If you're not paying close attention, it's easy to drive right by the University of the District of Columbia. There are no ivy-covered walls at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street, no vast green expanses. In a neighborhood full of bland structures, its buildings, a collection of matching grayish-beige cubes, somehow manage to be the blandest, with a campus that looks as though it were all poured from some giant cement mixer. It certainly doesn't look like the kind of place that stirs emotions.

But on a bright day last spring, as Mayor Anthony Williams walks onstage, it becomes clear how deceiving those looks are.

Williams has come to UDC's auditorium to discuss his controversial plan to move the school from its upper Northwest home to the other side of the Anacostia River in Southeast. He proposed the move without warning in his city budget, only to face a barrage of student protests calling the plan racist -- an attempt to move black kids out of a predominantly white neighborhood. Williams is here to admit the plan was a mistake. He has come seeking closure. But it's soon clear he has walked into the lion's den.

After his introduction to an auditorium full of raucously unhappy people, after one student sings a song likening him to the devil, Williams, looking a bit shellshocked, begins his mea culpa. "I want to work with UDC," he says, and "highlight UDC as a premier institution in the District." He tells the audience that he will never again propose such a drastic change without first talking to the UDC community. "Now people are saying `you're backtracking' and `you're recanting.' That's not true. I'm just not going to be a dictator."

The crowd politely applauds the mayor's words -- and then takes him apart.

One young woman, a law student, tells the mayor his proposal has destabilized UDC and says she thinks he is lying about his intentions now. "I don't find you very credible in regard to this university."

"There you go. There you go," a voice from the back chimes in.

Another student tells Williams that when he first heard of the proposal, he wondered if the mayor was in full charge of his faculties. "I don't mean to insult you," he says, "but the immediate thought that came to my head was, `This fool is crazy.' " He adds that he's not yet heard the words "I'm sorry" from the mayor's mouth and implies that means Williams isn't a "real man."

Thirty minutes and countless insults later, the mayor cuts the Q&A short by announcing he has to leave for a previously scheduled engagement -- but he promises he'll return for more such constructive dialogues in the future. And as the audience files out, there are smiles on many of the students' faces. Another assault on UDC has been repelled. They've won. Again.

Last spring's uproar over the proposed move was nothing new for UDC. Questions and controversy have marked its history. Its fiscal crises and management scandals are legendary. Its 10 interim and "permanent" presidents have created a seemingly endless parade of top administrators and contributed to a lack of focus. But beneath the static of acrimony and allegation, the real issues of the UDC conversation are much bigger.

As it has floundered and somehow endured, the school that was initially created as a sign of the District's bright future has become enmeshed in the city's problems. The debate around it often has become intertwined with Washington's most difficult issues -- race, class and the statehood question -- and created a climate so charged that an honest discussion about the school's future can be all but impossible. And that's a problem, because across town on Capitol Hill, UDC's role and identity are being called into question by a Congress that believes the city's kids should be helped to attend college anywhere in the country.

Congress, with White House support, has approved giving D.C. residents tuition aid, paid for by the federal government, to attend state schools in Maryland and Virginia -- at in-state prices. (The plan was urged on Congress by Washington Post Publisher Donald E. Graham.) Students who want to attend private colleges or universities in D.C. or adjacent counties, or any historically black school in either state, would also qualify for tuition aid, though for a lesser amount. This means such local institutions as Howard, American and George Washington universities would be possibilities, instead of UDC, for kids wanting to live at home.

Which raises some serious questions for UDC. If District grads can attend state schools in Maryland and Virginia at the sharply reduced cost of an in-state student, does the District need its own public four-year university? Should the school, which at just over $1,000 a semester offers higher education to a varied student body without other options, be scaled back, or perhaps made into a two-year community college -- something the District lacks?

Supporters of keeping UDC as it is say a four-year university allows District kids to get a bachelor's degree without leaving home. It gives the much-maligned District educational system a complete structure that can take a student from kindergarten to a law degree. It also brings the city a certain amount of prestige -- giving statehood advocates what is essentially a state university.

On the other hand, community college proponents argue that UDC suffers from mission overload. They say the school can't possibly meet all the demands of a full-scale community college well -- educating for two-year associate's degrees, doing job retraining and serving the city with continuing-education classes -- while it is also focusing on four-year degrees and graduate courses. Besides, they say, a community college would be cheaper to run.

And that is an important point, because behind the arguing is one central question: Is there a better way to spend the $41 million the District poured into the school in 1998? It's a legitimate question, but as Tony Williams will tell you, even talking about changing UDC can be dangerous. No one is particularly interested in reliving the mayor's auditorium fiasco.

UDC's problems can be traced back to its creation in 1975. As Washington's home-rule movement was gaining momentum, Congress cobbled it together out of three very different schools -- D.C. Teachers College, Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute.

All three had open-admissions policies, allowing any District resident with a high school diploma to attend, but the similarities ended there. D.C. Teachers College, founded in 1851 as the Myrtilla Miner "school for colored girls," was the oldest and considered the weakest of the three merging schools. It focused on producing teachers for the D.C. public schools. Federal City College and WTI opened their doors in 1968 and were designed to serve the city by focusing on urban problems and technical training. The two schools were created after the Kennedy administration's Chase Commission found that District students lacked adequate educational opportunities.

The commission had proposed two schools after deciding that a single university could not adequately serve the city's different educational needs. But, as the statehood movement grew in the subsequent years, it became more politically important that the District have what the states had -- a full university -- even if that wasn't really what it needed. The focus became making UDC one large land-grant university. (Such universities, created in all 50 states with land or funds set aside by the federal government, provide an affordable education for the home-state students.) And in six months a plan to consolidate the schools into one open-admissions public university was drawn up.

It wasn't long after the merger that UDC's challenges became clear. The new university had brought new students into the world of higher education in the District (more than 13,000 students enrolled for the 1977-78 school year), but much of the incoming class had problems. The vast majority came from the D.C. public schools and were ill-prepared for college work. The 1978 UDC annual report acknowledged the difficulties: "The non-traditional students who typically populate the University of the District of Columbia confronted challenges of their own relating to intellectual preparation and the need to adjust to the new demands thrust at them during the transitional period."

But over the years, stories of mismanagement made the headlines: The faculty complaints about not being paid on time. The administrative cronyism. The buildings that were being rented, but hardly used. Steve Diner, who taught for 13 years at Federal City College and UDC, and who is now a professor at Rutgers, says stories about the problems were not overblown. "You couldn't make long-distance phone calls, you couldn't get things xeroxed. Faculty evaluations were done as a team by the whole department so -- surprise -- everyone was `outstanding.' Crediting [professors] was weak, so whoever said he was an expert, was an expert."

And then the District's financial crisis hit. UDC saw its budget slashed from about $77 million in 1991 to about $38 million in 1996 as city finances crumbled. In March 1996, hundreds of students blocked traffic on Connecticut Avenue, joined by then-Mayor Marion Barry, to protest cuts proposed by the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board. And that fall the school had to shut down for six weeks because it was running a $16 million deficit.

The cuts brought questions from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Universities, the group that accredits institutions of higher learning in the region. By the fall of 1997, enrollment was down to about 4,700. The school's president, Tilden LeMelle, had resigned under pressure. As Provost Julius F. Nimmons Jr. stepped in as acting president, people began wondering how much longer UDC would exist.

But the situation has changed in the last few years. Enrollment is up to about 5,300, and the school has its fiscal house in better order. "We've come a mighty long way," says Nimmons, who had "acting" removed from his title last spring.

A powerfully built man with a deep voice and an American history doctorate, Nimmons is sitting in his third-floor office, its walls lined with African folk art. He acknowledges that there were bad days, but says the school has come out of them leaner and stronger.

"When I first came here in 1993, we were literally trying to be all things to all people -- much too large, much too excessive. My mandate was to complete the merger [of 1975] and fix this problem. I made it clear that I was not looking for consensus. I was doing a job based on academic principles," he says. "We dropped from five colleges to two. From 52 departments to 18. And from 132 degrees to 76 degrees. And that was all done for the purpose of becoming efficient."

It's not often that a university president brags about downsizing his own institution, but UDC is a special case, says Nimmons. The cutbacks were necessary, he says, because UDC was awash in redundancies. The original consolidation of the three schools had been quickly and poorly done. Instead of sharing programs, classes and administration, each school maintained its own. Today, this kind of overlap is gone, Nimmons says, and now the university is looking to grow again. The president says he wants to expand UDC's liberal arts programs, add another master's program and add two new buildings.

Of course, problems remain. Last spring's commencement ceremony, which normally would have been held on the main quad, was held at the MCI Center instead. The cement in the quad had such extensive water damage that university officials feared the weight of the audience would cause it to collapse, sending everyone tumbling into the parking garage below. Nimmons says such problems are funding issues: They could be fixed if the federal government treated UDC like a land-grant school and gave it a sizable endowment and a more steady stream of money.

Nimmons is not opposed to the idea of the federal government giving District students tuition assistance to pursue college elsewhere, but he thinks that UDC needs more funding. (It will get $1.5 million in the new legislation.) "We're not against [it], we support it," he says. "But we're saying, keep in mind that when you provide financial resources and assistance to students to extend themselves and their educational experiences, remember your public institution of higher education could also benefit from an enhancement of its financial resources."

The real problems, he says, the ones concerning education and not cement, are fixed or being repaired at UDC. "We're young and we're improving. Give it a chance. Remember, Harvard was founded in 1636," he says, smiling.

It's 9 a.m. and students are filing into Room 117 in Building 38 for Gene Shiro's English Fundamentals class. English Fundamentals is one of the many remedial classes UDC offers incoming students who need to improve their language skills before moving on to English Composition I, the freshman composition class. "It's basically seventh-grade grammar," Shiro says as he hands me the work sheet he assigned as homework. The page, which contains a short paragraph on the life of Harriet Tubman, has 30 errors. Students are to find the mistakes and make the appropriate corrections. One sentence from the page reads: "Historians says she had the mine of a military genius, they have study her excape routes, secret codes and methods or acquiring guns and ammunition."

Slowly, Shiro leads the class through the paragraph. He has each student read off the sheet and then tell him what corrections they made. There are few volunteers. As Shiro goes around the room, a few foreign accents ring out, but more than half the students are clearly native-born. More than 30 minutes later, the class finishes working through the assignment. The students have done well at picking up on misspellings like "excape" and the noun/verb disagreements. Spotting errors like misused possessives is more difficult.

For Shiro, though, the real disappointment is the number of students in attendance. When class began, only five had shown up. Four more wandered in over the next half-hour, but that's a far cry from the 27 who had registered for the class at the beginning of the semester. "I don't know why they aren't here," he says. "I mean, we're going over the final exam. I'm giving them copies of last semester's finals."

For many of UDC's students, college is just another activity to fit into an already hectic day filled with jobs and children of their own. Their average age is 26, and many of them are returning to education after a long break. A sizable portion of them have children, although the administration has no precise figures about this. All of which means studying sometimes comes behind other priorities.

Later, I visit Shiro as he sits alone during office hours and ask him if the class I attended was typical. "I have taught the upper levels, and it is a lot like teaching the remedial kids," he says. "Many kids aren't ready, but were simply passed through." He says that, on average, a class of 20 yields maybe one or two proficient students. And far from becoming more optimistic, he tells me, he has become progressively more disheartened over the 26 years he's taught, first at Washington Technical Institute and then at UDC. "Maybe it's just my cynicism, but I think student interest and base-line education is lower now than it ever was. I'm very fair with them. But even if they are having problems, they don't come to office hours. I come here and sit all alone."

Of course, Shiro's comments echo those of professors at colleges across the country. In journals of higher education and to one another, educators decry the poor preparation of incoming freshmen. But as we talk it becomes clear that Shiro sees the problem as being deeper than simply poor public school education. "I'm not so sure the schools weren't better as we had them before" the merger, he says.

That's a question anyone who looks at UDC can't help but ask. Because depending on whom you talk to or how you look at it, the school can be seen as one of three things: a community college, a state university or a city college. Which is a lot to ask of one institution.

For a large part of its population, UDC is essentially a community college, a place to get skills training and two-year associate's degrees. In 1997, 25 percent of the degrees were of the associate's variety in fields like mortuary science -- one of UDC's strong suits. That figure has held constant over the last nearly two decades. The university also functions like a community college in the high number of remedial courses, like Shiro's, it offers. While the administration would not specify how many that is, Nimmons says it's in the high double digits.

On top of all that is UDC's high attrition rate. Though, again, the school did not provide numbers, U.S. News & World Report estimates UDC's six-year graduation rate to be somewhere around 15 percent. That means 15 percent of all students who enroll graduate in six years. The University of Maryland's six-year graduation rate, by comparison, is 64 percent. At George Mason University it's 51 percent.

UDC plays down the community college aspects of its work and trumpets the fact that it is one of the country's top producers of BAs for African American students. And the students who use UDC as a full-fledged four-year university do have some good programs to choose from. Among those are the language and communication disorders department and the nursing department.

Ayana Elliott, a graduate of Anacostia High School, is in the nursing program. Elliott is the kind of student UDC wants to attract. But she is also the kind of student with the most to gain from a program of tuition assistance for attending another school.

"When I graduated [from high school], I got into Morgan State, but I didn't want to leave home, so I came here," she says. "Still, if I had to do it all over again, I would be there. When I see young students walking around campus thinking about attending UDC, I tell them go, get out of here. It is overcrowded. There isn't enough class space or instructors to accommodate the enrollment they have." University officials acknowledge that the nursing program in particular is overcrowded and students often have to wait to get into the classes they need. "College would still be expensive" even with a new tuition aid program, Elliott says, "but you'd have other options."

Probably the model that fits UDC best is that of city college, which offers a broad four-year program leading to a bachelor's degree. In the early 20th century this low-cost alternative to the established university educated students who wanted to try out higher education but were not yet ready for or couldn't afford a big-time school.

There are problems with the city college model for UDC, however. Other city schools, like the City College of New York, the nation's first, grew in the early part of this century when the nation's cities were home to its best public schools and large immigrant populations determined to get their children a solid education.

By the time UDC was created in the mid-1970s, however, middle-class flight, white and black, was underway and Washington's public schools, once among the nation's best, were well into their decline. Since 1980, D.C.'s public school enrollment has fallen from 106,000 to 77,000. Its dropout rate has hovered between 42 and 51 percent. In 1997, the average combined SAT score of its students, 811, was about 200 points below the national average of 1016. The system simply isn't producing a lot of students ready for college. After all, it's not UDC's fault that Gene Shiro has to teach students seventh-grade grammar.

In a cramped office lined with college bumper stickers, flyers and pennants, Georgia Booker, a guidance counselor at Wilson High School in upper Northwest, fends off regular telephone calls from former students asking if they could benefit from the tuition aid legislation. (The answer is no. They've already graduated.) From Booker's perspective, it is unlikely that any tuition aid program will have a major effect on where District students go to college. At Wilson, perhaps the most college-prep-oriented of the D.C. public high schools, about 75 percent of its 400 graduates in 1997 went on to four-year colleges. Booker says only about 25 kids go to UDC each year. "It is almost solely a fallback school for our kids," she says.

Ed Cooke, president of the Coalition for the University of the District of Columbia, believes that even with a tuition assistance program there will always be lots of students graduating from D.C. schools, or returning to education, who will want, or need, a strong four-year public university in the District. Even with tuition assistance, the cost of attending the University of Virginia or Maryland would be high, he says. In the end, the only students likely to benefit may be middle- and upper-middle-class students attending private high schools in the city.

Instead of reworking UDC, Cooke's coalition wants officials and others to look at the possibility of creating a full university system in the District, multi-tiered and similar to what most states offer. Of course, assuming everyone agreed such a system was needed, the money to build it would be all but impossible to shake out of Congress.

Another way of making sure a tuition plan helped all kids, and not just middle-class and richer ones, might be a system of further scholarships targeted at the needy. Cooke and company, though, are fighting that idea. The coalition argues in its literature that "encouraging District high school graduates to attend `their own' state university should be given highest priority."

Meanwhile, talk at the D.C. Council seems to mirror Nimmons's upbeat assessments of UDC's future. "I have always supported UDC and I still support UDC," council member Carol Schwartz says at a hearing. "UDC has made improvements. Its enrollment is slowly climbing. Almost everyone except the mayor is excited about the university's future."

More than 20 years after the school's creation, the conversation at this hearing remains centered on the notion that the District deserves a state university, its own public ivy.

Nimmons, who's on hand to testify, draws nods when he says he wants to create UDC satellite sites in every ward -- though previously such efforts have stirred little interest. Council member Sharon Ambrose argues that the District simply needs to give UDC the kind of funding state university systems get. Look at George Mason, she says. "They decided they needed a university of excellence in Northern Virginia, so they created one."

By the end of the hearing, the rhetoric soars with talk about "the limits of man's imagination."

But the future for UDC may, in the end, be yoked to the limits of the District's public schools, and the gaps in the education of its graduates. A few days after the council hearing, Randall West, a graduate of Cardozo High School, stands looking out over the campus from a balcony. In high school, West says, he spent much of his time getting in and out of fistfights. He worked for a year after graduating, but his co-workers pushed him to go to college, to make something of his life. First, though, he had to cover the basics. "I taught myself to read," he says of his freshman year at UDC. "I could read before, kind of, but I can really read now."

Dante Chinni is a freelance writer living in the District.