When Rafael L. Cortada takes over as president of the University of the District of Columbia on Oct. 1, the challenges he faces are, at a minimum, formidable.

He will have to consider why the university has lost students, presidents and reputation during the past few years. He will have to grapple with political infighting, racial tensions, the value of an open admissions policy and fallout from a controversy over who is the real president of UDC's faculty senate. He will have to deal with an escalating budget in the face of a shrinking enrollment, and the impact of the controversial recent reduction in force.

UDC is not only losing students; now it's losing some of its most talented teachers as well.

For example, the talents of Signithia Fordham are being lost. She is coauthor of the provocative report dealing with the attitude of many black youngsters who regard academic achievement as a form of "acting white," and thus spurn it. Fordham has been courted by foundations and by book publishers interested in publishing her study, and yet she was among 55 faculty members who were recently laid off because she lacked seniority. The union contract stipulates that layoffs be determined by seniority. "It's been very stressful," Fordham says.

Indeed, the stress has been shared by students, the Faculty Association, which denounced the layoffs as unnecessary, and community leaders who have opposed termination of key programs. In response to that pressure, UDC rescinded layoff notices sent earlier to three music professors, thereby at least saving its prestigious jazz and gospel programs. While eight other faculty members also have been rehired, the erratic rehiring and continuing controversy over the layoffs at UDC is symptomatic of the disarray facing the incoming president.

Meanwhile, some community observers dismiss the opposition to the layoffs as ill-founded, and say the university's distressed condition warrants them. But the truth is that UDC's problems are far deeper than its current fiscal dilemma. Despite the precipitous plunge from 15,096 students in 1979 to 11,098 in the last school year, for example, nobody at UDC undertook a comprehensive investigation to find out the causes of this drop.

And enrollment loss is only one problem. UDC's rocky beginnings and the tattered happenings of the last decade -- the forced resignations of its last two presidents, and failures of its administrative leadership and board -- have led to a negative image for UDC. Compounding the problem is the college's insufficient development of programs, and what is perceived by some students as a lack of understanding of their needs by faculty and staff.

Indicative of the attitude of some faculty members is absenteeism, tardiness, demands that longer classes be scheduled twice a week so they can have long weekends, and, in general, not thinking of the student body but, instead, thinking of their own convenience, according to knowledgeable staff members. "Too often things at UDC are structured around the convenience of the faculty rather than the students," said one staff member, echoing the sentiments of others.

Surely young and not-so-young people who are trying to gain an education while working deserve more support and understanding than they appear to be getting from some UDC faculty and staff members. Indeed, the fact that they are not getting the support may be one of the reasons for the declining enrollment.

The situation is particularly lamentable at a time when the decline in the black college population is a national concern. Indeed, minority educational leadership is challenged as never before to take the lead in developing models for black students' survival and growth.

Across the country, there are many other public colleges that work with ethnic, urban populations where the problems that plague UDC just don't exist.

Incoming president Cortada must make some painful decisions, sensitively, to set UDC on course. Come Oct. 1, there is a chance for a new beginning, an opportunity to make this most needed college in this most important city more relevant and perhaps a showcase for what can be done in the nation's only predominantly black, urban land grant college.