A former president of the University of the District of Columbia once said that UDC had a reputation as the "University of Dumb Children." Nobody paid much attention to that. When an engineering instructor discovered that the wrong text had been used for the course, resulting in the mass failure of the class, not much attention was paid to that, either.

After seven university presidents in 13 years and the acquisition of a totally weird piece of art, attention finally is being paid to the University of the District of Columbia. But only because the students -- who proved to be far from dumb -- got fed up and closed the school.

Let me hasten to say that it pains me as much today as it did during the Howard University student protest a year and a half ago to see black youth attack and shut down an institution of higher education.

It's not only the perception that blacks can't resolve internal differences with dignity that bothers me. Even more disturbing is the realization that as we approach the 21st century, our young black leaders appear to be as stuck in a 1960s protest time warp as the rest of us.

James Parks, who was expelled from North Carolina A&T at Greensboro for participating in a student protest 20 years ago, has some interesting thoughts on this. As a night school student of architectural engineering at UDC, he is, once again, out of school because of a student protest. Make no mistake about it: He sympathizes with his classmates.

"Students just want to make sure that they are able to take advantage of opportunities once they leave school, and not have a poor education relegate them to second-class citizens," said Parks, who is 42.

Nevertheless, the former student leader still questions the means by which many of today's college students try to achieve their goals. Of course, he would not criticize them for using the same tactics he employed in Greensboro.

Rather, he hopes that young leaders can develop more sophisticated approaches to influencing political and educational systems.

"The problem is that people of my generation have not handed down to the youth the important lessons from our protest era," said Parks, who works for the D.C. Department of Administrative Services. "We did not teach them in junior high school about Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the Republic of New Africa or how SNCC {the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee} worked. We did not teach them the history of our struggle, so it stands to reason that if they did not learn from history, they were bound to repeat it and spend time remaking the wheel."

One lesson that today's college students seem to have overlooked is the importance of community outreach before a crisis occurs, Parks said. In his day, students had a passion for working with tenant and welfare rights organizations, tutoring urban youth and serving soup and sandwiches to the poor.

The result was a network that linked college students with the political organizations of a city. In the absence of such networks, universities often appear aloof and detached from the community. Thus, attacking the institution becomes the only way for students to generate sympathy from the community around it.

"In a publicly supported university, students should be involved in community organizations such as civic associations and advisory neighborhood commissions," Parks said. "That way, constant pressure can be applied to a university board of trustees through a city administration. This kind of involvement gives students real political power and enduring control over their school."

It is widely agreed that the grievances of the UDC students are valid, especially their concerns about apparently misspent student fees and shortened library hours. In dealing with the civil rights mentality of the city government and the Board of Trustees, perhaps the students used the one tactic that was certain to capture their limited imaginations.

Parks is correct. If the university had shown its students other means to empowerment, the students would not have believed it necessary to dramatize their cause by interrupting educational opportunity for everyone.

The University of the District of Columbia has paid a high price to bring attention to that fact.