Every time University of the District of Columbia President Allen Sessoms tries to speak to the crowd assembled in the auditorium of Building 46, seventy students rise and turn their back to him.
These are the members of Operation Save UDC, and they have been standing for much of the past two hours, attentive to every detail of the public meeting of the Board of Trustees that is underway. They have reason to be vigilant; the trustees are voting on a proposed 86 percent tuition increase for the students of the University.
Sessoms and the 15 members of the Board are seated at a long table. The atmosphere in the room is tense, and occasionally a student breaks the silence by yelling at the assembled Board. It’s clear that no one wants to go forward with the proposed tuition increase, but nearly all of the Trustees acknowledge that circumstances leave them no other choice. By and large the students are quiet, peaceful, and determined. The Board members weigh their options carefully and engage in open debate, but it’s clear they have already made their decision.
The University of the District Columbia is embroiled in a war over its identity. Situated prominently on Connecticut Avenue between Georgetown and American University, UDC has suffered from glaring inefficiencies and a lack of strong leadership for years. The Board of Trustees and the new President Allen Sessoms argue that the University must change and cannot continue to function as it presently stands.
“We want degrees from the University to have value, backed up by rigorous standards, so the degree represents something that is respected everywhere,” Provost Graeme Baxter (LAW `83) said.
However, many students and faculty members believe the new group of administrators has gained too much power without earning the trust of the University community. To these dissenters, the changes proposed by President Sessoms represent a hostile takeover that will negatively impact the University.
“This President is leading his administration with fear,” student activist and former Student Body President, William Kellibrew said. “But these tactics cannot and will not be effective.”
At the heart of the current crisis is the President’s proposed tuition increase and his move to replace the University’s open enrollment system with more stringent admissions standards. Sessoms sought to increase tuition from $3,770 per year to $7,000 for D.C. residents, $8,000 for Metro area students, and $14,000 for out-of-state and international students. Students enrolled in the recently created UDC community college will see their tuition drop to $3,000 per year.
When the tuition increase proposal was first announced in January, administrators planned to implement the change in one year’s time. After a wave of student protests and faculty disapproval, the administration submitted a different proposal that would phase-in the tuition increase over two years. Partly due to the injection of federal funds provided by the stimulus package, students will see a $1,600 increase in the fall of 2009 and a $1,630 increase in 2010-2011 school year.
Sessoms also wants to see specific admissions standards implemented at the “Flagship University,” ending the open enrollment policy of years past. UDC has a legacy of training students who are overlooked by the educational system. The institution traces its origin back to Miners Normal School, a teaching college for African-American women that was founded in 1851. The current UDC came into existence with the consolidation of the District of Columbia Teachers College and Federal City College in 1974.
To gain acceptance to the Flagship University, students will be expected to achieve a high school GPA of 2.5 and score a 1200 out of 2400 on the SAT, or a 2.0 GPA and 1400 out of 2400 on the SAT. The separate community college will retain the traditional open admission policy.
The President’s supporters, which include administrators and members of the Board of Trustees, point out that the increase would give the University much-needed revenue.
UDC’s tuition would also remain lower that that of comparable universities.
“This is an increase that is not going to affect most of our students,” Baxter said. “Most of our students will be covered by financial aid, and one third of our students will see a tuition reduction because they are enrolled in the community college.”
The members of Operation Save UDC disagree, arguing that an 86 percent tuition increase is unacceptable under any circumstances.
“The new proposal does not mention what the President or the Board of Trustees will do to raise more money from the local and federal government,” history major Alex Lopez said. “The new proposal has no mention of … [how UDC]will raise more money from the private sector. The only plan they have is to increase tuition [for the students].”
The median age of UDC students is 37, and 55 percent of students take classes on a part-time basis. Many students have to juggle their academic schedule with families and outside jobs, and can barely afford to pay tuition at its current rate. While many students continue to oppose the two-tiered plan, the option would allow more time for UDC to raise badly needed revenue while giving the students time to adjust to the increased financial burden.
Both supporters and detractors of the new administration recognize that UDC’s facilities and technology are in need of drastic improvement.
“UDC has not been perceived as a functional institution for a very long time,” Baxter said.
Students point to the nonexistent Student Center as an example of the University’s shortcomings.
“The student center is a total debacle and an entire mismanagement of student fees,” Kellibrew said. “We received $500,000 two years ago for the development of the Student Center’s blueprint. Today we don’t have a blueprint, and the architectural firm has been fired by Dr. Sessoms.”
Trustee Fernando Barrueta (COL `67) blamed the delays and mismanagement of the student center on the previous administration. He argued that President Sessoms, whose tenure began six months ago, should be given a chance to show that he is capable of producing results.
Since the 1970’s, UDC has struggled to free itself from the tight grasp of the District government. Unlike all other public universities in the nation, UDC does not enjoy autonomy from the local government. According to Trustee Emily Dorso (COL `73), the District government has control over UDC’s buildings, finances, and basic operations.
“We have no control over our own facilities,” Dorso said. “If this ceiling were to fall down tomorrow, [the President]can’t get out a bid tomorrow to fix it. He has to call the Office of Property Management. When they feel like it, they’ll come out here. When they feel like it, they’ll do an estimation. It could take two years to fix this room, because it’s not their problem.”
Trustees Dorso and Joseph Askew Jr. said that legislation has been introduced to the D.C. City Council that would grant the University greater autonomy. Dorso hopes the bill will pass before the Council goes to recess in June. According to Askew, UDC must renegotiate its federal charter with Congress to allow for full autonomy.
President Sessoms has called for exclusive control over UDC funds and property. He wants the University to be able to set its own budget without interference from the District government.
The administration’s proposals have come under heavy fire from the Faculty Association. On February 3, the Faculty Senate passed a unanimous “no confidence” vote in the leadership of President Sessoms. Members of the Association disapprove of the tuition increase, arguing that the President is preventing District residents from pursuing higher educational opportunities. According to the Association, the administration has failed to negotiate in good faith with the faculty.
However, not all faculty members share their colleagues’ sentiments. Ben Latigo, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, described Sessoms’ initiatives as a long-overdue step in the right direction.
“[President Sessoms’ actions] represent the vision of the vibrant university system that was envisioned for the District when UDC was founded in 1976,” Latigo said. “He announced his vision while he was a candidate, so no one should be surprised that he is now following through with it.”
Members of the Board of Trustees characterize the Faculty Association as out of touch with reality. According to Trustee Barrueta (COL `67), faculty members who support President Sessoms left the meeting in disgust before the vote of no confidence took place.
Trustees also explained that most of the faculty members have been teaching at UDC for more than 30 years, and up to 70 percent of the faculty does not use e-mail. This statement hints at general feeling among the Trustees that the professors are detached from reality. Sessoms is not winning any new allies among these members of the faculty by attempting to enforce new standards and hold instructors more accountable. Members of the administration and several Trustees privately confided that faculty members who are not upholding standards of excellence will be released from their contracts.
“The Faculty Association has every right to voice their own position on the actions of the administration,” Askew said. “I would just hope that we all keep in mind the most important thing, and that’s the students.”
Sessoms is a controversial figure at the University, but he has the confidence of nearly all the members of the Board of Trustees. After years of incompetent leadership, the Board wanted someone who could shake things up. They hired a professional search firm to find a new president and decided that Sessoms could lead UDC to realize its true potential.
Sessoms is a Yale-trained physicist who previously served as the President of Delaware State University and Queens College. He worked at the State Department for over a decade and taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government from 2000 to 2003. His supporters describe him as a brilliant man who has the ability to change UDC for the better.
“President Sessoms is the kind of guy who says, ‘There is a right way and a wrong way to do this,’ and he can be abrupt,” Barrueta said. “But as far as caring for the education that the students receive, he really cares, and his heart and intellect are absolutely in the right place.”
Opponents paint Sessoms as out of touch and condescending. They say he is unwilling to compromise and is bent on leading the University in the wrong direction. To illustrate their point, student activists circulated an article from the Queens College Messenger via e-mail.
“Shit in, shit out,” the quote attributed to Sessoms reads. “If you take in shit and turn out shit that is slightly more literate, you’re still left with shit.”
Sessoms is describing the students at Queens College in the statement.
The students’ concerns about access and consideration seem to be warranted. After this reporter’s numerous attempts to set up an interview with Sessoms over a period of three weeks, he remained elusive. At one point, an interview was scheduled for this article through one of Sessoms’s aides, but the President failed to show up. (According to his aides, he was “unavailable” at the specified time.) His assistants did not respond to calls or e-mails from then on.
“I think the President can work on better communication with students,” Askew said. “That is the reason why we put together a special task force on communications.”
Sessoms, Dorso, and Askew all serve on the University’s Communications Committee to improve dialogue with the UDC community.
The opposition to Sessoms’s plan has been led by William Kellibrew IV, a two-time student body President in his final term at UDC. Kellibrew is tall and dresses formally at public events. He is a highly effective communicator who has responded to the administration’s plans with public protests and a petition calling for the President’s resignation. Five hundred students have already signed the petition.
Kellibrew is backed by a range of student activists, including journalist Marco Murillo.
Murillo is an imposing figure in person, but his Facebook page describes his activities as “reading, cooking, learning, and talking.” One of his interests is listed as “militant Marxism.”
Murillo was handing out copies of an article he wrote at a rally on February 9. His pamphlets had the logo of the International Socialist Organization at the top of the page.
With his friend Joshua Lopez, William Kellibrew launched the website www.saveudc.com, which serves as a bulletin board for coordinating future events and protests. He also led an occupation of Sessoms’s office on February 5. According to Kellibrew, approximately 75 students entered the President’s office and demanded to speak with him.
In the office, Kellibrew accused Sessoms of using “shock therapy,” a concept developed by activist Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. Klein posits that governments exploit situations of crisis to implement policies that will be unpopular in the long term.
“Some people need shock therapy,” Sessoms replied.
Kellibrew is truly in his element when leading the members of Operation Save UDC. His passion for the cause is evident when he gives a speech or converses with passing students.
Kellibrew, Lopez, and other members of Operation Save UDC organized a two-week “sleep out” in the main square of UDC to protest the increase. During the day, protesters with large signs urged passing cars at Connecticut Ave. and Veazey Terrace to honk if they wanted to “save UDC.” Many drivers obliged, and an occasional semi-truck would voice its assent, deafening the crowd.
However, the administration took the protests in stride and seemed unconcerned about their development.
“They’re just having fun,” Provost Baxter said, looking out her large office window at the protesters.
As expected, the board voted to accept the tuition increase in their public meeting on February 18. Three of the 15 Trustees, including Jospeh Askew, voted against the proposal. However, the message was clear to the despondent students who filed out of the auditorium.
“Any tuition increase is painful, particularly at a public institution, but I couldn’t see any other way to achieve our goals,” Dorso said. “These students in this room have been let down so many times … I want to be back here on this stage this time next year with a PowerPoint presentation of all the money we raised and the things we got done.”
Despite the tuition increase, the members of Operation Save UDC have not given up hope. The latest version of their website provides a link to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office, urging students to contact the Mayor about the increase.
The group has already hired a lawyer, Tyler King, and they plan to challenge the legality of the tuition increase in court. According to Kellibrew, Operation Save UDC has gained the support of City Council members Marion Barry and Muriel Bowser and is reaching out for Congressional support.
In the meantime, the showdown continues between working students with a legitimate grievance and a reformer President determined not to let UDC continue in its present, dysfunctional state.
Yet Trustee Joseph Askew Jr., who voted against the tuition increase, expressed hope about the future of UDC.
“The University is going in a great direction,” Askew said. “The vision of the institution, I believe, is a vision that could lead us to be an even greater center of learning. I think that in order to be successful it’s going to take the government, the President, the Board, and the students to achieve the success that I know UDC can be.”