Changing Course: University of the District of Columbia's President Has Proposed Some Radical Changes That Some Worry Will Send UDC in the Wrong Direction

By Ruffins, Paul | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Changing Course: University of the District of Columbia's President Has Proposed Some Radical Changes That Some Worry Will Send UDC in the Wrong Direction


Ruffins, Paul, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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 sniffing 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 officials 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 fired 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 fire him, and that the faculty has already given him a vote of no confidence?"

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While some UDC students and faculty members see in Sessoms a hard-charging, controversial figure 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 flops, 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 confidence' to almost every single president, provost and administrator who has ever served here," Broderick says.

"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 candlehght 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 first-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. …

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