Officials of the University of the District of Columbia have reacted cautiously to a proposal that Antioch School of Law become part of UDC as a way to solve the law school's financial and accreditation problems.

In a report to UDC trustees, acting President Claude A. Ford said UDC should "explore the possibility of a merger," which has been sought by Antioch and backed by a majority of members of the D.C. City Council. But Ford said UDC should make sure the District government provides enough money to "alleviate the conditions that have threatened . . . accreditation" of the law school before assuming responsibility for it.

Antioch officials have acknowledged the failure of a $2.5 million fund-raising drive to save the school, which has brought in just under $200,000 in private gifts and pledges since mid-November. They said a merger with UDC is now the only way to avert closing the innovative 13-year-old school at 2633 16th St. NW, which currently enrolls 362 students, down from 510 two years ago. Antioch now has about 40 students who come from the District.

"It's come down to this," said Antioch Law's interim Dean Thomas J. Mack. "Either we are going to close or UDC in its own wisdom will decide to take us on as its law school . . . . I think it's a great opportunity for them."

Antioch University President Alan E. Guskin announced Thursday that he will delay a final decision on closing the law school until March 17 to give UDC and the District government time to decide whether to take it over. But he said the school will not admit any new students for next fall until the school's future is resolved.

Guskin said he agreed to the delay at the request of Mayor Marion Barry. In a Jan. 30 letter, Barry said he believed that "every possible effort should be made to assure the continuance of the law school."

But Barry said, "I cannot take a position as mayor" on whether the law school should be acquired by UDC "until the facts concerning cost, availability of adequate facilities, and other such issues are firmly in hand."

A committee of UDC trustees is scheduled to consider the Antioch law takeover on Tuesday. The full board is to meet Feb. 18.

"This is a very unusual opportunity for us," said UDC Board Chairman N. Joyce Payne. "But I am not at a point of decision yet . . . . If we do decide to acquire the law school, there would have to be an explicit commitment of long-term financial support from the city government . And I am almost absolutely certain we would not acquire it under its current academic configuration. I think some substantial changes would have to take place, and I hope its requirements would be strengthened."

The report submitted by UDC administrators to the trustees says the law school would need an "infusion of about $3.6 million to stabilize" its financial operations because of debts. It would also require about $2.75 million, the report says, to renovate the old Perry Elementary School at First and M streets NW, which the District government offered to let the law school lease for 20 years.

The document gives no estimate of the first-year operating subsidy required, but Mack said $900,000 would be needed "to meet American Bar Association concerns" if the law school loses a $400,000 Legal Service Corp. grant that is in jeopardy.

He said the estimate is based on the school's current annual tuition of $7,245 from its current number of students.

The ABA accreditation committee recommended that Antioch be dropped from the list of approved law schools after an inspection report said its academic program was of "limited rigor" and its facilities and finances were deficient.

In December the ABA delayed final action at least until summer, but in a letter last month the accreditation committee noted that a change in ownership of the school would require ABA approval. The committee said it would decide "at an appropriate time" whether "additional resources . . . would cure existing deficiencies."

Antioch University trustees authorized Guskin in October to close the law school unless it obtains major new backing soon. The trustees said they wanted to concentrate their limited resources on the main campus in Ohio.

Founded as an alternative to traditional law schools, Antioch operates as a public interest law firm, requiring students to earn about a third of their credits handling cases for low-income clients.

However, O. Mervene Couch, a UDC deputy vice president who wrote the major section of the UDC administration report, asked: "Regardless of how noble the mission, do the citizens of Washington want a law school with such a narrow focus?"

Mack retorted that the Antioch program fits in well with the "public service mission" of UDC as the District's only public university.

In her report Couch noted that the association that accredits UDC has "cautioned the university about establishing new graduate programs" and added that two of its present professional programs -- nursing and engineering -- "are currently in serious jeopardy."

"I think that anything more we do should be considered very carefully," said Herbert O. Reid, another UDC trustee and legal counsel to the mayor. Even if the city government provides more funds next year for acquiring the law school, Reid noted, the mayor has proposed a one-year freeze on the District's $67.7 million regular appropriation for UDC, forcing it to "absorb" $5 million in salary and other cost increases.

"I think it ought to be clear what kind of financial commitment we are getting into, not just for the present, but for the future, too," Reid said.