- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

If Joseph Askew, chairman of the UDC board of trustees, had his way, media mogul Debra Lee and former Fannie Mae Chairman Franklin Raines would help govern the District’s university system.

D.C. Council member Michael Brown said he thinks sports franchise owners Ted Leonsis and Bob Johnson would be a perfect fit.

But the call is not theirs to make. That responsibility falls to the mayor, who has to fill eight seats on the 15-member University of the District of Columbia board.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is expected to begin filling those vacancies Friday, a move that could redirect the spotlight off university system president Allen Sessoms, who is under fire for questionable travel expenses.

Mr. Sessoms continues to defend himself by saying that he travels for the same reasons other university presidents travel — because of partnerships, symposiums and conferences, and to win friends and raise the university’s image.

The mayor has said that even under the cloud of Mr. Sessoms‘ travel expenditures, he doesn’t want to insert himself into the day-to-day operations at UDC.

“My preference is to let the trustees govern,” he has said.

Several council members who grilled Mr. Sessoms and Mr. Askew at Tuesday’s oversight hearing on UDC made similar remarks.

“I want to examine the totality of the university’s operations,” said Yvette Alexander of Ward 7. At-large member Sekou Biddle said he was in search of the “best way forward.”

Former mayor Marion Barry of Ward 8 said his colleagues shouldn’t get “distracted,” adding that “we wrestled with Mayor [Adrian M.] Fenty about the board [vacancies.] Let’s look at the whole picture.”

And Mr. Brown, an at-large council member, said the mayor’s forthcoming nominations would help steer the board toward important matters, including the restructuring plan already under way and fundraising for an institution whose students are heavily subsidized.

“Fundraising has to be the No. 1 priority, as it is with other institutions of higher learning,” he said.

Mr. Askew agreed, saying the board needs members who have “certain areas of expertise and resources to raise money.”

Asked who would be ideal members, Mr. Askew named Clinton confidante Vernon Jordan, a senior managing director at Lazard Freres & Co.; Mr. Jordan’s wife, Ann; U.S. Rep. James P. Moran of Northern Virginia; Mr. Raines, who helped craft the District’s financial restructuring during the Clinton era; and Ms. Lee, BET Networks’ chief executive officer, who received an honorary UDC law degree in 2008.

Mr. Brown said names with fundraising and expertise gravitas also include Mr. Leonsis, who owns both the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals, and Mr. Johnson, who owns the Charlotte Bobcats, founded BET and now heads his own film production and real estate development firm.

Mr. Gray’s picks likely will not face the same finger-wagging as those of Mr. Fenty, whose UDC nominees were summarily rejected by the council when Mr. Gray was its chairman.

“I have reached out to the mayor and he will be sending names to the council soon,” Council Chairman Kwame Brown said Tuesday. “He understands the importance of moving quickly on this matter, I will move the nominees quickly for hearing[s] once they are received.”