Washington — For most colleges and universities, May is the month for bestowing “rights and privileges” to deserving scholars.
For the University of the District of Columbia, May was also a time for handing out furloughs to workers and a tuition hike to students. By the time the month had ended, the school’s board of trustees had adopted higher tuition, slashed pay for its 375 full-time faculty members, gouged the administrative staff’s salaries and shortened the academic calendar by beginning the coming school year Oct. 1 instead of Aug. 16. — all to accommodate a $6.7 million budget deficit.
The deficit is just part of the myriad problems confronting the 10,000-student school as UDC struggles through the same kind of fiscal mire faced by its parent governmental body; Washington, DC. At the same time, its current budget crisis highlights a question that has nagged UDC throughout its existence: Can public higher education survive in the nation’s capital?
The school was created in 1976 by merging the DC Teachers College, Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute in what remains one of the nation’s only urban land grant universities.
Virtually every problem faced throughout the academy these days is present — and writ large — on the small but modem looking urban campus located in an upscale pat of town here. Fiscal woes? In the last six years, UDC’s budget, most of which comes from a congressional appropriation that is passed through the District of Columbia government, has done nothing but shrink.
Even before the current round of fiscal woes, the city’s contribution to the school’s budget fell from $76 million in fiscal 1992 to $43 million now. And that was before the city’s financial woes worsened into a nightmare status. Now, with the city’s budget approved by a hostile Congress and overseen by a skeptical DC Financial Control Board, the school now faces the threat of a DC budget appropriation of $41 million in the coming fiscal year. At the same time, its enrollment has plummeted from the 15,000 students present when the school opened in 1976 to today’s 10,000-student level. Even before the current round of budget cuts, the school’s budget had been cut by $32 million since fiscal 1991.
Tuition pressure? The days of UDC’s bargain-basement $1,118 a year tuition and fees for District residents are over. The trustees voted an increase that will more than double the price of a year at UDC for District residents by the end of next year to make the cost of a year at UDC $2,010.
Students unprepared for college? An estimated 90 percent of UDC’s incoming students need remedial reading and 80 percent are in need of remedial math.
Academic stature? Two decades after it was established, UDC does not offer a doctoral degree and the 132 degree programs it used to offer have been reduced to 75 degree programs, including eight graduate, 45 baccalaureate and 22 associate programs. At the same time, the impact of the school’s troubles are beginning to show up in its degree output. Although UDC remains in the top 20 among institutions producing degrees for African Americans, the most recent available Department of Education statistics show that the number of degrees fell slightly between 1991-92 and 1992-93.
Critics of the school say that reflects the slow pace at which people achieve degrees there — congressional critics, for example, say their figures show that only 22 percent of UDC students achieve degrees. Weak political support?
Suggestions to convert the four-year school into a community college are so constant that a demographic and statistical overview prepared by the provost to answer frequently-asked questions includes a tuition comparison with both the University of Maryland-College Park and community colleges in lower-income Maryland counties far from DC. In addition, calls to dismantle the university’s affiliated DC School of Law are common statements on Capitol Hill and come from both sides of the political aisle, as well as from both Black and white members of Congress.
All told, the school, along with the very idea of publicly-funded higher education for a mostly black student population, is under withering fire, says UDC president Dr. Tilden LeMelle, the university’s eighth president in 20 years and a veteran of similar wars at City University of New York.
Twenty years after joining CUNY as a professor, LeMelle left as one of the senior administrators in the CUNY system for UDC. He and others view the criticism of UDC as having twin roots. The first is in the disdain among whites for higher education for Blacks. The second is that there is ambivalence among some Blacks here for competition to Howard University.
“The disappointing thing for me is that in a predominantly Black city we get worse treatment in terms of support than the land grant colleges in the other states,” LeMelle said in a recent interview. Unlike other land grant universities, UDC must rely on the DC government, through the U.S. Congress. One of the things it relies on is the federal payment made in lieu of real estate taxes but meanwhile the city’s tax base has declined as its population has declined from the 650,000 level of the 1970s to 525,000 residents as a result of a middle-class exodus, including much of the Black middle-class.
On the surface, the disdain for UDC appears to be just one more manifestation of racial tensions between a local government run by Blacks that remains under the scrutiny of a hostile predominantly white Congress. On a deeper level, UDC and city officials talk privately about conflicts that are deepened by city’s budget crisis.
Local lawmakers and their staff look down their noses at UDC, where the high remedial course load has helped earn the institution the sobriquet, “University for Dumb Children.”
“There’s no one out front [lobbying] for the university right now,” one DC Council aide said.
With no one running interference for the school, small wonder that a suggestion by a key House Republican that the city doesn’t need to operate a university went largely unchallenged. “If you ask me whether UDC is one of the things the city should be spending money on, the answer is no,” Rep. James Walsh (R-NY) said.
As chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the District of Columbia, the congressional committee with purse-string power over the city, Walsh is the latest of a long line of many legislative overseers for the city to question the need for UDC.
“Cities have traditional responsibilities to keep the streets clean, make sure the water and sewer systems work … and the city (of DC) doesn’t provide any of those very well,” Walsh told Black Issues In Higher Education recently. He believes that the city should “close down” UDC and “make it a part of the Maryland or Virginia state community college systems,” he said.
“I look at post secondary education as an ancillary service or an extra line of service,” he says of a city that is still struggling to fill potholes created during the winter. “Until [DC] is providing basic city services it shouldn’t be providing ancillary services,” he said.
Asked what the low-income residents of the nation’s capital should do to meet their needs for higher education, Walsh said, “They need to do the same thing poor people do in other cities. Find government support or community colleges that are less expensive,” he said. “The city is full of colleges.”
Regarding Walsh’s remarks, LeMelle said, “I saw that kind of statement as being in line with what is happening around the country to public Black colleges. Such talk is dismaying, but depressingly familiar, to current and past UDC students and officials who insist that the school is regarded as an academic stepchild.
Payne asserts that, locally, the higher education culture in DC is set by Howard. The result is that UDC does not receive the resources it needs to grow. “The school should he operating Ph.D. programs in the sciences and in engineering. it should be offering a doctorate in chemistry by now,” she says. Instead, the school has been unable to hold onto its law school.
It is ironic that UDC is not better off, she says. “Since it is in the nation’s capital, it has an even greater opportunity to forge a strong research relationship with federal agencies,” she says.
Yet, in a city top-heavy with private academic institutions, few embrace a student body that is older, poorer, less well-prepared or more likely to be an academic late-bloomer better than UDC, says student government president Keith Johnson. He acknowledged that he, as did most of the students, “went through my pre-English course” but added that at the age of 28, he possesses an academic resolve that wasn’t there a decade earlier.
He is a year younger than the statistical average UDC student: a 29-year-old day student who carries less than a full load while working full time. “A lot of things that we’re trying to correct go back to things we didn’t have control over,” he says of his high school years in DC.
“A lot of us can’t go to Howard,” he says, referring to poor academic records and the inability to pay $8,000 a year in tuition and fees. “But that doesn’t mean that our students can’t compete.” Turning the school into a community college “doesn’t really make any sense,” he says. UDC was a perfect fit for him and others like him, who were simply not interested in, nor prepared for, college right after high school. The most often cited UDC success story is Dr. Thomas Stewart, who just earned his doctorate in government from Harvard University, making him the first UDC degree holder to go on to Harvard.
“I simply had no desire to enter college right out of high school. I came from a household in which college was not emphasized,” he said. During his five and a half years at Cambridge, he became the first African American to be inducted into the prestigious Society of Fellows. The society, independent of Harvard but run by the university president, awards $100,000 for three years of independent study to outstanding Harvard graduate students. in spite of his late approach to the academe, he says his time at UDC prepared him well for Harvard.
As he began to excel, his classmates began to ask him where he attended undergraduate school. “To some I had to explain what the University of the District of Columbia is,” he says. Despite some sniping at his undergraduate alma mater, he says, he was accepted by his classmates in Harvard School of Graduate Studies as a peer.
That kind of performance isn’t within reach of every UDC student but is within the reach of more UDC students than the conventional wisdom about the school would convey. LeMelle points to Stewart as the kind of product that UDC, and other open admissions schools can produce. But he stresses that without support the university will continue to struggle. Nearly as important as financial support is an embrace by local officials of the university’s mission, he says.
UDC’s dilemma is mirrored throughout the network of Black public colleges, he says. The desegregation of higher education has left UDC and similar schools regarded as poor stepchildren. The public colleges have become a haven for students who didn’t gather the needed momentum and motivation for higher education until well after they completed high school. Such schools are also low-cost alternatives for foreign-born students who want to earn degrees in the American system but lack the money for private college tuition.
But with local governments straining under over-worked budgets, higher education drops on the fiscal priority list, he says. The disdain is fueled by a historic ambivalence to the remnants of segregated education. “Both Blacks and whites wanted to disassociate themselves from the segregated history,” he says.
Yet the people who attend such schools represent one of higher education’s toughest challenges, says UDC supporters. Stewart characterizes people like him as “sleeping voices” who have been ill-served by the K-12 system and wake up as adults.
“If the problems created by the DC public schools are going to be salvaged, its the sleeping voices that are going to have to come to light,” he said. Aside from the University of the District of Columbia, what choices does a Washington DC resident have?
COLLEGE ANNUAL % AFRICAN-
TUITION/ AMERICAN STUDENT
American University $16,144 6
Catholic University of America 14,172 5
Georgetown University 18,474 6
George Washington University 18,170 7
Howard University 8,000 92
Mount Vernon College 13,500 23
Strayer College 7,650 35
Trinity College 11,562 32
COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com