed.

“I’m the first president of UDC who had ever run a university before, so I know what has worked in other places,” he says. In an interview with Diverse, Dyke, chairman of UDC’s board, confi rmed the importance of understanding the larger trends in higher education.

“People forget that Dr. Sessoms was chosen because his strategies for the future of UDC reflect the same vision as the board of trustees,” he says.

Dyke explains that policies that may seem like radical ideas to the faculty and students at UDC are practical solutions that have been adopted by other HBCUs facing equally serious competition for students, resources and prestige.

Sessoms’ proposal to phase out the undergraduate education major in favor of a master’s program is one example. Historically Black Spelman College is also phasing out undergraduate education majors because of a nationwide trend toward teachers having stronger undergraduate backgrounds in specific academic disciplines and then only studying educational theory and classroom management in graduate school. In addition, many HBCUs had to reassess open admissions years ago because the student loan scandals of the 1990s exposed high drop-out and default rates resulting from some schools enrolling anyone who could qualify for a federal loan regardless of whether they were academically prepared for a college curriculum.

Today, Delaware State and other HBCUs require higher grade-point averages and test scores, but have negotiated automatic matriculation and transfer agreements with local community colleges with open admissions. These agreements have become critical marketing tools for attracting new students.

It’s too early to tell whether Sessoms will succeed at turning UDC around. His undiplomatic style may mask his energy and intelligence and make his proposals seem more radical than they are. However, so far, he has had several lucky breaks.

The infusion of federal stimulus dollars has meant that UDC’s tuition increase can be phased in over two years rather than all at once. President Barack Obama’s emphasis on strengthening community colleges as a way to retrain America’s work force may also provide a boost to the fledgling community college, which has open admissions. In addition, even if UDC doubles its tution to about $7,000 that’s still an attractive price in these tough times.

Still, many faculty members and students fear Sessoms’ agenda. But Rode is willing to take a chance on change. She told Sessoms she’d rather see UDC go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Sessoms replied, “We don’t have a choice; we’re going to fl y or fail because UDC has no more whimpers left.”

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