The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Allen Sessoms

Physicist and education administrator Allen Lee Sessoms was born in 1946. He attended Union College in New York where he graduated with his B.S. degree in physics in 1968. He then attended the University of Washington, where he obtained his M.S. degree in physics the following year. Sessoms went on to Yale University where he earned his Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) degree in physics in 1971 and his Ph.D. degree in physics in 1972. Following his graduate school work, Sessoms became a postdoctoral research associate at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) where he wrote computer programs and studied the production of quarks by high-energy protons at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab).

In 1973, Sessoms was hired to work as a scientific associate at the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN), where he researched quarks and similar particles. While at CERN, Sessoms became an assistant professor of physics at Harvard University. Sessoms moved to the U.S. State Department in 1980 as a senior technical advisor for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. From 1982 to 1987, Sessoms served as Director of the Office of Nuclear Technology and Safeguards in the same Bureau before becoming a Counselor for Scientific and Technological Affairs at the United States Embassy in Paris, France. Sessoms then traveled to Mexico, where he was a Minister-Counsel for Political Affairs at the United States Embassy before serving as its Deputy Chief of Mission, then the largest United States diplomatic mission in the world. In 1993, Sessoms left the United States State Department and began working as executive vice president at the University of Massachusetts system and also became its vice president for academic affairs. Following his time in Massachusetts, Sessoms was named president of Queens College, part of The City University of New York. Sessoms then spent time at Harvard University, first as a visiting scholar and then as a fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and as a lecturer in public policy. From 2003 to 2008, Sessoms served as the ninth president of Delaware State University prior to his appointment as president of the University of the District of Columbia. He is also a consultant to the U.S. intelligence community.

Sessoms has received a Ford Foundation Travel and Study Grant and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship. He has been bestowed two honorary doctorates from Union College and Soka University in Japan. Sessoms also received the Medal of Highest Honor from Soka University and the Seikyo Culture Award in Japan. In 1999, the Yale University Graduate School Association awarded him the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal and he was named the Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (“Officer of the Order of Academic Palms) in France.

Accession Number

A2012.135

Sex

Male

Interview Date

9/13/2012

Last Name

Sessoms

Middle Name

Lee

Schools

Yale University

University of Washington

Union College

First Name

Allen

Birth City, State, Country

New York

HM ID

SES01

Favorite Season

All Seasons

State

New York

Favorite Vacation Destination

Paris, France, Skiing In Switzerland

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

11/17/1946

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Lobster

Short Description

Physicist and university president Allen Sessoms (1946 - ) served in many areas of the State Department before being hired as president of Delaware State University and the University of the District of Columbia.

Employment

University of the District of Columbia

Delaware State University

Harvard University

Queens College

United States Department of State

United States State Department

European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Bureau of Oceans & International Environmental and Scientific Affairs

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Favorite Color

Magenta

Timing Pairs
0,0:1079,20:1411,25:1826,33:5312,126:7221,176:9130,202:10209,232:10707,239:14940,321:22470,379:22944,386:30240,498:30810,505:33660,564:38990,608:39694,622:42254,677:45679,723:49430,766:51880,832:54680,956:61104,1000:62406,1034:76940,1235:81295,1343:83180,1381:83635,1389:83895,1394:88740,1468:94600,1573:95704,1596:107372,1864:108188,1873:111540,1915:119310,2119:123460,2180:123956,2189:127552,2296:129908,2337:131334,2366:131706,2373:137666,2433:140040,2478$0,0:2228,44:2460,49:2982,59:5186,146:8898,252:9130,257:15290,346:15818,355:16082,360:16544,369:21392,416:21856,425:22320,432:22842,437:23132,443:23538,456:24002,466:26120,478:27523,515:29536,577:29780,595:31244,622:31610,630:34370,643:34710,649:35050,660:37022,720:37702,725:37974,730:41238,810:44815,841:45608,856:45974,863:46584,876:47011,885:51604,928:61080,1139:61360,1144:62506,1154:63370,1173:63802,1181:64522,1192:66222,1215:68078,1263:69818,1294:70224,1302:73750,1374:74400,1392:75500,1435:75700,1440:76200,1453:80184,1498:82230,1561:82560,1568:84408,1611:85926,1656:86652,1670:87114,1686:87444,1692:92090,1719:92330,1724:94310,1799:94850,1818:96110,1852:96470,1859:96710,1864:97010,1870:97430,1879:102240,1925:102704,1934:111497,1996:112476,2010:113277,2015:116125,2055:116748,2063:124313,2174:125988,2207:126524,2216:128668,2255:129137,2266:134370,2357:135994,2389:138570,2474:138794,2479:144987,2525:145540,2533:146172,2552:146883,2566:147357,2574:151230,2617:151602,2625:152842,2659:153834,2677:154082,2682:154764,2702:155322,2712:156748,2751:158360,2795:158608,2800:159786,2815:162762,2887:165552,2964:166296,2998:172625,3037:177638,3092:178523,3113:179349,3125:179703,3132:181768,3215:182063,3221:182417,3229:182712,3238:183715,3261:184010,3270:193266,3383:193707,3391:194085,3398:194337,3403:195030,3415:196668,3439:197235,3451:197991,3465:198999,3488:199440,3497:200196,3518:209854,3666:210174,3672:213260,3680:213890,3691:214268,3699:214898,3710:220450,3775:223318,3811:223573,3817:226174,3903:226480,3910:226786,3917:227245,3927:227449,3932:227857,3948:229922,3960:230648,3968:233285,3991:233709,4002:234080,4011:234292,4016:234557,4022:235140,4034:236412,4058:236624,4064:237313,4075:238320,4096:238532,4101:239062,4112:239327,4118:240281,4142:242348,4202:245690,4208:246392,4233:247094,4244:251798,4302:256434,4425:256922,4434:269360,4670:270680,4703:270920,4708:271280,4716:271640,4724:274230,4759
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Allen Sessoms' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms talks about his mother's migration to New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms talks about the African American migration to New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms talks about working at Lincoln Hospital, New York, during high school

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms talks about his father's service in the military during World War II

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms describes how his parents met and his father's musical talent

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Allen Sessoms talks about his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Allen Sessoms describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms talks about attending church as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms describes the apartment where he grew up in the Bronx, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms describes the neighborhood where he grew up in the Bronx, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms describes his early education

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms describes his interest in science

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms describes his childhood summer activities

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms describes his father's entrepreneurial activities

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms describes his musical experience at Walter J. Damrosch Middle School

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Walter J. Damrosch Junior High School

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms talks about his involvement with running track

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms talks about his brother

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Theodore Roosevelt High School

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms talks about the demographics of Theodore Roosevelt High School

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms describes his decision to attend Union College

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Brookhaven National Labs

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Union College, in Schenectady, New York - part one

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Union College, in Schenectady, New York - part two

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Allen Sessoms talks about his father being his hero

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms talks about the reactions to Dr. Martin Luther King's death, and the political climate of the 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms describes his decision to pursue his graduate studies at the University of Washington

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at the University of Washington

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms talks about his decision to return to the east coast to attend Yale University for his doctoral studies

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms reflects upon race relations in the United States

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms talks about his early days in New Haven, Connecticut in 1969

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Yale University, and talks about his first advisor, D. Alan Bromley

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms talks about the poor science preparation at some HBCUs

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms talks about his doctoral thesis advisor, Bob Adair

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Allen Sessoms talks about his doctoral thesis research on the structure-function of the K meson

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Allen Sessoms talks about Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the lessons he learned at Yale University

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Allen Sessoms talks about his post-doctoral experience at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and his opportunity to go to work at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience as a scientific associate at CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms describes his work in experimental particle physics on the Intersecting Storage Ring Collider (ISR) at CERN

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms talks about science as a global enterprise

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms describes his decision to accept an assistant professorship in the physics department at Harvard University

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms talks about physicist, Richard Feynman

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at Harvard University, and his interaction with notable scientists and faculty

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms talks about his experience as a Sloan Foundation Fellow, at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA)

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms talks about his experience with racial stereotyping while working at the U.S. State Department

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience while serving as a nuclear science advisor at the U.S. State Department in the 1980s

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Allen Sessoms talks about the difference between the Carter and Reagan administrations' approach to nuclear weapons

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms talks about his experience at the Bureau of Oceans and International Environment of Scientific Affairs

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience as Counselor for Scientific and Technological Affairs for the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms discusses the deficiencies in STEM education in schools today

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms describes his role in mediating the argument between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, on the discovery of HIV

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience as the Minister and Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms talks about the importance of US-Mexico relations

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms talks about his transition from politics into higher education administration

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms talks about his work for the U.S. Foreign Service, and his experience at the University of Massachusetts

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms talks about leaving the University of Massachusetts, and his decision to become the president of Queens College, New York

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms talks about the long hours that are required to become a successful experimental physicist

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms describes his role in establishing dormitories on the campus of Queens College, New York, while he was the president

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience in trying to establish a cancer and HIV research center at Queens College, New York

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms talks about the merits of Queens College, and the diverse community of Queens, New York

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms talks about his departure from Queens College, and his decision to return to Harvard University

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms describes his experience at the Belford Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, and recollects the 9/11 attack

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms describes his role as president of Delaware State University

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms describes his role in strengthening the football and basketball teams at Delaware State University

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms talks about his role in increasing funding for Ph.D. programs at Delaware State University

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Allen Sessoms talks about the shooting tragedy at Delaware State University in 2007

Tape: 7 Story: 11 - Allen Sessoms talks about his efforts to increase the diversity of the student body and faculty at Delaware State University

Tape: 7 Story: 12 - Allen Sessoms describes the problems faced by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC)

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Allen Sessoms talks his work at the University of the District of Columbia, and the politics in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Allen Sessoms talks about the history, the diverse demographics, and the affordable tuition rates at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC)

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Allen Sessoms talks about STEM education efforts at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC)

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Allen Sessoms talks about the focus on international studies at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC)

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Allen Sessoms reflects upon his tenure as the president of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC)

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Allen Sessoms reflects upon his life's choices

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Allen Sessoms reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Allen Sessoms talks about his hopes and concerns for the African American community today

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Allen Sessoms talks about his family

Tape: 8 Story: 10 - Allen Sessoms talks about how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$6

DAStory

3$6

DATitle
Allen Sessoms talks about science as a global enterprise
Allen Sessoms talks about the importance of US-Mexico relations
Transcript
Seemed like I had a note about a French class that you were taking in college or something but is that--?$$Well I--$$You took German, I know that.$$I took German when I was in college. I taught myself French when I was in graduate school because in order to get a Ph.D., actually you had to, in order to be qualified to take a qualifying exam you know you had to be fluent in a second language, more or less fluent and you had to be able to read a third language. So I had English, my German was pretty good, I could read and write in German and I taught myself French so I could read in French. And that allowed me to pass the language qualifying exams so I could actually take the physics qualifying exam so I had the three languages. Nowadays you get by with computer programming or something which is kind of ridiculous but that preparation really was fantastic cause then I went to Geneva and I could speak French. And in two and a half years my French got pretty darn good and it was very helpful to me later on cause then when I joined the foreign service I went to the U.S. embassy in Paris [France], I didn't have to learn French, I knew French. But those things, that's a part of the scientific intellectual environment that I think that's somewhat missing in a lot of places. I mean the language piece is crucial. Science is international by definition. There's nothing that happens here that doesn't happen somewhere else and our collaborators are global. I mean when I was working in Geneva [Switzerland] for example, we had collaborators from thirty countries. When I was working at Yale [University, New Haven, Connecticut], we had collaborators from maybe twp. Now if you're working at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland] you had collaborators from fifty! You know it's just the way it is. If you don't have the language facility and you don't sort of appreciate some of the different cultures you're not going to be successful in those environments because science now is such a global enterprise, certainly the big science of particle physics is that it's really a social enterprise. It's not the scientific enterprise where somebody back in the old days sits at a table with two or three graduate students and does something and those days have been long gone in physics. And you have to be in some sense the social sciences as well you have to understand social dynamics and being broadly cultural allows you to do that.$And the experience in Mexico--Mexico is the most important country in the world to the United States and I say that for a lot of reasons. One is what happens in Mexico happens here. I mean you take a look at what happened with the drug war. I think that reinforcing the border was one of the stupidest things we've done. But worst than that, creating this drug war where you--we do so well with interdicting and freezing assets that these guys who are doing the trafficking can't pay the porters who go through Mexico in cash. So what do they do? Pay them in drugs. And what do they do? They sell the drugs to the kids in Mexico. The whole thing just blows up. It just blew up and that's what we have now. We have this incredible mess on our hands cause nobody thought through the dynamics. What's also true is that if there's a catastrophe in Mexico which is now less and less likely than it used to be, you got 50 million Mexicans crossing the border all at once. What are you going to do about it? Nothing. They're just going to be over there. They're going to cross and that's going to be it. It is in our interest to make Mexico in every way we can a stable, prosperous country, period, cause nobody can affect us like Mexico can affect us, nobody. It's a country of 110 million people. Half the Mexicans, at least when I was there, half of them had U.S. passports or green cards. I mean they have families on both sides of the border. So the idea is to integrate, not to block and we're doing an incredibly bad job of that now. It's just a fiasco and you get this mess. You get--El Paso [Texas] being one of the most murderous places in the world. You got these other places on the border just like Durango [Colorado] and other places. You can't go out at night. You know you got, it's just horrible. It's horrible and that's what we're doing to ourselves.$$Okay.$$You'd never do that in the Canadian border. Why do you think? (Laughter).$$(Laughter). So, any other stories from Mexico? Now, a lot--, I know there are massive protests concerning NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] back in '93 [1993], '94 [1994] I guess.$$There were a lot of protests, I mean I remember when a certain congressman would sneak across the border and try to--with a camera crew show, all the bad stuff that was happening along the border in (unclear) and all the pollution, it's just kind of crazy stuff, and how it was going to take and (unclear) U.S. jobs. Well it turns out that it's produced 2 million jobs in the United States. It's been so successful the cost of labor in Mexico has gone up because of the standard of living going up. So the U.S. companies that were exporting jobs to Mexico are bringing those jobs back to the United States because Mexico is more prosperous and most of the costs of manufacturing a refrigerator for example is in the transportation so if you can manufacture the stuff close to the home and the wages are the same, you save more money. So NAFTA has worked, I mean it just had worked enormously well on the trade side. We need to try to do it more on the social side with--the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] for example for the first time we have, at Division II, agreed to have the Canadian and Mexican universities participate in U.S. intercollegiate athletics. It would have been unthinkable without having some significant integration. But still this is one place. North America is Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, that's North America. I mean it's geographically and culturally the same. Remember the, Mexico used to be Texas too and California, you know New Mexico and we don't seem to appreciate that as much as we should and I think it may have something to do with you know the language and the fact that a lot of these folks are dark skinned. I mean you know just, I don't mean to be pejorative but it's almost always something like that, something stupid. We need to embrace the Mexicans. When I was there we were doing interesting research in the Gulf of Baja, California looking at the--they just discovered these really hot vents at the bottom of the Baja. They would go down and they would find these animals, this fish life, this plant life that lived without sun, period. You know and it was just on the sulfur vents, then we found new kinds of metabolisms just by doing a collaborative research with the Mexicans, volcanic research when you know the Popocatepetl [volcano, Central Mexico] used to pop its cork. The collaborations between us and the Mexicans have been extraordinary and we got to really reinforce that. But it's, we'll see. I mean it's all politics. It's all driven by in some sense a lack of understanding of each other.$$Okay.