Twenty-three-year-old Cornell Parks always dreamed of attending college. He longed to study information technology. The Southeast resident couldn't afford to enroll in a four-year school, so the University of the District of Columbia's Community College [UDC-CC] proved a logical choice.
But just as Parks settled into his first year of studies, he learned that his school's flagship institution, the University of the District of Columbia [UDC] plans to relocate the P.R. Harris Educational Center he attends in Southeast and the community college's two other locations – the former Bertie Backus Elementary School and the 801 North Capitol St. building in Northeast – to the UDC campus, miles across the city, in Northwest.
"I had my sights set on completing my studies at P.R. Harris, which is close to my home on 29th Street," said a disheartened Parks, who counted among a packed chamber of faculty and staff, students and community advocates who made their way Thursday, Oct.11 to the John A. Wilson Building in downtown D.C. to protest UDC's intent to right-size its faculty and staff.
"I depend on public transportation, and for them to close down the building I attend will be devastating . . . I don't have the money to travel to Northwest every day for my classes," Parks said.
The D.C. Council Committee on Jobs and Workforce Development, chaired by Ward 5 representative Kenyan McDuffie, 36, hosted the full-house Public Oversight Hearing.
However, during the lengthy hearing, a succession of speakers opposed to relocating the community college to the flagship campus on Connecticut Avenue, acknowledged that UDC has been in a critical financial state for numerous years, and that tightening its grip on UDC-CC will help offset some cash flow woes.
On the other hand, many among the crowd of more than 300 people – including the overflow that spilled into another room and into the hallway – also believe the plan to "right-size" UDC will destabilize enrollment and undermine the community college's importance. Still, while others agreed that right-sizing is a tough decision that would primarily impact personnel nearing the age of retirement, they said it's "the smart thing to do" in order to operate UDC more effectively and efficiently.
"UDC should be able to right-size itself without harming the community college," said McDuffie, adding that it remains necessary for the two separate institutions to exist.
At-large Council member Michael Brown, 47, who sat at the table three years ago when plans for the launch of UDC-CC were being discussed, remains a champion of the school, and encouraged students at the hearing to "self-advocate."
He also noted that UDC-CC has enhanced the standing of UDC, and that by all indications, the community college appeared "very sustainable" when it first opened in 2009.
Brown said however, that as a result of an investigation by his office, they "discovered several troubling realities" surrounding UDC. Specifically, that UDC's cost per student are the highest among its peer colleges.
Brown expressed concern with the manner in which UDC arrived at its decisions that will impact at least 25 faculty and staff members and hundreds of its community college students. At this time, UDC boasts an enrollment of just over 6,000 students – half attend UDC-CC.
"You know I have your back," Brown told the students – many of whom listened to the proceedings from outside the packed chamber. "We mandated that UDC come up with a plan to right-size in view of all [of] its expenditures," said Brown, who has oversight of the community college and stressed that UDC receives $65 million each year in taxpayer funding.
He said that UDC's right-sizing plan poses more questions than answers.
"Who were its consultants and why weren't the mayor and D.C. Council more involved," Brown asked. Noting cuts of about 20 percent in personnel at UDC-CC compared to 70 percent staff cuts at UDC, Brown said things seemed out of balance.
He added that it would be a travesty to relocate UDC-CC's three buildings.
"There's a great need for the community college to maintain its presence in the city's various communities, especially for those who need workforce training,"said Emory McIver, who's employed at the North Capitol Street Workforce Development Center. "However, if they close those sites down, the convenience of them being there will be derided and create a hardship on students who really need them in their neighborhoods."
Sessoms has been at the helm since 2008, and during that time has effected sweeping changes at the university. Not only did he separate the institution in half with formation of the community college, Sessoms, 65, offered an open admissions policy for the four-year university, with higher tuition and admission standards.
Nonetheless, UDC has still dealt with a myriad of problems that include a dip in enrollment trends, student and staff protests over curriculum and program changes and concern over Sessoms' spending habits.
At a time when other area two-year institutions like Prince George's Community College are receiving millions of dollars in state and federal grants to support cybersecurity training and other projects aimed at increasing enrollment, to UDC's defense, Sessoms insists the community college is being left out of the loop. Particularly, when it comes to local funding.
"The District simply has not been allocating the necessary funding," Sessoms said. "We got the Bertie Backus and the P. R. Harris sites for the community college, as well as a nod on a lease/purchase arrangement on the building on North Capitol Street. But it's costing us $2 million more a year, which is pretty expensive. As a result, we've had to consider moving those facilities back to the main campus and saving $5 million a year."