People here at Delaware State University tend to fall into one of two camps: those who think Allen L. Sessoms is the best thing that has ever happened to this historically black institution, and those who think he's the worst.
No one here denies that Mr. Sessoms, 58, has made his mark in his first two years as the university's president. He has overhauled its administration and faculty, beefed up its athletics department, expanded its advanced-degree offerings, and increased its efforts to attract outside research dollars and educate nontraditional students. Alumni giving has risen by about 22 percent, from $78,000 to just over $95,000 annually; the endowment has grown from $14-million to $17-million; and the number of students who drop out in any given year has declined from 300 to 70, out of a total student population of 3,000.
“He seems to be in a hurry to bring change,” observes Stephen C. Taylor, an assistant professor of philosophy. “Four thumbs up,” says H. Preston Hayward, an associate professor of chemistry.
Along the way, however, Mr. Sessoms has alienated key constituencies, including the university's 700-member alumni association, which voted no confidence in his leadership in May; its faculty and staff unions, which are fighting him in court over contract issues; and the state chapter of the NAACP, which has denounced him as a threat to Delaware State's reputation.
“I don't know what the future holds for the university, but it is hard to be optimistic,” says J. Thomas Butler, a professor of health education who is chairman of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
The resistance to Mr. Sessoms is due in part to his blunt, aggressive leadership style. Even Mr. Taylor, who considers himself a supporter of the president's, says Mr. Sessoms “can easily offend people as soon as he opens his mouth.”
But his most polarizing attribute may be his emphasis on “historically” in Delaware State's designation as one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities. He is trying to transform the university into one that serves, and attracts support from, all Delawareans. It is a goal that does not sit well with much of the university's black base.
“His philosophy is that there is no longer a need for HBCU's,” says Alfred A. Outlaw, president of the Delaware State University Alumni Association, echoing the fears of many of Mr. Sessoms' critics.
“HBCU's have a tremendous legacy,” responds Mr. Sessoms. “Delaware State University has a very strong legacy. But that's then, and what we need to do now is create the future. There is no reason for any of these institutions to exist just because they existed in the past. People have to want you to exist because they see a value in you.”
Although some public historically black colleges are thriving, many others are struggling with financial troubles, a lack of state support, and questions of identity that have arisen as they become more racially integrated. William R. Harvey, chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents all of the nation's 105 historically black colleges, would not comment specifically on Mr. Sessoms or his leadership of Delaware State, because, he says, he has not closely followed developments there. But Mr. Harvey, who is also president of historically black Hampton University, in Virginia, says many HBCU's are suffering because they lack strong leaders with vision, leaders who recognize that “to make an omelet you need to break some eggs.”
Those who roost at Delaware State are not taking such egg breaking quietly. Although Mr. Sessoms is black, he has been accused of driving out competent black administrators, favoring poorly prepared white applicants for admission over better-qualified black ones, and even trying to ban campus performances of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as “the black national anthem.” He has strongly denied these allegations, and, indeed, there is scant evidence to support most of them. Nonetheless, they continued to dog him as the new academic year got under way this month.
A Bronx Bull
Delawareans often think of their small state as divided into two regions. At its northern tip are the Wilmington and Newark metropolitan areas, which account for about two-thirds of the state's population and most of its business and industry. Dover, the capital, sits squarely in “lower Delaware,” where agriculture predominates and the pace of life is much slower. The city is home to Delaware State, a large Air Force base, and an enormous harness-racing and slot-machine facility, Dover Downs, and it is surrounded in all directions by small towns, cornfields, and chicken farms.
In many respects, Mr. Sessoms seems out of place here. A child of the Bronx, N.Y., he earned a doctorate in physics from Yale University and spent much of his life working as a science adviser and diplomat for the U.S. State Department, with stints in France and Mexico. The walls of his office are adorned with fine oil paintings that he has collected in his world travels. A stereo fills the room with classical music.
Lee G. Streetman, an associate professor of sociology who handles grievances for the campus chapter of the AAUP, accuses him of traveling too much and living “an aristocratic lifestyle,” on his $205,000 annual salary. Mr. Sessoms declines to respond to the complaints about his travels, but administrators note that many of his trips have been to build partnerships between Delaware State and foreign universities in such nations as China, Egypt, Nigeria, and Serbia.
Many students see Mr. Sessoms as too brusque. When they impersonate him, they speak quickly and nasally, trying to sound excessively businesslike.
“He is very arrogant the way he is, like 'This is my law and this is the way it is going to be,'” says Malinda A. Johnson, a senior majoring in biotechnology and chemistry, who believes that the university “is losing really good faculty because they don't want to put up with the politics that is going on here.”
Mr. Sessoms lost his job as president of Queens College of the City University of New York partly as a result of a controversy over remarks he made in discussing remedial students. A reporter had asked him about his advocacy of higher admissions standards and quoted him responding, “[Expletive] in, [expletive] out. … If you take in [expletive] and turn out [expletive] that is slightly more literate, you're still left with [expletive].”
Mr. Sessoms initially said he had been misquoted, but later, through a lawyer, acknowledged using a “salty” term. CUNY officials cited Mr. Sessoms' remarks, as well as his initial failure to own up to them, in forcing him to resign after five years in office (The Chronicle, April 21, 2000). They also accused him of claiming to have raised money that never actually materialized. Mr. Sessoms refuses to comment on the accusations related to his fund raising. Looking back at his remarks regarding remedial students, he says he stands by the view underlying them: That four-year colleges do no one any favor when they admit, and collect tuition payments from, students who are likely to fail because they are unprepared for the work.
John W. Land, vice chairman of Delaware State's Board of Trustees, says that, as head of the board's presidential search committee, he had looked into Mr. Sessoms' ouster from Queens and concluded that he was simply the victim of “political enemies” who had opposed the changes he was making. Likewise, Claibourne D. Smith, chairman of Delaware State's board, says he is confident that the controversy at Queens was “blown way out of proportion.”
“I just think he has the vision and leadership to really move the institution,” sums up Mr. Land.
Missing the Market
Established in 1891 as the State College for Colored Students, Delaware State has always operated in the shadows of the state's other four-year public college, the University of Delaware. The state appropriated $121.2-million to the University of Delaware for the current fiscal year; Delaware State received $36.7-million.
When Mr. Sessoms arrived, in 2003, Delaware State had about 3,200 students, compared with about 16,000 at the University of Delaware. Although it had changed its name from Delaware State College 10 years before, “it was still a college with a college mentality,” the president says. It had no doctoral programs and was taking in only about $8-million annually in outside support for research.
What especially bothered Mr. Sessoms was Delaware State's failure to crack an annual list, compiled then by the journal Black Issues in Higher Education, of the 100 top producers of black recipients of master's degrees. Nearby Wilmington College, a private institution that is not an HBCU, had made the list mainly by reaching out to older, nontraditional students, a market that proprietary colleges such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University are also poised to tap, and one that Delaware State, with little in the way of distance-education offerings, had largely ignored.
Although Jim Crow was long dead, and white (mainly commuter) students had accounted for a tenth or more of Delaware State's undergraduate enrollment for decades, the university had continued to focus on serving black Delawareans. About 80 percent of the university's undergraduates and 54 percent of its graduate students are black, while black residents account for about 20 percent of the state's overall population and a much smaller share of most lower-Delaware communities.
In staking its future on attracting black high-school graduates, the university had “made assumptions that were no longer correct” and ignored a huge share of its potential market, Mr. Sessoms says.
Fewer than 20 percent of its students were graduating in four years, and fewer than 30 percent were graduating in five — statistics that Mr. Sessoms says he found shocking. For most, the chief obstacle to graduation was money; 70 percent of those who dropped out did so in good academic standing.
Mr. Sessoms believes that the key to solving what he sees as Delaware State's problems is growth.
Only by substantially increasing its enrollments can it take in enough money to be financially stable and emerge as a big enough force in the state to command support from lawmakers, he says. Only by growing, and expanding its research efforts and academic offerings, can it gain national prominence and become an institution that Delawareans can look upon with pride.
Mr. Sessoms' long-term goal is to triple the university's enrollment, to about 10,000 students, in 10 years, with about half to be adult learners who commute to campus or rely on distance education. By increasing the share of enrolled students who can pay the full in-state tuition — $5,110 a year, following a 10-percent increase — he hopes to be able to raise funds to provide more aid to the many students who need it.
“We have to embrace the marketplace to be successful,” he says.
To help prepare Delawareans for fields that are in high demand, Mr. Sessoms has moved to establish doctoral programs in applied mathematics, mathematical physics, and educational leadership, and has contracted with a New York-based company, Sessions.edu, to offer an online master's-degree program in Web design and graphics arts.
To free up professors to conduct more research with outside support, he has cut the teaching loads of some by half or two-thirds and hired adjunct faculty members to cover many of their classes. Federal and private support for research on campus has tripled, to about $24-million annually.
To help more students transfer into Delaware State, Mr. Sessoms has worked with the Delaware Technical and Community College System to establish a dual-admissions program guaranteeing Delaware Tech graduates admission, priority for certain courses, and a $1,000 scholarship for their first semester.
At the same time, however, Delaware State has put in place tougher admissions standards, adopted before Mr. Sessoms' arrival. This year, for the first time, it requires entering freshmen to take a standardized placement test and holds instructors accountable for students' academic progress.
“I want to bring in every student in Delaware who is qualified to do four-year-college work,” Mr. Sessoms says. “But the ones who have demonstrable weakness … should go to community college first.”
The university has expanded the academic offerings on its satellite campuses, in Wilmington and Georgetown, and has built three dormitories on the Dover campus to increase its residential capacity from 1,140 to 1,768 students.
Mr. Sessoms has also mounted a big effort to strengthen the athletics programs and to elevate the football team from Division I-AA to Division I-A. He has replaced the football coach and athletics director, substantially increased spending on coaches' salaries, and asked state lawmakers for $40-million to help finance the construction of a $92-million athletics facility, including a 14,500-seat football stadium and a 7,500-seat arena.
Many students and faculty members, arguing that Delaware State's football team will never draw enough fans to crack Division I-A, say it is folly to devote so much time and money to getting it there.
Mr. Sessoms disagrees, citing the publicity Delaware State received in March when its men's basketball team played in the NCAA Division I tournament, losing to top-seeded Duke University in the first round. “We have to go big-time in athletics because this is America, and people go crazy about sports,” he says. “It gives you visibility and recognition. You are who you play.”
Meanwhile, many students on the campus complain that the quality of their education has deteriorated as a result of the university's increased reliance on adjuncts. And the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors has filed a complaint of unfair labor practices with the state's Public Employment Relations Board, alleging that Mr. Sessoms had violated its contract with the university by bypassing faculty members in entering into an agreement with Sessions.edu to provide online courses.
Members of the university's three staff-union locals began picketing late last month, while remaining on their jobs, to protest the lack of an agreement on bread-and-butter issues after three years of contract negotiations. Among the picketers was Michelle I. Thomas, a secretary in the department of sociology, who says that 13 unionized positions have been eliminated on the campus, and that staff members who object to working longer hours to pick up the slack are being subjected to “harassing, miserable conditions.” (Ms. Thomas's conflict with the university administration predates Mr. Sessoms' arrival, however, and other staff members interviewed on the campus recently said they were happy with their jobs.)
What has triggered the biggest backlash against Mr. Sessoms, however, are the personnel changes that he has made in the administration, the faculty, and the athletics department.
The new athletics director, Chuck Bell, is the first white person to hold that position. Several black administrators elsewhere in the university have quit or been ousted, and were replaced with white ones. The proportion of faculty members who are black decreased from 43.5 percent in 2002 to 42 percent in 2004, but that trend began well before Mr. Sessoms arrived.
Mr. Sessoms says he has tried to hire black administrators but has had trouble matching the offers that black candidates have received from larger universities or major corporations. Regarding the several administrators whom he has fired or pushed out, he says: “I see no reason for the university to maintain folks who are not doing their job. We simply can't afford it. It is not fair to the students paying the bills. It is not fair to the taxpayers paying the bills. And it's not fair to the people who are really working hard to make the place work.”
“No students are in favor of sacrificing quality of the administration for color,” says Delano D. Hunter, a senior who is president of the Student Government Association. “We don't just want faces in those places.” But the administrative hires made by Mr. Sessoms, says Mr. Hunter, are sending “the wrong message, … that there are no competent black people for those positions.”
Following her abrupt resignation, in March, Dorothy E. Talbert-Hersi, a black woman who had been assistant vice president for academic support services, became a force in galvanizing the opposition to Mr. Sessoms. She appeared at an NAACP news conference held to denounce the president, and her name and departure have been repeatedly invoked by Mr. Sessoms' critics.
Ms. Talbert-Hersi says she resigned over “a clash of philosophies” with the new administration. She declined to elaborate on the points of contention, other than to say they dealt with disagreements over management rather than issues of race. Mr. Sessoms says he does not know why she resigned.
In a letter in March to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, and to Mr. Smith, the university trustees' chairman, two black politicians — State Rep. Hazel D. Plant and Jea P. Street, a New Castle County councilman — called Ms. Talbert-Hersi “a person of stellar reputation and a committed administrator” and said they were “extremely concerned” about her departure. The letter accused Mr. Sessoms of making “rude and disparaging remarks” about his own university, showing an “obvious disregard and disdain” for its legacy, promoting policies that will keep out academically capable students, and mistreating and impugning “proven, capable, and competent staff.”
Ms. Plant and Mr. Street threatened to seek help from federal courts or the U.S. Education Department unless action was taken against Mr. Sessoms. But Governor Minner advised them that the matter was in the hands of Delaware State's board, and other state lawmakers have expressed a similar desire to stay out of the university's affairs, at least for the time being. “I do think Delaware State needs to adapt a little bit,” says State Sen. David P. Sokola, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He says he gives Mr. Sessoms “the benefit of the doubt” because “you need to give people a little bit of leeway before it is appropriate to expect results.”
Only one member of Delaware State's board, Norman M. Oliver, has been less than supportive of Mr. Sessoms. He has harshly criticized the president for failing to put more black people in leadership positions. “When we can't seem to put any blacks in power,” says Mr. Oliver, “I think it speaks for itself.”
In May the campus chapter of the AAUP surveyed faculty members, librarians, and counselors at Delaware State on their views of its administration. About 42 percent responded, and, of them, just 11 percent said they had confidence in Mr. Sessoms' leadership or would keep him in office if given a say in the matter. The president has dismissed the poll's results as “trumped up,” but AAUP officials insist that it was fair.
Faculty members and students remain deeply divided in their views of the university's leader and his plans for the place.
Rodney E. McNair, an associate professor of mathematics who is chairman of the Faculty Senate, says that given the limited number of public higher-education options available in the state, he would rather see Delaware State remain open to anyone seeking a four-year degree. But he regards many of the changes being brought about by Mr. Sessoms as necessary, and argues that many of those who oppose him are “just people who are set in their ways.”
Mr. Hayward, the chemistry professor, praises Mr. Sessoms for promoting faculty members “based on their ability to teach and do research” rather than “politics and personal preference.” But Ehsan M. Helmy, a professor of physics and pre-engineering who has been at Delaware State for 25 years, says the physics department remains without adequate funds, and that the university is spending too much on athletics.
Among students, Ebony N. Montague, a political-science major, complains that under Mr. Sessoms “we are losing focus of the whole heritage of the HBCU.” But Kashonna M. Harvey, disagrees: “He is an African-American. He knows our struggle.”
Many students acknowledge that their views of Mr. Sessoms are based largely on the rumors that have flown around the Dover campus. A year ago students were in an uproar over his alleged effort to ban “Lift Every Voice and Sing” after he expressed the view that the song should not supplant “The Star-Spangled Banner” at college events. Among the more recent rumors being spread around campus — and flatly denied by the university's leaders — are allegations that Mr. Sessoms is trying to change the school colors, and that wealthy white students who lack qualifications for admission are buying their way in.
For his part, Mr. Sessoms says the intensity of the racial politics invoked by his opponents on campus “baffles me.”
“My obligation is to make sure that students who graduate here are prepared to compete against the best in the world, and that this university is fiscally sound and well managed. I don't care about anything else,” he says. “And if people say there is a color to that, I ask very simply: 'What color is a win? What color is success?'”
ALLEN L. SESSOMS
Born November 17, 1946, the Bronx, N.Y.
B.S. in physics, Union College (N.Y.), 1968
M.S. in physics, University of Washington, 1969
M.A. in philosophy, University of Washington, 1971
Ph.D. in physics, Yale University, 1972
President, Delaware State University, since July 2003; contract runs through 2007
Fellow and lecturer of public policy, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, 2000-3
President, Queens College of the City University of New York, 1995-2000
Executive vice president (1993-95) and vice president for academic affairs (1994-95) in the University of Massachusetts system
Civil-service career highlights
Minister-counselor of political affairs (1989-91) and deputy ambassador (1991-93), U.S. Embassy in Mexico
Counselor for scientific and technological affairs, U.S. Embassy in France, 1987-89
Director, Office of Technology and Safeguards, U.S. State Department, 1982-87
Senior technical adviser, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. State Department, 1980-82
Divorced, with two daughters, ages 13 and 14. In addition to his job at Delaware State, he advises the U.S. Department of Energy on energy research and technology, is a consultant to the U.S. director of national intelligence, and serves on the Board of Overseers of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Along with keeping up with academic literature in his fields, Mr. Sessoms is an avid collector of art and devotes time to the Delaware Arts Council and the Drawing Center, in New York City. He is also a trustee of Chapman University, a California institution affiliated with the Disciples of Christ.