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Barras: Abusing the District's public university, Part 1

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,Higher Education

When Elaine A. Crider, chair of the University of the District of Columbia trustees, announced the firing of the school's president, Allen Sessoms, his critics celebrated. But it's too early for the "ding dong" song.

Sessoms' termination reflects what former President George W. Bush described as the "soft bigotry of low expectations." It also highlights the raging battle between forces interested in growing UDC, those determined to reduce it, and others who want it closed.

That fight is prompting UDC's slow death, which means trouble for thousands of District residents unable to afford expensive private universities but desirous of a bachelor's degree. In this region, the lack of that minimum credential could relegate an individual to the ranks of low-income or underclass.

"The board really does believe in and want an affordable, four-year public institution," Crider told me last week. The board also has embraced a community college.

"Residents who want to do car maintenance, have a right to that," continued Crider, adding there also should be opportunities to become "historians or accountants, which should not be limited to people who live west of Rock Creek Park."

Others in the city--the Brookings Institution's Alice Rivlin, and D.C. Appleseed's Walter Smith, for example--have advocated aggressively for an independent community college. They have argued if there's a choice between a community college and the flagship the former is preferable.

When he arrived, Sessoms offered a multi-step reorganization of UDC, creating a system of higher education with quality undergraduate and graduate programs, research projects and a community college. Elected officials, including Vincent C. Gray--as council chairman and later as mayor--embraced that plan but never provided critical financial assistance.

"Everyone would like to have what Allen Sessoms wanted: a Harvard on the Potomac," said Smith derisively while claiming to support the flagship. "We need to be realistic about who the student population is. The focus right now has to be on training people so they are better prepared for jobs that are available."

Smith and others have argued UDC's fiscal instability demanded change in direction. Speaking last year before a council committee, they urged the legislature mandate a "right-sizing plan."

Crider said the board embraced that mandate. They view right sizing as "an opportunity to identify and create a niche for the university." That surely means a smaller UDC.

Can downsizing the dream stunt the dreamer?

"Some people have said we're pouring good money after bad," continued Smith, noting that UDC has a "bunch of half-empty buildings it could sell off" to enhance its financial stability.

When the "right-sizing" mandate was approved, UDC projected a deficit of $9 million, said a university spokesman. By contrast, the mayor had reprogrammed funds to close a larger shortfall in D.C. Public Schools' budget. District officials always find money for pet projects and favored groups.

"I really believe this institution is worth saving," said Crider.

That's nice. But is there the political will and financial support to make that happen?

jonetta rose barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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