In their takeover of a building at the University of the District of Columbia and their demand for sweeping reforms, the UDC students are holding classes for the rest of the city.
Included in the things the students have taught us are that the lines of communication were hopelessly clogged and had to be reopened; that they were justified in taking control of a foundering institution; that young black men and women can work together to achieve a goal; that all of us have undervalued the institution and its students; and that while some trustees have been indifferent, perhaps even arrogant, not all of them are bad.
Underlying the student takeover is the cry for change that is sweeping throughout the city. The "throw- the-rascals-out" mindset behind Sharon Pratt Dixon's primary victory and the D.C. Council turnover was reflected in the students' demands for an end to the business-as-usual attitude that permeated their school.
And since when has civil rights-style activism gone out of fashion? It worked for the students at Gallaudet University who wanted a deaf president to head their institution. It worked for the students at Howard University who did not want Lee Atwater on their board of trustees.
I don't remember hearing anyone decry peaceful, nonviolent protests on those occasions. To do it now holds UDC students to a different and unfair standard.
African Americans do, however,
need a retooled model of leadership, one that emphasizes institutional strength and broad influence in all fields -- education, media, science, politics, business -- not just a leadership composed of celebrities and personalities. Furthermore, that institutional strength and influence must be founded on grass-roots support.
I see the student protest as part of that new model. In their standoff and demand for reforms, they are saying that the University of the District of Columbia is more important than the particular people who are leading it. They are part of the retooling that has to come in the post-civil rights movement, but they must be educated to this new model. Education requires a stable institution, and the UDC students are attempting to make theirs a university where their educational needs will be met.
The students have demonstrated for all to see just how little communication has taken place during the 13 years of UDC's existence. "Many of the trustees . . . have learned some lessons," said Jim Ford, a member of D.C. Council member Hilda H.M. Mason's staff who has sat in on many of the negotiations. "Perhaps they weren't quite as sensitive or open as they needed to be . . . . And the students have learned that not all members of the board are uncaring and unprofessional." Such trustees as the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley and Concha Johnson, among others, are said to have been particularly forthright and committed.
The students have shown us the urgency of the city reevaluating the whole role that the D.C. government plays with the educational system. Neither Mayor Barry nor the D.C. Council seems to really understand the institution's potential or its students.
Yet UDC's future is crucially tied to that of the D.C. public schools from which 80 percent of its students come. The Board of Education and the UDC board must work together, therefore, with the next mayor and the D.C. Council to treat UDC and the other public schools as a consolidated domain.
Indeed, if the new city leadership is to follow through on its rhetorical commitment to make education the city's number one priority, it should consider convening a summit of these different city entities and begin long-range planning and appropriate budgeting.
I'm proud of the UDC student leaders, Mark Thompson, Lisa Smith, Aisha Murray and others, for they have shown intelligence and ingenuity under pressure. Moreover, the several hundred other protesters are reversing the dynamic we too often see in the way some black males relate to the opposite sex. Gone is the macho mentality and disrespect that cause too many young men to see women only as sex objects. Here they see each others as equals and have mutual respect.
But even if the students are victorious, the fate of the university
still is in doubt. Such issues as accreditation, resources and major reorganization are still unanswered. To succeed in resolving those issues will require time -- time to develop a plan, and time to heal. And, as the students say, the time is now.