This column misidentifies the foreign country in which the University of the District of Columbia has a campus. It is Egypt, not India.
UDC Is a School to Retool
The District of Columbia has lots of problems, but at the root of many of them is this one: that, despite a booming regional economy for most of the past 15 years, unemployment has remained high, household incomes have fallen and poverty rates have risen for the majority of residents who don't have a college degree.
The problem isn't that there aren't good jobs being created or that employers are refusing to offer them to District residents. The problem is that too many District residents don't have the skills and education to do the jobs. And contrary to what you hear from community activists and certain members of the D.C. Council, this mismatch can't be solved by imposing hiring quotas or living wage requirements on every employer in the city.
Which brings us to the touchy subject of the University of the District of Columbia, a poorly run institution that is driven more by political imperatives than economic ones and spends too much money doing the wrong things badly.
To put it bluntly, the District doesn't need -- and probably can't support -- a quality land-grant university. Its population is too small and its tax base too narrow. Most of its public school graduates are unprepared to do college-level work. And the most pressing need of its businesses and its unemployed residents is for an effective teaching machine that can make up for the deficiencies of the public school system and train its residents for the tens of thousands of "middle skill" jobs offered by the regional economy.
In other words, what the District needs is a community college.
This is not a new debate -- it's been going on since UDC was founded back in the mid-1970s through the merger of D.C. Teachers College, Washington Technical Institute and Federal City College. The idea then, as today, was that UDC could fulfill the mission of a community college while at the same time showing the world that the District was ready to assume the rights and responsibilities of statehood by establishing a state university where tenured faculty with PhD's would offer undergraduate and advanced degrees across a wide range of traditional academic disciplines.
It's a lovely idea, but it has never worked very well. The dual missions have never really been reconciled. Leadership has been weak and short term. Because of severe budget cuts during the city's fiscal crisis in the 1990s, quality suffered and the physical plant was allowed to fall into disrepair. All too often, the needs of students took a back seat to the demands of a unionized faculty that has been zealously protective of its tenure and prerogatives.
As a result, UDC's enrollment today is about half of what it was back in 1994, with fewer than 5,000 students -- and that includes about 400 students at a campus in India. About two-thirds of entering UDC students require remedial courses to prepare them for college-level work, and only about 60 percent graduate with a degree. The vast majority go to school while holding full-time jobs, including many single mothers. In short, it's exactly the kind of student body you'd expect to find at an inner-city community college rather than a land-grant university.
The faculty, however, continues to cling to the university model. It has been slow to try new teaching methods and reluctant to embrace a system for rigorous teacher evaluation and merit pay. It has resisted efforts to redirect resources from traditional offers to job training programs and make greater use of part-time instructors. And it has opposed collaboration with nearby community colleges.
That kind of resistance to change is hardly surprising from a from a faculty in which the median age is 63, the median length of service is 32 years and the average salary-and-benefits package tops $90,000. Fully two-thirds of the 215 full-time instructors are older than 60, while only 4 percent are under 30. More than 80 percent of the faculty is tenured.
The fundamental problem at UDC, however, is the mismatch between its size and its ambition. Given the number of students and faculty, it is ridiculous that it offers more than 75 degrees.
During the 2005-06 academic year, for example, there were more than 30 programs that conferred fewer than five degrees, including corrections administration, graphic communications technology, water quality and marine science, French, history, theater arts, music, urban studies, chemistry, mathematics, nutrition, psychology, computer accounting technology, aviation maintenance, fire science architecture, and mechanical engineering. If ever there were a case study in an enterprise that has spread itself too thin, UDC is it.