When Michele Hagans began looking for a new president of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), she knew the school needed a strong leader. UDC’s last president, Tilden LeMelle, had resigned in November 1996 under pressure from the D.C. financial control board after disclosing an unforeseen $16.2 million university deficit. It was the last straw for the city’s fiscal foremen: UDC’s fall semester that year had started six weeks late, thanks to LeMelle’s attempt to stretch the school’s budget.
Hagans, chair of UDC’s board of trustees, announced this past April that the university had completed a national search for LeMelle’s successor. But when Hagans’ search committee unveiled its recommendations, the only candidate was Dr. Julius Nimmons, the acting president of UDC, whose office sits right down the hallway from the trustee boardroom.
According to members of the committee, the “nationwide” search never made it beyond the Van Ness Metro stop. A few months into the process, Hagans railroaded the committee and handed the search to Educational Management Network, an executive search firm based in Nantucket, Mass. The trustee committee had already spent hours debating selection criteria and was all set to advertise the position in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Sunday New York Times. Hagans, though, reportedly told the committee not to bother.
The company staged a series of focus groups on the future of UDC, which attendees say were poorly publicized and sparsely attended. When the firm asked permission to vet candidates for the slot, Hagans responded that she had already found what she was looking for. “I don’t know if there was ever a nationwide search,” says Reginald Wilson, chair of the search committee that Hagans disbanded.
“Frankly, she didn’t really give a good reason why she [fired the committee]” adds Wilson, who has since resigned as a trustee to take a teaching post at the University of Texas. “I thought the decision was high-handed and arbitrary.”
That’s just the sort of behavior that UDC administrators and boosters had come to expect from Hagans. (Hagans declined to be interviewed by Washington City Paper.) In recent years, UDC has undergone every crisis that can afflict a university: budget mismanagement, declining enrollment, threats to remove accreditation, and the ever-present possibility of extinction. While the other protagonists in each crisis have changed, Hagans, as head of the trustees, has been there in each and every instance.
Whereas trustees at other universities are selected for their academic might or fund-raising prowess, UDC’s board of trustees always functioned just like any of the other hundred or so city boards and advisory committees appointed by the mayoras a depository for political cronies. Newly elected mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly vowed to change that in 1991 and swept out many members of the board appointed by Marion Barry. Among her new appointees was Hagans, a powerful real estate developer in Northeast.
Hagans had risen to local prominence partly because of the reputation of her father, Ted Hagans. A Horatio Alger for black Washington, Ted Hagans was a beloved and shrewd businessman who earned college tuition by working in the boiler room at the Dunbar Hotel. He later purchased the historic hotel and became the most powerful black real estate developer in the District, with interests in monster projects like Metro Center downtown. Like any big-time developer, Ted Hagans aggressively courted local politicians and became a strong ally of Barry.
With help from his friends in District government, Ted Hagans took over a floundering planned development project off Bladensburg Road near the District line in 1975. The 360-acre site, named Fort Lincoln New Town, was to embody President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society: a racially and economically integrated urban community stocked with all the amenities of the suburbs, yet only a short commute to downtown. A few years after Michele graduated from Howard University with a degree in engineering, she entered the family business. When her father and brother suffered fatal injuries in a small plane crash in 1984, she inherited Fort Lincoln (after engaging in a long, messy, and vicious court battle with her father’s fiancée) as well as his other business and real estate interests. She emerged as one of the most powerful black businesswomen in the District.
The younger Hagans, however, didn’t inherit her father’s management style. Robert King, president of the Fort Lincoln Civic Association, says that unlike her father, who would jog along the roads of Fort Lincoln and chat with neighbors about community needs and concerns, Michele Hagans remains distant. “Ted liked to be hands-on,” says King. “Michele doesn’t come out too much.”
Hagans brought that very approach to her position as chair of UDC’s board of trustees, which she assumed in 1993. For a university facing a fiscal crisis, Hagans seemed like an ideal trustee. Past boards had been dominated by civil rights warriors long on ideals and empowerment rhetoric but short on bottom-line smarts. Hagans, however, was a D.C.-raised businesswoman who served on the influential Federal City Council as well as the Greater Washington Board of Trade. (She is currently chair of the board of directors of the Washington, D.C., Convention and Visitors Association.)
When Hagans started at UDC, the school was spending almost twice as much as comparable institutions, such as City College of New York, to educate its students. And even though the number of faculty positions had declined, costs were soaring because the university employed an unwieldy number of support staffjust the sort of dysfunction that Hagans had the expertise to address. “She’s not out of the activist mode; she’s a businesswoman,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, chair of the education committee on the D.C. Council. “I think when you talk about the chair of the board of trustees you don’t want an activist in that position.”
The university did need someone to put know-how and management skills to work for it, but that’s not what happened, according to two former trustees. They say Hagans allowed the board to rubber-stamp LeMelle’s budget plans, even though UDC administrators privately warned that they would bankrupt the school.
A trustees meeting held during the six-week academic furlough in 1996 epitomizes the Hagans regime. According to the minutes, Hagans flew through the meeting’s agenda. Trustees approved LeMelle’s budget without any public discussion or even a brief comment. Three quick updates from trustee committees followed, after which LeMelle offered a commendation to members of the previous year’s yearbook staff. The gathering was a pretty tidy affair: The 11 trustees in attendance started at 9:02 p.m. and headed home at 9:24 p.m. Two months later, LeMelle announced the $16.2 million bombshell.
Even when the university’s budget got slashed and burned by the control board and D.C. Council, Hagans & Co. largely stood by and watched the fires. “For about three to five years, no one from the board even came down to testify on the budget,” recalls Jim Ford, a former staffer for the D.C. Council committee on education. Things weren’t much different this year. “I haven’t seen [Hagans] for ages,” said a D.C. Council staffer days before the education committee took up the university’s fiscal 1999 budget.
While the control board and Barry have disagreed on nearly every UDC issue in recent years, they found common ground in condemning the dismal performance of the university’s board of trustees. “Collectively, I don’t think the board of trustees has vigorously supported the university as they should have,” the mayor told a crowd assembled for a March 16 roundtable on the future of the UDC. Loud applause followed. Only one trustee, Frances Murphy, had even bothered to show up for the event.
In its report on the university, the control board noted, “[T]he Board of Trustees has not always been effective in the execution of fundamental duties of trustees, nor in protecting and advancing the interests of the university. Therefore, the Trustees’ first duty must be to provide more effective governance to guide the university’s successful revitalization.”
A first step might be to learn how to govern effectively from within. “The board, or at least the members of the board I knew, were not taken into [Hagans’] deliberations in guiding policy making. Information from committee meetings wasn’t dispersed, and board meetings were canceled,” says Wilson. “As a result, you’d pick up the paper and read about something happening at your school you didn’t even know about.”
Last spring, members of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) were working up a plan to build moderately priced housing on 15 acres of undeveloped land in the Fort Lincoln development. They had gotten support from Henry Cisneros, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (the owner of the property), and backing from Barry, but they needed Hagans’ approval to move forward. When they presented their proposal to Hagans, they got nothing but attitude.
“They want to put low-income people in hereuh-uh,” Hagans remarked at the time to the Washington Post. “Low income is the working poor, and they don’t fit in our plan. They saw a Cadillac site when they need a Chevrolet.”
“Those are exactly the people attending UDC,” counters Rev. Lionel Edmonds of WIN. “She’s working to keep them out of her business, yet she’s supposed to be their advocate as a member of the board.”
Hagans’ fellow travelers on the board say that she likes to keep her distance in all matters. “It was like Michele had this claw on everybody,” says Chad Williams, a former student member of the board. Faculty members, of whom 125 were let go as a result of a reduction in force last year, complain most bitterly about Hagans’ tendency toward autocracy. “She once tried to silence me at a board meeting,” says Joseph Brent, a retired UDC faculty member. “She has an attitude like, You must not speak to the queenyou are not allowed to speak to the queen.”
Other board members believe the criticism is unfounded and that Hagans has had to make difficult decisions to keep the university afloat. “She’s a tough lady,” says Carrie Thornhill, the board’s vice chair. “Tough in that she’s clear. When she speaks, you know exactly where she’s coming from….She’s courteous but clear about moving on. There’s not a lot of extraneous discussion.”
Perhaps not. But a little of that extraneous discussion might have steered the board toward clearer academic objectives or generated proposals for solving the school’s future-threatening financial troubles.CP