Interim UDC President Prepares to 'Rally Troops'

Dorothy Rowley | 3/27/2013, 8:45 p.m.

After months of financial discord that led to numerous faculty and staff layoffs, massive tuition hikes, and constant turnovers in leadership, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) might finally be on the road to recovery.

But one of the first orders of business for James Lyons, Ph.D., the newly-appointed interim president, is to strengthen the school's relationship with its 6,000-member student body.

"We could be the next model [of local higher education]. We're sending mixed messages [about our relevance in the community] and we've got to fix that by marching together to show that we are one," Lyons said to a crowd of faculty, staff and students who gathered on the university's campus, inside Building 39 on March 21, where he was formally introduced by UDC Board of Trustees chairwoman Elaine Crider.

Lyons, 69, went on to say that with the help of faculty and staff, the campus could become more student-friendly.

"You're not just here to draw paychecks," said Lyons, who has more than 40 years experience in higher education. "We're here to serve our students and to give them an opportunity, because if they are successful, they can give back to UDC." He added that, "I'm not coming here with the mindset that others have failed, but with the understanding that I can lead if I can rally the troops together."

Meanwhile, Lyons, the former president of Bowie State University in Maryland and two other colleges, said he expects to be at the helm no longer than 18 months.

During that time, and as the UDC Board of Trustees continues its nationwide search for a permanent president, Lyons knows he has his work cut out for him re-positioning the beleaguered school and "getting the word out that this is a new day at UDC," he said.

UDC, the District's only public university, has weathered years of financial difficulties which peaked during the four-year presidency of Allen M. Sessoms.

In December, Sessoms' contract was terminated by the board of trustees after a series of financial disclosures that cited his use of public funds for expensive trips and other personal expenditures, a request to the D.C. Council for $4 million to help cover severance packages and relocation of the university's community college to the Van Ness campus in order to obtain additional funding.

By late fall, Sessoms had sanctioned an $8 million cut in UDC's $108 million operating budget, and several programs and curriculums were headed to the chopping block. Students voiced their outrage and faculty and staff started whispering among themselves that the board's displeasure with Sessoms would soon come to an end.

Lyon's also fielded questions from the audience after his introductory speech.

Elsie Williams, a longtime English and literature professor, asked about the lack of continuity among board members. Lyons responded that it was a matter he'd like to take up with Mayor Vincent C. Gray - but at the right time.

"I'd be happy to raise the issue but in the right way," he said in reference to the board's constant turnover. "It's a challenge worth noting, but when appropriate."

Ollo Jean Dosc Pooda, who serves as the board's student representative, participated in Lyons' hiring. He expressed excitement over the appointment.

"Dr. Lyons will [jump-start] the relationship with students and the administration," said Dosc Pooda, 35, a business management and finance major.

"There was a crisis [between] students and the leadership. We didn't trust [Sessoms] because we didn't feel valued. Now, with Dr. Lyons [at the helm], it feels like a new day. He will certainly rally his troops and turn things around."