Rafael L. Cortada, the president of the University of the District of Columbia, plans to travel to China at university expense this spring with his wife and his special assistant for Asian affairs to arrange a student and faculty exchange program with Beijing Teachers College.

The week-long trip was approved at an executive session of the UDC Board of Trustees last week after the board agreed to Cortada's request that his contract be amended to authorize use of UDC funds for travel by his wife, Selonie, when she accompanies him on university business.

According to sources, the board voted 10 to 2 with one abstention to pay for his wife's travel. Trustee Daniel I. Fivel said he opposed the authorization. "When we are riffing people, we have to appear to be very budget-conscious," Fivel said. The university recently reduced its staff to cut costs.

But Trustee Joseph Webb said the board "should let {Cortada} function as a university president unless he does something to show he is not exercising prudence and good judgment . . . . We should not try to overregulate what Dr. Cortada does."

In a letter to the board, Cortada said: "Mrs. Cortada's involvement {in the China trip} is necessary to assist in the performance of various ceremonial functions which will surround both the visit and the initialing of the . . . protocol" with Beijing Teachers College.

The visit to China "is not a pleasure trip," Cortada said in an interview. "I will not tour China at university expense." He said the exchange of some faculty and students with the Beijing college would help UDC students "have some comprehension of international affairs . . . . International affairs does fit into the work of any coherent university."

Cortada, who became president of the city's public university in October, is paid $83,000 a year and provided free use of a house and car.

The special assistant, Sun Kai, a former assistant professor at UDC, is paid more than $40,000 a year, according to university sources. She was one of 44 faculty members laid off last summer because of a steep enrollment decline and a tight budget. Sun taught in UDC's Chinese language program, which was abolished because of low enrollment.

Cortada said he appointed Sun to the new post, which does not carry tenure or permanent employment rights, because "I saw there was a need to make sure we are adequately serving {the Asian} population." He said Sun would be a "community liaison." Last fall UDC had 210 Asian students, accounting for 2.2 percent of its enrollment.

In his letter to the trustees, Cortada said Sun will serve as his translator in Beijing and "facilitate introductions to university and city officials."

Several sources said Cortada had been friends with Sun and her husband, Sha Shung-Tse, who now teaches history at UDC, when Sha and Cortada taught together in the mid-1960s at the University of Dayton. Later, Cortada and Sha were both in the history department at Federal City College, one of the three colleges that merged to form UDC 10 years ago.

Cortada acknowledged that he has known Sun and her husband for many years, but added: "Any job I offer will be on the basis of qualifications."

Cortada said the China trip is "clearly required for the benefit of the university" to build "upon the Friendship City agreement" between Washington and Beijing signed by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry when he visited China in 1984.

Officials of the Beijing Teachers College visited UDC in 1985, but Cortada said plans for a return visit by former UDC president Robert L. Green and acting president Claude A. Ford never materialized.

Cortada said in the interview that he did not know the cost of the trip or from which university accounts the money would come. He said he expects to travel in March or April.

Green, who is now on trial in federal court on charges of fraud, theft, and lying to a grand jury, was authorized to use university money to pay for his wife's travel expenses while on university business. Some of her travel, including a trip to San Francisco for a funeral, was criticized by D.C. Auditor Otis H. Troupe. No university funds were provided for travel by the wife of acting president Ford.

Travel funds are not involved in Green's federal indictment, which centers on the purchase of a stereo and large-screen television that Green took with him when he left the university's official residence.

Cortada said it was "usual" for state universities to provide funds for travel by a president's spouse. However, a spokesman for the University of Maryland said it does not pay for such travel. At the University of Virginia, a spokesman said nonstate funds are used to pay for some travel by the wife of President Robert O'Neil.