Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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On a bright, windy afternoon last week, the ambassador of Japan, the mayor of Washington, and the University of the District of Columbia’s top brass gathered to celebrate a few small slivers of green on the campus’ central plaza. A little bit of the plaza’s expanse of concrete had been replaced with patterned pavers. Some 40 cherry trees had been planted around them. The semi-circular fountain and glass blocks seemed almost gaudy against the putty brown buildings.

To the people on the dais, it wasn’t just a renovation: It was the next phase of a revolution. “This is the beginning of a campus that students want to be on,” said Barbara Jumper, the university’s vice president for facilities.

It was also, however, the creation of something that the city—which has long treated the university as a punishment for kids who didn’t do well enough in high school—might finally be able to get behind. Three and a half years ago, after a string of lackluster presidents, Allen Sessoms was brought in on a desperation mission. “It’s really hard to get this one wrong,” he told the Washington Business Journal at the time. “You have to get it right or close it.”

If only it were that simple. In a jurisdiction whose political leaders defend all the symbolic trappings of statehood, no one’s about to shut down an institution that, at least on paper, makes D.C. the equal of any other place worthy of a land-grant university. “I don’t think size is the issue,” says D.C. Councilmember Michael Brown, whose father, Ron Brown, was the first chair of UDC’s Board of Trustees. “It’s a pride thing.”

But if no one’s seriously calling for the flagship school’s closure, no one’s handing it the money to improve, either. Forty-four years after the campus was built, its buildings still have numbers, not names, because no philanthropist has stepped forward to underwrite one. Only its brand-new community college is truly popular among District elites—and they’re rushing to cut it loose from the arthritic public university.

Meanwhile, UDC is at the weakest point in its entire existence. Its student body has drained away to the community college, giving even the greener campus a slightly post-apocalyptic feel. Gridlocked collective bargaining negotiations with the faculty union leave the school tied to a contract that preserves high salaries with little accountability. The university’s cash reserves have been nearly liquidated. It’s in real danger of total default.

What UDC needs isn’t so much a president as a dictator: someone with the political muscle to strip the university down and rebuild from the ground up.

Instead, it has Sessoms, who rolls his eyes at the school’s notoriously intransigent faculty, but can’t do much more about them. After almost four years of the president weaving a vision of excellence, his definition of success now involves creating a vastly humbled institution, at least until it can grow back into itself.

If he manages to last that long.

Every story about UDC’s woes—and there are a lot of them—goes back to three colleges being squashed into one. In 1977, the Washington Technical Institute and Federal City College, both conceived under President John F. Kennedy, merged uneasily with D.C. Teachers College, whose roots went back to 1851. The school was given a brand-new campus and an ample budget. It had competitive sports teams. It had respect.

Back then, UDC also had 15,000 students. Today, its four-year college has just over 2,000.

The state of the school, in many ways, mirrored that of the city. First, there was decline: As the city transitioned to Home Rule, Congress lost interest and the school lost some of its glamour. Investments in the school’s physical plant ceased; plans for a downtown campus fizzled. Meredith Rode, an art professor who’s been with the institution since its inception, watched with dismay. “As things started to change, we got less support,” she says. “In terms of really being the kind of institution that I think many of us idealistically wanted, the idea of the City University of New York, that began to slip away.”

The school limped into the 1990s, beset by constant battles over forced layoffs and philosophical differences over the university’s mission to serve the city’s black poor. In 1997, with the city in financial collapse, the federally appointed Control Board cut the school’s budget in half. One hundred and twenty-five teachers were laid off, but a federal court ruled the firings were illegal, and many were hired back.

D.C.’s tax base has revived since then. The public university, tellingly, has not. Professors figured the school had been left for dead in 1999, when Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and House Republicans pushed a bill through Congress to provide $10,000 tuition assistance grants for any District undergraduate to attend public institutions around the country. If you can pay close to in-state tuition at the universities of Maryland or Michigan or California, why settle for the less prestigious public school in D.C.?

And while local elites embraced public school reform over the past decade, UDC found few new champions even as middle- and working-class black residents, whose children dominated the school, shrunk as a proportion of D.C.’s population.

The school has always had a leadership problem. With little academic cachet and no institutional independence, UDC has struggled to attract quality executives; sixteen presidents have cycled through since the university was born. Case in point: Sessoms’ predecessor, William Pollard, took the job in 2002 only after three preferred candidates said no. Pollard refused to do private fundraising, and either wasted or simply didn’t spend millions of dollars. In 2008, the board fired him.

The next president was supposed to be different. A search committee interviewed former congressmen, former councilmembers, even former mayor Anthony Williams. Near the end of the process, Mayor Adrian Fenty told them to stop: He was in charge of all education in the District, he said, and he wanted to submit his own names. The names never came—and, in Fenty fashion, the politics quickly degenerated. The mayor tried to stack the board of trustees with dubiously qualified loyalists; the D.C. Council rejected them. The search committee picked Sessoms, and Fenty, who so loudly pronounced his support for reform in other city institutions, gave up on UDC.

“The mayor refused to meet with him, and frankly, I would say did little or nothing, and I’m being kind, to provide support,” says Emily Durso, a former UDC board chair who is now the point person on post-secondary schooling in the city’s education office. Fenty had been able to make sweeping changes to the public schools by taking control of the system. Unable to do that at UDC, he walked away. “That was the exact answer I got,” Durso remembers. “‘If we don’t control it, we’re not interested in it.’”

Talking to Allen Sessoms is like watching a cartoon character on fast-forward. At 65, he blinks quickly, walks quickly, spews words interspersed with sharp intakes of breath. Sometimes, his speech hits the air before his thoughts have caught up.

When we meet for an interview, I tell him I’ve just come from a meeting of the faculty senate. “Bless you,” he says, giggling and rolling his eyes. The organization has been immersed in an erudite debate over apportionment of representatives across academic departments. “At least there they think for once in their careers,” Sessoms says.

It’s easy to see how Sessoms, a Yale University-educated physicist who taught at Harvard and served 12 years as a technical advisor at the State Department, would have seemed like an ideal change agent. He promised to create a university “system,” complete with a community college, honors college, athletics program, and robust fundraising apparatus that would triple the university’s budget with no extra taxpayer money. He speaks with the kind of utter certitude that makes you want to believe him.

And yet, Sessoms came with a reputation for promising more than he could deliver—and UDC faculty knew it. They read about how he resigned the presidency of Queens College in 2002 after the board found he had lied about how much money he’d raised to build a $30 million AIDS research center. They’d talked to friends at Delaware State, where as president he’d battled the faculty union and alumni association, which felt he was diluting the school’s status as a historically black institution, even as he built shiny dorms and athletic facilities. UDC’s University Senate publicly opposed his appointment before he even set foot on campus.

Sessoms gave as good as he got. As one of his first actions on campus, he abolished the senate—its leadership had become too entrenched, he said, and too resistant to change. “It was really an extension of the union,” adds Graeme Baxter, a former George Washington University dean who fought many of Sessoms’ battles with the faculty as interim provost. “In their eyes, it was shared governance, but they really wanted to run the university.”

Changes moved quickly from there. A top-to-bottom academic review resulted in the elimination, consolidations, or demotion of 17 underperforming degree programs. (Early childhood education graduated four students per year on average; physics and French graduated one each.) A new general education curriculum got approved. Vocational programs were spun off into a new community college, while admissions standards were imposed at the four-year “flagship.”

Just like most sweeping changes in how District institutions do business, this one carried a racial element: Most of Sessoms’ highly-paid new deans and administrators were white. Just as he had at Delaware State, Sessoms dispensed with the traditional singing of the black national anthem at university functions (the school says that’s because religious songs are a no-no at public institutions); he talked much more about the school’s historic land grant status than its historic African-American status. According to the chair of the UDC Foundation board of directors, a wealth manager named Joe Perta, that actually helps with fundraising since donors are less eager to help an institution that’s seen as being just for black people.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone appreciated this kind of logic. “There are some who perceive that the university was established for a certain sector of the citizenry of the District, and that many of the changes that have been made are inevitably going to change the whole pedigree of the university,” says Connie Webster, a nursing professor recently elected president of the new faculty senate.

Messing with the status quo would have been tough enough for a president who had strong political skills, or strong support from the city’s elected officials. Sessoms had neither. Media reports about his expensive flights around the world on D.C.’s dime didn’t help.

Lost in the hoopla is that many of Sessoms’ current efforts focus on an issue that’s vastly less loaded: How teachers themselves interact with students. Last August, he hired as provost Ken Bain, who has written books and taught institutes on bettering college instruction. Bain says his methods have started to “revolutionize higher education” around the globe, and that he’s going to make UDC into “an experimental model for the twenty-first century university.”

After decades of low expectations, teachers seem willing to give it a try. On a recent Tuesday, a few dozen faculty crammed into an open space between bookshelves in the bowels of Building 41 to learn about the “promising syllabus,” which is supposed to hook students on their first day in class by describing the curriculum in terms of a larger problem to be solved. Bain, lanky and graying but still dynamic, puts them through writing exercises. The teachers eagerly read their “invitations” aloud, trying to understand what Bain’s getting at. “I like it, I like it. Yeah,” Bain says appreciatively, after a civil engineer takes a stab.

Getting past decades-old standard operating procedure takes more than one tutorial, though. One English professor seems troubled by the idea of changing her syllabus to something beyond what her department requires. “Can we promise something that the university might not accept? “ she asked, doubtfully.

“I don’t know. You should ask the provost!” Bain answers.

Sessoms destroyed one of the old-guard faculty’s power centers, the old University Senate. But he’s still got formidable opposition in Mohamed El-Khawas, an Africa expert and Egyptian emigre, who came to Federal City College in 1969. Elected president of the faculty association in 2008, he is ever serene and polite behind tinted glasses, even as he speaks of Sessoms and his administration with frank disdain.

“The problem is the top management here who are here are newcomers,” El-Khawas says, in a small, all-glass office in the galactic Intelsat building across the street from main campus. “They never really have a chance to sit down and learn much about the university, because Dr. Sessoms came and had his own ideas about what would be best for the university.”

The new president certainly had no sense of diplomacy. The faculty were stunned and hurt by Sessoms’ tendency to badmouth them at conferences around the country while describing the situation at UDC. He called the faculty old, and they were: The median age was 63 in 2008. “My response is, the older they get, the better they are, like wine,” El-Khawas says, smiling and raising his hand as if holding a glass.

The problem is, old people are expensive. The average full-time faculty salary at UDC is $96,400, which is lower than the private institutions in D.C., but 33 percent higher than comparable institutions around the country. Their benefits are also extremely generous: The university puts 15 percent of salaries for those hired before 2003 into a retirement account. (Meanwhile, salaries for assistant professors and the ballooning population of adjuncts at the community college are substantially below market.) Many of the professors who’ve been around longest kept hanging on as their teachers’ investment accounts flagged in the recession; not all are pulling their weight. For example: One assigned a high-school textbook, then never cracked it. Another distributed a syllabus copied from a mimeographed sheet; it hasn’t been updated since photocopiers were inveted. Others refuse to use email.

“You have a cadre who come here and get paid a check, and that’s pretty much it,” says Clarence Pearson, a well-respected engineering and architecture professor who’s been around for 41 years. “They’re not involved, they don’t pursue grants, they just sort of exist.”

And it’s really hard to get rid of that cadre. Faculty rights at UDC are nearly ironclad thanks to a collective bargaining agreement that ensures automatic tenure for anyone hired before 2006. Minimum requirements for publishing, participation on committees, and classroom instruction are broken down into “professional units,” of which a professor just has to rack up 32 per semester in order to keep his or her job. A staff of three lawyers spends the majority of its time dealing with grievances, says general counsel Craig Parker.

“We’re more like the license bureau than we are like an educational institution, in terms of how people approach the jobs and what their sense of entitlement is as to the way they do their jobs,” says Parker, noting that he spent much less time on labor issues when he was at Catholic University. “Here, you’re immediately into a morass of rules.”

The labor agreement expired in 2008. The two parties have been trying to hash out a new one since. Over the last few years, the administration has managed to force out about 20 of the most underperforming faculty using the terms of the contract against them—mostly because of failure to submit to evaluations—and paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements and buyouts. Meanwhile, newer faculty, who haven’t gotten raises since they were hired—they’re all on hold until a new contract is signed—just want the union to compromise. “We feel we could actively seek a solution, but we’re not being allowed by the structure of the union,” says Rachel Jorgensen, a librarian who came on in 2010, and who has a second job as a dogwalker to supplement her $55,000 salary. “We’re very frustrated. Many are searching for new jobs. It impacts morale, having this contentious atmosphere.”

Sessoms himself rarely talks to the faculty directly. As usual, he didn’t show up to this year’s faculty appreciation day. Instead, a few dozen teachers lunched on salmon and salad in Building 38’s modest banquet hall. The guests included a white-bearded computer science professor named Duane Shie, who’s been at the school since 1974. He’s retiring this semester. Being sent to teach at the community college, which felt like a demotion after three and a half decades as a full university professor, was just the last straw. “They should lay off the president. He’s a super-asshole. He’s a liar. He’s a cheat,” Shie said of Sessoms. “I’m so sick of hearing about his vision.”

As lunch progressed, El-Khawas took the podium to throw some barbs at the absent Sessoms, and offer hope over the fearful chatter about layoffs and budget cuts. After all, they’d outlasted previous councils, boards, and presidents. “We, the faculty, managed to stay on the top,” he said.

In 2010, the D.C. Council paid a half million dollars for a commission of the people who’d initially made the case for the community college—including Alice Rivlin, the Brookings Institution scholar who chaired the Control Board—to take a hard look at how it ought to move forward. Last week, they issued a preliminary report: UDC was paying $36,684 per full time equivalent student in 2010, which is 60 percent higher than its peer institutions. The school was able to skate by with that kind of bloat until it also had to fund the creation of the community college without increasing its budget; the city gave UDC a few old buildings to hold classes in, but insufficient money to renovate them.

All that has depleted UDC’s cash reserves to the point where the school risks defaulting on its obligations for the next fiscal year. “There needs to be a rightsizing plan immediately that will make dramatic changes,” says commission member Walter Smith, president of the nonprofit think tank D.C. Appleseed. “The District has just gone along, funding this thing year after year, and never put in place the accountability that was needed given the investments it was making.”

Sessoms was hired, first and foremost, for his fundraising ability. Over the last three years, he’s brought in a paltry $3.24 million in private donations, blaming the poor results on the fact that alumni have never been tracked or asked to contribute (even galas at the National Building Museum didn’t generate any revenue). This year, he asked the council for a $20 million increase in the school’s $64 million allocation, which hasn’t even adjusted upwards for inflation over the last 14 years. That’s a pretty hard thing to justify when, as the commission found, they’d be spending $30 million less per year if they had a cost structure on par with peer institutions.

It’s not just faculty—the regular staff also costs more than it should. Overall, personnel makes up 70 percent of the university’s budget. The seemingly intractable problem has Joe Askew, the chair of UDC’s board, wishing the school had something closer to Fenty’s approach with public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who got specific changes in the law to allow the negotiation of a contract based on performance and student outcomes.

“What Michelle Rhee had was a mayor that supported her 120 percent, whatever she thought was the appropriate strategy to make change,” says Askew, who as government affairs executive for Verizon knows a thing or two about labor battles. “It’s political. We’re talking unions, and you’ve got to applaud them for doing what they’re designed to do. And it takes a lot of support to achieve the level of change that’s needed.”

Meanwhile, Sessoms had been pitted in competition for resources and enrollment against Jonathan Gueverra, president of the community college. When tuition doubled at the flagship, from $3,770 per year to $7,000, many students dropped down to the cheaper community college. In fall 2011, the four-year had 2,129 full-time equivalent students, to the community college’s 2,529, plus another 2,600 in its free job-skills programs. Gueverra wanted the community college to move to complete independence as soon as possible, since he wasn’t even eligible to apply for some federal funding sources until the school has its own accreditation.

Gueverra was so frustrated with the slow progress toward independence and the lack of a dedicated funding stream that he decided to leave: Last weekend, Florida Keys Community College announced that he’d accepted a job as their new president, effective July 1.

“Walking in, I was told that the funding was there to do this,” Gueverra told me before the news broke. “If we’re going to place blame, we have to put it on the leaders of our city, because if you want something, you have to be able to put money behind it.”

At press time, the UDC board and D.C. politicians are scrambling to make the community college independent faster, in hopes that Gueverra might change his mind.

Sessoms hadn’t gotten along with Gueverra, worrying that if the community college left UDC entirely, the flagship would wither and die. Workforce programs are popular, after all—they’re seen as the solution to unemployment. And unlike liberal arts colleges, of which the District has plenty, the community college is new, rapidly growing, and unique. Sessoms is constantly forced to justify the flagship’s existence, and he does it by denigrating the community college’s mission of educating plumbers, home health aids, and electrical technicians. “Those are not going to be the jobs of the future in the District of Columbia. They’re not going to be the careers,” he says.

At the moment, Sessoms’ plan to grow the four-year school seems unlikely to wring money from local pols: He wants to market the flagship to out-of-towners, luring international students or community college students from elsewhere in this country. Sure, they’ll pay higher tuition, but Sessoms also wants to create an environment that reaches beyond the District’s boundaries.

“It’s that we build a critical mass of intellectual vitality that couldn’t exist otherwise,” Sessoms says. “This is just a teeny-tiny place. We have to go to our ‘state,’ which has to be the region and the nation. We are the nation’s capital, we have to be a national university, we have to be an international university, if we are to provide the residents of the District of Columbia with an international circumstance that will allow them to thrive in the global economy.”

But UDC probably won’t ever charge as much as George Washington University, which means all of its students will be subsidized to some extent. Councilmember Michael Brown is fine with bringing in students from the outside—any state university would be—but he’s already objected to the low rate UDC charges students from Maryland and Virginia. “If you’re not a D.C. resident, why are we subsidizing you?” he asks.

“Because the federal government subsidizes everybody else to go away!” Sessoms says impatiently. “We are not big enough as a political unit to do anything on our own while we incent students to leave.”

While the battles rage above their heads, UDC’s rank and file have a couple options: They can keep their heads down and go about their business—or they can leave.

Derek Musgrove, a star young assistant professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Science, and Social Work, chose the second. He came in 2006, wanting to teach kids with poor backgrounds, and was shocked to find that he’d been automatically tenured. “I don’t want contractual tenure,” says Musgrove, a tall, Obama-like figure folded into a tiny office with a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. on the wall. “I did all the things that I thought I needed to get tenure at the generic American university. But I didn’t have to, and that thinking is the failure.”

After a couple of years of publishing, teaching heavy courseloads, and administering an academic program, Musgrove got involved with the reconstruction of the faculty senate, agitating for more transparency and professionalism. But, he ultimately concluded, Sessoms and his deputies were as bad as the recalcitrant old-timers who didn’t want things to change. “It’s a perfect storm of alienating the people whom you need to do everything you say you’re going to do,” he says. “You had people praying for him to succeed, including me, who really couldn’t even hold our nose and work with him.”

Musgrove, who just accepted a position at the University of Maryland Baltimore County for next year, is among a handful of talented young professors to leave—either because they didn’t have the freedom to do their jobs well, or because UDC would kill their career. “For me, it’s both,” he says. “When it came right down to it, it came to having contempt for some of my colleagues, and some of my students, I knew I needed to leave, because I wasn’t doing what I came there to do.”

Then there’s the other tack: avoiding conflict. David Gaston, a former bouncer and waiter who arrived at the school in 2005 at the age of 32, has done more for student life at UDC than probably any other person. While getting his B.A., he adopted a shabby game room on the ground floor of one of the administration buildings, gradually bringing in pool tables, a recording studio, flat screen TV. He called it the 4.0 Lounge, and now it hosts everything from class presentations to movie nights, serving as the student center that the commuter campus never had. Gaston then went for his masters degree in public administration, and the school hired him as its coordinator for student outreach and leadership development.

“You’re supposed to come here and handle your business,” he says. “And I understood that I had to get a degree. Sometimes I just don’t know if every student has a plan, and they get distracted by other things, and it becomes their life. I want to be one of those people who just stay in my lane.”

Gaston, a big guy with a beard who gesticulates and makes corresponding facial expressions as he talks, hears a lot of campus intrigue about who’s for Sessoms, who’s against him, and the longstanding divides that won’t let the school go. He rehearses the history of the three schools crammed together in one awkward union.

“Thirty years later, a kid walks into this building who just wants to get his degree to further his education, and he has a teacher from the Teachers College and a faculty member from the other joint, and they aren’t speaking?” he asks, rhetorically, incredulous. “What’s that about?”

A successful university hangs on to its Derek Musgroves, and nurtures its David Gastons—the people who glue it together, not rip it apart. Sessoms could be the Michelle Rhee of UDC, bringing the kind of harsh reforms that get executives fired, which allows their successors to rebuild on a stronger foundation. Instead, he’s stuck in the middle: spreading acrimony wherever he goes, without changing the school enough to make it all worth it.