"You're the man who's got the tiger by the tail," said Roger Semerad, vice president for external relations at the Brookings Institute, when introduced to Benjamin Alexander, new president of the University of the District of Columbia.
"I only hope I can hold it," Alexander said.
Alexander, 60, the conservative and unorthodox former president of Chicago State University, was formally welcomed to Washington yesterday by about 25 members of Washington's higher education community at a reception at the Brookings Institute. Alexander arrived last month in a cloud of controversy created by his no-nonsense policies aimed at increasing UDC's academic respectability -- an effort that began with the suspension of 880 students who failed to meet the required 2.0 grade-point average out of a possible 4.0.
A suit challenging Alexander's appointment on grounds that selection procedures were "arbitrary, capricious, and ridden with personal interests" was filed last spring by the faculty senate of the 14,000-student public institution. The suit was dismissed in July by a D.C. Superior Court judge.
"There's always controversy for the unknown. You get a reputation for no-nonsense and you're bound to get some opposition," said Jesse King, vice chairman of the board at UDC. "With the times the way they are, you have to buckle down. The students have accepted the tougher standards -- your degree has to mean something."
"You're making waves and it's a refreshing change," said Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said after meeting Alexander.
"I'm so glad to hear you say just waves and not controversy," said Alexander. "Everyone says I'm controversial first."
In his welcoming remarks, Bell said, "We've all just applauded the comments you've made about excellence and making our only public institution a number-one institution . . .
"Thanks for coming from the Windy City. You may just be moving from cold air to hot air, and I may be an expert on that," Bell joked.
Several generations of past UDC presidents were in the crowd, including Paul Hager, 87, who was president of the Wilson Teacher's College in 1941, a forerunner to UDC, when Washington's schools were segregated. Five years before the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools, Hager recommended merging Wilson with the all-black Miner Teacher's College to form Federal City College.
"Ben was saying he had problems with the open admissions policy," said Frank Farner, first president of Federal Teacher's College, another UDC forerunner. "And I told him, in 1967 we had a lottery for admission. In those days, students wouldn't put up with testing."
Alexander also was greeted by another newcomer to Washington education, the Rev. William Byron, new president at the Catholic University of America.
In the month since Alexander assumed office, his opposition seems to have softened its stance. "It appears Alexander has an interest in moving forward and that's what we're about," said Wilmer Johnson, president of UDC's faculty senate. "We're a family situation; we'll work out our disagreements like family."
"Before I came, people said 'UDC--University for Dumb Children,' " said Alexander, who will be inaugurated Oct. 4. "I want the students to say C stands for class."