People kept clapping, and Shelley Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia's law school, couldn't stop smiling.
"We've waited a long time for this," she said yesterday as university officials and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced a boon for the city's public university: a vote to fully accredit the law school, and reaffirmation of the accreditation of the school as a whole.
Most schools don't celebrate accreditation like this. But then, most haven't been through what UDC has.
Since the last such review a decade ago, the university's budget was slashed, faculty members were laid off, enrollment at the four-year school plummeted and an $18 million deficit opened up.
Full accreditation of UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law was delayed in 2003 by the American Bar Association because the rate of students passing the bar exam was one of the lowest in the country; in some years, about a quarter of graduates passed. With that provisional accreditation, students could still get financial aid and take the bar, but the school had annual inspections and lengthy self-evaluations.
Yesterday's announcement that an American Bar Association council voted to fully accredit the law school -- with final approval expected early next month -- signals a turnaround. Last year, two-thirds of the graduates passed the bar on the first try. The law library also has been renovated, and grades and test scores of entering students have gone up. And this year, the law school had 1,360 applications for 90 seats, Broderick said.
A review of the university as a whole, by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, found "a climate of renewal and optimism in an institution which was only a few years ago on the brink of extinction." The report, which was central to the accreditation, praised UDC's leadership for stabilizing the budget and planning ahead now that the fiscal crisis is over.
"It's a significant recognition that the school is on the ascendancy," said James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the UDC Board of Trustees.
"It's not just an A," said President William L. Pollard. "We got an A-plus."
Stepping onto campus, it's easy to see how far the university has come and the distance still to go: On a sunny summer day, visitors to the UDC administrators' offices face sweltering heat on the steep escalators in the glass atrium, where the fans are broken.
But it's much better than last year. Then, the escalators didn't work.
Progress at UDC is measured in bits and pieces like that, in elevators and bathrooms finally fixed, in growing collaboration among faculty and students and administrators, in an updated list of alumni who can be tracked and asked for donations.
Yet the concrete is crumbling so badly in the central plaza and walkways around campus that some steps are worn down to their rusting metal rods. And when it rains, water pours through the cracks and cascades into the underground parking garage.
They had 30 years of maintenance put off, as the university reeled from crisis to crisis.
"It is so demoralizing" to see the deterioration, said Meredith E. Rode, a longtime art professor. The students deserve better, she said. "There is no doubt in my mind that the city could have an excellent public school system and an excellent university -- if they wanted."
In 1990, the city gave about $75 million of the roughly $100 million operating budget, according to UDC figures; last year, it gave less than $50 million of a nearly $97 million total; the rest comes from tuition, grants and private fundraising. Pollard said he expects a significant increase from the city this year, but "that still leaves us short in so many ways."
Nevertheless, it would be a step forward. "Last year at this time, I would have said funding is horrible," Pollard said recently. "This year, it's not where I'd like it to be but it's light-years from where it has been."
One priority will be to keep students in school; enrollment fluctuates wildly as students drop out, often to earn money, and take classes again when they can. Fewer than 5,000 full- and part-time students were enrolled this spring; 10 years ago, there were nearly 10,000.
As school leaders look ahead, they hope to continue making repairs, add onto the business school and build the first dormitories. They'd like to add a student center, where students could go between classes. Now, they often gather in the administration building and hang out around the escalators.
And Broderick hopes to see a law school building rising on campus soon, instead of holding classes in that same administration building. "All the change has been breathtaking," she said.