Separation Anxiety: Will Sessoms? quick action trump qualms over UDC?s internal split?
Separation Anxiety: Will Sessoms? quick action trump qualms over UDC?s internal split? Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Stop LL if you’ve heard this one before.

Failing D.C. educational apparatus gets energetic new leader. Said person comes in, speaks with brutal honesty about his new employer’s failings, takes advantage of brimming frustrations, and says things like, “It doesn’t matter who you know or how long you’ve been here, if you’re not doing your job, you’re out of here.”

Meet Allen L. Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia!

As lousy a reputation as the D.C. Public Schools had when Michelle Rhee took their helm, UDC gives it some serious competition in the bad-rep category. For the life of the 35-year-old institution, it’s been a hodgepodge of programs that has never really functioned as intended and was nearly underfunded into oblivion during the fiscal crises of the ’90s. And, like with DCPS, circumstances have aligned to anoint a Chosen One to lead UDC out of its chronic dysfunction.

Sessoms was plucked from the top spot at Delaware State University, where he’d been president for five years. A former diplomat with a physicist’s training, Sessoms has developed a reputation as a fast-talking, energetic guy who occasionally talks a bigger game than he can back up. (More on that in a bit.)

At UDC, he certainly has the talking part down: “We don’t need to have a place that’s cheap and decent. We need a place that is affordable and is the best, period. We’re competing against some of the best universities in the world. If you can’t compete, what’s the point?” he says.

Five months into his tenure, Sessoms has embarked on his first big initiative—trying to establish a community college for the District.

Astounding as it seems, D.C. doesn’t have a community college in the classic sense—an institution that offers affordable classes on an open-enrollment basis aimed at training folks for local jobs in two years or less. Sure, UDC has plenty of programs that fit those parameters, but they’re commingled with the supposedly more rigorous, less job-driven four-year programs in ways too confusing to even begin to explain.

Sessoms has put his foot down: By August, he says, UDC will separate out its community college from the “flagship public university.” No-brainer, right?

To a point: Last May, the Brookings Institution and D.C. Appleseed put out reports arguing that the District needs a dedicated community college now, and that’s a widespread sentiment around town, from the halls of the John A. Wilson Building to executive offices of local employers. But Brookings basically argued—and it’s far from alone in this opinion—that UDC can’t be trusted to operate a community college. “In our opinion,” their report says, “the [option] most likely to succeed over the long term is the founding of a freestanding community college.”

Sessoms says he doesn’t buy it. “I think they just didn’t recognize what UDC is. I think that there was a blindness to it because the folks who managed the study were part of the process of trying to close UDC in the ’90s, and I think the prejudice has continued.”

The “folks” he’s calling out there is Alice Rivlin, the Brookings scholar and former control board chair. UDC shouldn’t be trusted with a DCCC, in Rivlin’s view, not only because the school hasn’t exactly done a bang-up job of managing itself over the years—Exhibit A: an inspector general’s report released last year criticizing its Workforce Development Program, a key part of any community college, for millions in misspending—but also because there’s an “inherent tension” between a state university’s priorities and a community college’s.

Not that she blames Sessoms for engaging in a little institutional CYA: “Certainly, if I were the new president of UDC, I would take the opportunity to say there ought to be a community college, UDC should be it, and I should be working on it.”

In fact, making sure any community college stayed under the UDC umbrella was an imperative well before Sessoms came on the scene. Jim Dyke, chair of the UDC board, says that finding someone who could move quickly along those lines was “one of the priority items” during the presidental search. “We had said all along that the idea of starting [a community college] from scratch was a not a good idea,” Dyke says.

Sessoms has wasted no time following his board’s wishes. As first reported by the Examiner last month, UDC has been exploring a merger with Southeastern University—the private school in Southwest headed by former Ward 4 doyenne Charlene Drew Jarvis. That’s far from a done deal—J.R. Clark, the chair of Southeastern’s board, says the institution will decide between “at least three serious proposals” by the end of the month—but merger or not, Sessoms says his plans are moving full steam ahead. One prospect, he told LL with some glee, is placing community college programs at the vacated Backus Middle School in Ward 5.

Make no small plans, sure, but the facts are these: “The political establishment in the city hasn’t actually come down anywhere,” says Rivlin.

For one thing, there’s very little indication that Sessoms enjoys the unalloyed support of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty—in part, perhaps, because the mayor has little sway over the UDC prez. The university has an independent board of trustees to whom Sessoms must answer. That’s not to say Fenty doesn’t want more control.

Last July—as a presidential search committee was months into its work, having narrowed 54 candidates to four—Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, a UDC trustee and search committee member, delivered the word that Fenty wanted no selection to be made until Hizzoner could have a chance to submit his own list of nominees.

The committee more or less blew Fenty off; they picked Sessoms within a month. The blowoff still smarts: In an interview almost six months later, Attorney General Peter Nickles says, “We were not happy with the search process.”

So no surprise if there’s a hint of tension between the two chief execs.

Sessoms, in the course of his conversation with LL, dropped a bunch of names: “I think it’s fair to say that the folks who work with the mayor—Peter Nickles, Dan Tangherlini, Dave Gragan, Nat Gandhi—understand what we’re doing and support what were doing. That makes me believe that the mayor does as well. I haven’t asked about it, but that’s the impression I get. I can only go from the working relationships we have, which I think are excellent.”

As far as personal contact with the mayor goes, he points to an hour-plus sitdown he’s had with Fenty. He also took special notice of Nickles, saying they talk “at least once a week.”

This is how the attorney general returned the favor: “I like Sessoms,” he starts, before quickly turning more measured in his comments. “He is going to have to prove himself, basically. He talks a good game. We’ll see if he can perform.”

Nickles says he’s particularly interested to see if Sessoms can make good on grand fundraising promises. He’d have reason to be skeptical: Sessoms’ five-year stint at Queens College came to an end in 2000 after millions of dollars he said he’d raised for an AIDS research center never materialized.

Fenty himself was hard-pressed to say something nice about Sessoms.

LL asked Hizzoner if he had confidence in Sessoms’ leadership of UDC: “My thought is, you know, we have a board. The mayor nominates people to the board, the council confirms them. The board’s responsibility is to select a president, and I think the process has followed its course. It’s not up to me to second-guess the board.”

Keep in mind that LL never asked him to second-guess the board. It’s not too much of a leap to assume that, were he more candid, he might have done just that. LL followed up by asking whether he thought that Sessoms was a good choice.

“Whether it was a good choice or not is up to…the board of trustees of the university,” he said. “The people of the District of Columbia just want results. They just want the university to be the nation’s best; they’ll judge all of this like that.”

Fenty declined to pass judgment on Sessoms’ community college plan.

Sessoms has a slightly more vocal advocate in D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who’s taken a special interest in the education portfolio.

“He’s put a lot of ideas out there, and that’s a good thing. Some will fly, some won’t, but he’s created a sense of urgency and a sense of movement and a sense of dynamism within the university that I think has been desperately needed.”

But his kind words don’t extend just yet to Sessoms’ plans to keep a D.C. community college under the UDC aegis. He proffered this textbook example of on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand question evasion: “I think I can say unequivocally that I support the idea of a community college.…We just want to make sure that we have what appears to be the right approach to this. Having it under UDC is certainly one viable option; having it freestanding is another option.”

One thing Gray is foursquare behind, and the mayor’s office also seems to support, is the idea of giving the UDC a greater measure of autonomy—“a huge deal for us,” Sessoms says. “It allows us to begin to look like every other state university in the country.”

That would mean that UDC would basically have carte blanche to spend its city appropriations the way it sees fit. The university would have the ability to own real estate, making it much easier, Sessoms says, to raise private funds. (After all—what donor is going to shell out big bucks for a new university building with his or her name on it if the Office of Property Management could move the college out any time it wants?) And the university would be exempted from city personnel regulations, prompting these sorts of Rhentyesque thoughts from Sessoms: “We’re trying to send some of the faculty who have been here for the longest period of time on leave so we can bring in some fresh ideas and fresh people.…We’re telling folks they have to perform. If they don’t perform, they’re going to be evaluated, and if the evaluations are not up and these folks don’t get their act together, they’re gone.”

Gray says he hopes to introduce legislation along these lines by the end of the month. Meanwhile, a consulting firm is finishing a comprehensive feasibility study for establishing a community college. That document, expected to appear in early summer, could provide cover for Sessoms, or it could give the skeptics further backing.

Besides the politicos, Sessoms really needs to win over the power brokers in the local business community—they’re the ones in need of well-trained District residents to fill all those local-employment quotas councilmembers are so fond of. Sessoms has the support of certain influential folks—Chamber of Commerce honcho Barbara Lang and the Workforce Investment Council she chairs, for one. But when it comes to the Federal City Council types—the biggest of the big shots—“they’re not convinced that Sessoms can pull it off,” according to a source close to that crowd.

Sessoms says he’s quite aware that he needs to show results, and quick: “We don’t want to be measured by what we say. The only thing that matters is what we do. And this town, no matter what they say, they measure folks mainly by what they say. We gotta do stuff.”

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