Rafael L. Cortada, the incoming president of the University of the District of Columbia, has called for a "thorough study of the need" for a new public law school before UDC agrees to operate the school, as has been mandated by the D.C. Council.

"If the need is there, I believe UDC could do it well," Cortada said, "but we should document who's here {in the District}, who wants to attend law school and what they want to study" before opening a new school.

Cortada, sitting in his sparsely furnished temporary office at UDC's Van Ness campus, spoke on a range of issues in his first interview since he began working as a consultant to the university July 20. He will become president Oct. 1, more than two years after the departure of President Robert L. Green, who resigned amid allegations of misspent funds.

Cortada said that any school UDC opens should "start from scratch based on what's needed now in the city" rather than taking over the faculty and programs of the Antioch School of Law, which is scheduled to close next summer because of financial and accreditation problems.

Despite opposition from UDC trustees, the D.C. Council voted last year to rescue Antioch by turning it into an independent public law school that would merge with UDC in three years.

Although he did not veto the bill, Mayor Marion Barry has strongly criticized the takeover. He refused to cooperate with the venture until early last month when he signed a compromise statement with the school's leading supporters on the council, agreeing to help find space and funds for the school only if it came under full UDC control immediately and was not required to hire Antioch staff.

"I'm not denigrating Antioch, which is fine," Cortada said, "but we ought to document what the District needs before putting a new element into the {UDC} stew."

Cortada held out hope that cutbacks in UDC faculty will not be as disruptive as some have predicted. Last month, the university's board of trustees, approving a plan by acting President Claude A. Ford, voted to lay off 55 faculty members, a 10 percent reduction in force, because of falling enrollments. Under the union contract, the layoffs will be conducted according to seniority.

The trustees and Ford deliberately did not involve Cortada in planning the RIF, even though he was appointed in November, because they did not want him to be labeled as a "hatchet man" as soon as he arrived.

In the interview, Cortada said he hoped the number of faculty members actually fired could be reduced substantially if senior faculty take advantage of an early retirement program, to which the council added $500,000 in this year's supplemental budget. He said some faculty members on the layoff list may be placed in vacant jobs.

Cortada added that he was "very concerned" about trying to maintain the jazz and gospel music programs, whose professors are to be laid off.

"A RIF is traumatic," Cortada said. "There's no easy way to do it. You're dealing with people's lives." But Cortada noted that the RIF is only about half the 112 layoffs proposed by a faculty-administration study committee based strictly on enrollment data. He added that "the fact of the RIF must alert the university community to begin focusing on our public and building" UDC programs.

Despite an enrollment decline of almost 25 percent over the past seven years, "the city has continued to put additional funds into the university," Cortada said. "Now the city is asking whether it can continue to do that, and that's a very valid question."

This past year, UDC had 11,000 students -- more than half of them part time -- and received $69 million in D.C. government funds, a figure that Cortada said was "generous."

At El Camino College in California, a community college near Los Angeles that Cortada headed for five years, the budget contains $44 million in public funds for 27,000 students.

In the interview, Cortada repeated his proposal, first made in April, that UDC create a two-year community college within the university that would offer open admissions and remedial programs while "protecting the integrity" of the four-year bachelor's degree.

Currently, UDC's two-year associate programs are offered in the same academic schools as the four-year programs, which, Cortada said, has given them too little visibility and support.

Every state in the nation has a community college, Cortada said, and without one, "the range of alternatives for D.C. residents is narrowed."

Cortada rejected criticism that establishing a separate community college would be "elitist" and that such a school might become a dumping ground. "I think it's arrogant to make no distinction among student objectives unless we believe everyone on earth should have the BA degree," he said, adding that many students seek two-year technical training degrees.

The way to avoid elitism, he said, is to offer university-level courses at the community college and make sure that students who do well in them can transfer to the four-year school, which has been the pattern at El Camino and other community colleges around the country.

Cortada, 53, was born in New York City. His father came from Puerto Rico and was a postal clerk for 40 years. His mother, who is from Trinidad, worked as a seamstress in New York's garment district.

He said he regards himself as both black and Hispanic. "There's oversimplification {about race and culture} in this country and a lot of hanging of labels," Cortada said. "I think I see society through the eyes of a black man and through the eyes of a Hispanic. Believe me, sometimes the cross fire gets intense."

Cortada went to Catholic schools in New York and has a bachelor's degree as well as a doctorate from Fordham University. His children -- a son and twin daughters -- also attended Catholic schools and colleges.

"In public education there's the so-called 'value-free' instruction that I'm not sure serves the students well," Cortada said. "We were very concerned that during the period of their education our children have exposure to values and structure for their lives."

His children are now in their twenties, and Cortada said he expects that two of them will take graduate courses at UDC this year. He said his wife Selonie and daughter Natalia expect to teach in D.C. public schools this fall.

Cortada said he hopes that UDC will strengthen its graduate programs, particularly in education, science and technology, and that it will create an honors program to attract top students from D.C. schools similar to the one started several years ago at El Camino.

He said the university might consider having a requirement that all students take a course on ethical values and issues. "We can't proselytize," Cortada said, "but I think we should deal with the values on which we have a consensus."

Before going to El Camino, Cortada spent five years as president of Baltimore Community College and three years as head of Metropolitan Community College in Minneapolis. Earlier, he held senior administrative posts and taught history at Hostos Community College and Medgar Evers College, both of which were part of the City University of New York.

From 1968 to 1970, Cortada was a history professor and associate provost at Federal City College, one of the three colleges that were merged to form UDC 10 years ago.

"There was some guerrilla warfare then. I shudder at that," Cortada said, referring to the turmoil that marked Federal City's first years. "I think we are at a much healthier state now . . . . The university is still having problems from its merger, but we are ready to begin creating our own direction. That's where I hope to have an impact."