The University of the District of Columbia has been notified that its accreditation is in jeopardy unless the school satisfactorily addresses "long-standing concerns," most of them related to its Board of Trustees.
In a letter to UDC interim President Miles Mark Fisher IV, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools said that the board's interference in management of the university, its receipt of compensation and maintenance of its own staff, as well as the university's frequent turnover of presidents, require immediate attention.
A team from Middle States visited UDC in early September as part of a routine review, and in October the university responded to concerns raised by that team.
Fisher received the letter from Middle States last week. It also cited concerns about the fiscal viability of UDC and said that students and faculty -- not just the elected faculty leadership -- should be more involved in decisions made about the university.
Middle States, a regional accrediting agency, told the university to submit a reply by Dec. 15 or "more serious action may be necessary."
A university's accreditation assures the public that the school is of satisfactory quality. The federal government uses accreditation as a factor in deteriming whether a school is eligible for federal funds, including student financial aid.
None of the problems cited in the letter from Middle States concerned UDC's academic programs. In the past, accreditation of the university's nursing and engineering programs had been threatened by other accrediting agencies. Those programs are fully accredited.
The UDC Board of Trustees discussed the letter last night at a previously scheduled meeting, and most members were critical of the issues raised by Middle States.
"It is a remarkable letter because it is factually inaccurate, trivial, and it doesn't mention anything about the performance of our mission, which is to educate people," said trustee Richard Gross.
Many of the problems cited by Middle States have been raised frequently in UDC's 13-year history.
Faculty leadership and some UDC presidents have complained that the trustees often meddled in day-to-day operations of the university. Such concerns were raised by the university's last president, Rafael L. Cortada, who was fired by the board earlier this year. Faculty members also have complained that they have been routinely excluded from important decisions affecting UDC.
The trustees' management of the school was a key concern raised by the protesting students who occupied an administration building on the Van Ness campus for 11 days in September and October.
Since that demonstration, which ended with an agreement to implement or study about 40 student grievances, the trustees have said they are working to improve their management of the university.
Trustees cited most of those efforts in the university's response to Middle States in October and in testimony before a D.C. Council committee on Nov. 9.
Trustee Roger Wilkins also told the committee that members of the visiting Middle States team had informed him privately "that there are reflections of Cortada" in the concerns that the board interfered with management of the university. Cortada, a Middle States commissioner, denied yesterday that he influenced the commission's review of UDC. He said he abstained from the discussion and the vote.
Trustees also have told the D.C. Council that the compensation they receive by law -- up to $333 a month for time and expenses -- was in violation of Middle States's standards and that the law needs to be changed. Council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large) agreed to work on the legislation.
The trustees defended their maintenance of a board staff -- including an internal auditor -- by saying that problems with previous presidents made it necessary. They mentioned Robert Green, who resigned as president amid allegations that he misused university funds.
Regarding the inclusion of students and faculty in decision-making, the board is supporting legislation that would increase from one to three the number of students on the Board of Trustees. The board is not in support of having faculty representation on the board.
In raising concerns about financial soundness, Middle States noted that the school spent $1.6 million of its reserve funds last year.
Trustees said the university spent a portion of its reserve funds to avoid having UDC's operating budget cut by the council. Several council members have agreed that if the university was not spending some reserves, the council would likely reduce its operating budget.
Middle States's concerns about the financial condition of the university are at odds with some findings of another recently released report.
A review of UDC by the District's Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities -- appointed by Mayor Marion Barry to devise solutions to the city's budget crisis -- found that the university is "neither wealthy nor impoverished" and has very little debt. The review also found that UDC's financial management conformed to national standards for higher education.