- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The president of the University of the District of Columbia and the chairman of its board of trustees yesterday defended the hiring of the school’s provost, which has prompted an ethics investigation.

UDC President William L. Pollard said he hired family friend Wilhelmina M. Reuben-Cooke as provost and vice president of academic affairs only after she had been vetted by a search committee.

“Dr. Cooke went through a search process,” Mr. Pollard said yesterday during a luncheon meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “She came out as being the person I selected.”

Mr. Pollard, who took the helm at UDC a little more than a year ago, declined further comment on the hiring, saying “it would be very inappropriate for us to comment any further on that situation” because of the ongoing ethics probe.

The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, the investigatory arm of the D.C. Ethics Commission, is examining whether Mr. Pollard violated standards of conduct for public officials in hiring Mrs. Reuben-Cooke.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., chairman of the university’s board of trustees, vouched for her credentials.

“I think she is eminently qualified for the job,” said Mr. Ogletree, who attended the luncheon. “Any modest analysis would show that.”

He said the land-grant university’s biggest problem is insufficient financial support from the D.C. government and Congress, not the hiring of Mrs. Reuben-Cooke and the rest of Mr. Pollard’s new executive management team.

The Times first reported July 11 that Mrs. Reuben-Cooke apparently lacks the experience and education required for the $137,000-a-year job, according to UDC’s national advertisement for provost candidates.

The ad for the school’s No. 3 job listed the minimum education required as a doctoral degree or its equivalent and the minimum work experience required as an established record as a senior academic administrator.

Mrs. Reuben-Cooke holds a juris doctor degree, or law degree, from the University of Michigan Law School and worked for 18 months as an associate dean for academic affairs at the Syracuse University College of Law. The bulk of her professional experience is as a law professor at Syracuse University.

“It’s not just the degree,” Mr. Ogletree said. “The idea is [to hire someone with] the ability to do the job. I sort of smile when they say she is unqualified.”

He pointed out that some university presidents do not hold doctoral degrees, including the presidents of Howard, George Washington and Columbia universities. Mr. Ogletree said the trustees did not interfere in the hiring process for the provost, professing confidence in Mrs. Reuben-Cooke’s ability.

“This is someone of enormous talent. And I have to say I am also a little bit amazed that she — despite all this — accepted the job,” he said. “And I do know this, she is doing an excellent job now.”

Mrs. Reuben-Cooke is the wife of D.C. labor lawyer Edmund D. Cooke Jr., who helped Mr. Pollard secure his $200,000-a-year post at UDC. The Times reported yesterday that Mr. Cooke last year also helped Ernest Jolly secure the school’s No. 2 job of executive vice president, which boasts a $131,080 salary.

Mr. Ogletree said yesterday that Mr. Cooke did not recommend Mr. Pollard for UDC president. In previous interviews with The Times, Mr. Ogletree had said that Mr. Cooke had recommended Mr. Pollard and other individuals for the post.

Mr. Pollard has weathered criticism this year from faculty, students and the D.C. Council regarding his spending priorities and his hiring of friends for high-paying jobs at the city’s only public institution of higher education, which in past years has been plagued by financial mismanagement.

UDC’s biggest problem is its financial situation, said Mr. Ogletree, who joined the board in 1999.

He said UDC needs an immediate infusion of dollars to improve infrastructure, and some autonomy from the D.C. government to manage its financial affairs.

“[D.C. Chief Financial Officer] Natwar Gandhi has been very favorable to us by appointing people we have suggested to be our CFO, but our CFO should not be selected by D.C. government,” Mr. Ogletree said.

Another issue he called a “pet peeve” is the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, for which Congress has appropriated about $17.5 million annually for the past four years.

The program provides up to $10,000 a year for eligible D.C. residents to cover the difference in cost between in-state and out-of-state tuition at any public institution in the country. It also provides up to $2,500 in tuition costs at any local private college or university or any historically black college or university in Maryland or Virginia.

“They are spending millions of dollars to send children across the country to other schools, but UDC is not one of them,” Mr. Ogletree said.

D.C. government officials have cited the tuition program as a major reason for drop in enrollment at UDC.

The university also has suffered from a lack of private donations, Mr. Ogletree said, noting that UDC has donation prospects among its alumni and those of its constituent colleges — Federal City College, D.C. Teachers College or Washington Technical Institute.

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