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President of UDC feels heat for travel spending

‘Sitting here’ not the job, he says

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2011

UDC President Allen Sessoms is in the proverbial hot seat.

Students are calling for his ouster, news reports say he spends exorbitant sums on his travels, and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown is demanding straight answers on spending questions.

Mr. Sessoms has not shied from addressing any of those hot-button issues, but he also wants the public and the UDC community to be aware of the scope of the challenges and the changes taking place at the school.

"The University of the District of Columbia has never had a great history," Mr. Sessoms said in an in-depth interview. "We're trying to transform the image in the education, corporate and philanthropic worlds and become much more international, all of which could bring significant dollars to the District."

Mr. Sessoms, who was appointed president in 2008, said he can't promote UDC, raise money or cultivate partnerships by merely sitting behind a desk on campus.

Mr. Sessoms also said UDC is hurt by some policies, including the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which since 1991 has been giving residents up to $10,000 to attend colleges in states and up to $2,500 to attend private universities in the city.

"The program is a disincentive for students who want to go to UDC," said Mr. Sessoms. "The District's high school graduates get zero dollars to attend UDC but the program pays instead for them to attend Michigan, Virginia or Maryland or other states, and the money is not needs-based. Even residents who attend private universities in the District receive tuition assistance. They're going to Trinity, American, George Washington, Princeton."

The competition posed by those tuition grants and more prestigious degrees is heightened by the city's consistently high unemployment, illiteracy and dropout rates, and failure to meet the demands of the 21st-century global labor market.

"In the short term, the fact that we established a community college in six months with no money reflects progress. We found about $10 million in reserve funds for the two campuses to expand educational opportunities," Mr. Sessoms said. "We began by getting residents the skills they need, and lots of them have a third-grade reading, so we're educating them and training them at the same time.

"In the 21st century, businesses locally, nationally and globally want workers trained, educated and certified on environmental issues, in health care and hospitality, in engineering and in the trades. They want practitioners. We have to catch up and keep pace."

He, the UDC board of trustees and the faculty are also realigning academic programs to meet those demands based on the release Friday of a preliminary report that proposes discontinuing some programs, restructuring others and spending more on flagship programs.

One such program is in Egypt, where for 14 years UDC has conferred business, computer science and engineering degrees upon graduates of the El Maadi Modern Academy in a program funded by Egypt.

Mr. Sessoms said he wants to expand the Cairo program so that UDC faculty and students in Washington can teach and attend classes there.

He also said he travels to maintain the UDC study-abroad program in the former industrial city of Sunderland, England, whose strategic studies include innovations in renewable energy, technology and work force development.

"I can't do that sitting here," said Mr. Sessoms. "I can't raise money, recruit students and faculty, rub elbows with university presidents, Nobel Prize winners and gain influence and assets sitting here."

UDC has many friends on the council who said they understand what is at stake at the university, which this year is celebrating its 160th anniversary.

UDC's origins date to 1851 with the founding of the Normal School for Colored Girls, later renamed Miner Teachers College. Congress merged it and Wilson Teachers College, a white school, in 1955. In 1967, Congress established the University of the District of Columbia by merging the Washington Technical Institute and awarding land-grant status.

In the ensuing decades, a law school was added, and champions of UDC have weathered pitched battles against tuition increases, faculty cuts and calls for its dismantling. It also has survived student sit-ins.

Another student protest is scheduled for Monday, and this one is calling for Mr. Sessoms to be ousted amid accusations of unfair budget cuts and outlandish travel expenses.

The travel story, first reported by Fox 5 News, accused Mr. Sessoms, among other things, of spending tax money on a $7,952 flight to Egypt.

Mr. Sessoms denied the accusations, saying D.C. appropriations to UDC do not cover his travel expenses.

On Tuesday, Mr. Brown and other lawmakers will question Mr. Sessoms about those and other expenditures and will demand a full accounting of employee overtime and bonuses, as well as workers' compensation costs.

They also will probe funding sources for the past and current fiscal budgets.

Mr. Sessoms said he would like to point out the eight trustee appointments that Mayor Vincent C. Gray needs to make.

He also said it would be easier to bring in "assets," "political heft and influence" if UDC were independent of the D.C. bureaucracy.

"The rules are an impediment," Mr. Sessoms said. "In purchasing, you might pay 10 times as much for pencils, and you might not get the pencils."

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