The University of the District of Columbia has struggled for the five years since its inception to formulate an identity from the consolidation of three quite disparate institutions: D.C. Teachers College, Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute. There has been extraordinary turmoil and uncertainty in the creation of a single institution of public higher education in the city. What is needed now is a president who can serve as a unifying force and can begin the next critical phase of the university's development with broad approval and support.
Yet on the last day of March, 13 people deliberated behind closed doors. They were members of the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia, entrusted with the important responsibility of appointing a new president. The nature of their deliberations is not known, but it is known that they did not lead to consensus. The vote on appointing Benjamin Alexander reflects a sharp division of opinion--a 6-to-6 tie that was broken by the board chairwoman, Marjorie Parker. This divided decision was preceded by a secretive search that fostered rumor and created suspicion.
From the time the search committee was named by Dr. Parker last December until the board acted last month, no information was shared with the university community or the general public. The unusually closed nature of the search denied District citizens an opportunity to consider the candidates' educational values and professional experience--matters that are of critical importance to the university's development. In previous searches, finalists have been invited to the campus to be interviewed by all segments of the university. But since there were no such interviews this time, issues have been raised in the media that should have been widely discussed before the selection. UDC is a public institution and the choice of its president is as much a matter of public concern as the selection of the superintendent of schools.
The UDC Faculty Senate, which is the elected representative body of the faculty, has gone on record with a vote of no confidence in the selection process. The issue at this point is the process and not the man selected. Additionally, members of the university community and the community- at-large have joined in a class action suit that challenges the legality of both the procedure and the outcome, charging that "the board made one of the most important decisions entrusted to it without adequate, necessary or reasonable information . . ."
According to the board's own document on the search, the trustees were presented with the name of a single candidate. They had only a traditional r,esum,e and a brief statement of the candidate's educational philosophy on which to base a judgment. They did not meet the candidate, did not verify any of the statements in the official report or the r,esum,e and had no letters of reference.
The board's document raises further questions. Eleven candidates were interviewed and the list was then narrowed to four. When the top two candidates declined the position, the search committee initiated "Phase Two" of the process, interviewing additional candidates. There is no explanation of why the third- and fourth-ranked candidates were not considered. The class action suit filed in D.C. Superior Court alleges that "The official report upon which the board relied deliberately and fraudently misstates the acts actually taken and the procedures actually followed by the search committee." It is regrettable that the legal process must be used to obtain information that should be readily available to the public.
Ultimately, the board did not act in the best interests of those it is intended to serve. It acted in secrecy and in the face of profound internal division. Because of that division, the only responsible action would have been to put off a decision and search further. Instead, seven trustees voted to impose their will on the future of the university-- to exercise power rather than to seek consensus. This abuse of power should not have occurred. It must not be sanctioned. And it must not be permitted to happen again.