Jaffe: Does D.C. need UDC?

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

Let's face facts: The University of the District of Columbia is a failed experiment, as one council member and many education experts tell me.

The District's efforts to establish and maintain a first-rate, four-year college are simply not working. The university, perched on valuable property above the Van Ness Metro, has been undergoing an expensive renovation. It's getting a brand-new student center. But the educational institution inside is dysfunctional, and it has been for decades.

I write this with many regrets. It would be great if Washington, D.C., like New York, could support a fine city college. Alas, since UDC came into being in 1976, it has struggled to attract students and educate them. It is perennially short of cash and lavish in paying professors. Its diplomas have questionable value.

All of this should be on the table Thursday when the city council is scheduled to hear UDC officials discuss their recent Right-Sizing Plan. In reducing the number of classes and faculty, UDC is asking for more money -- $21 million, to be exact.

Rather than shutter UDC, why not recreate it with the successful schools and programs that it now offers? Why not focus the city's institution of higher learning on teaching D.C. residents what they need, rather than what is already readily available in the city?

Here's what works:

-- The David A. Clarke School of Law. UDC's law school has successfully turned out lawyers, many with a special focus on urban matters. Keep it.

-- Nursing Programs: The programs to train nurses are rigorous and well-respected throughout the region. I know more than a few nurses who struggled to complete degrees but were snapped up by hospitals.

-- The D.C. Community College. The two-year programs in subjects such as accounting, computer sciences and health care are popular and proven. Students are clamoring to enroll.

Build on these programs and add one more: education. We need great teachers in the District. Creating a top teaching program would also honor UDC's roots. The colleges that were merged to make UDC were excellent teaching institutions. Their missions were diluted in the effort to create a general interest university. It's time to bring UDC back to its original purpose.

The nation's capital has seven fine universities, among them Georgetown, George Washington and Howard. Trinity does a much better job at serving D.C. residents than UDC.

There's no need to dismantle UDC, but it will take a visionary and dedicated leader to rebuild it to its correct scale and best function. Let the community college grow into the main campus on Connecticut Avenue. Lease space to technology and health care companies that would crave to set up shop over the Metro. Focus on successful programs.

Don't finance the fantasy of competing with land grant colleges in Maryland and Virginia. It is the epitome of sending good money after bad.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

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Harry Jaffe

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The Washington Examiner