Since leaving the University of the District of Columbia in June 1982, I have steadfastly refused to comment on policies, activities or developments there. An institution can have only one president at a time. Moreover, an apparently second-guessing ex-president will seldom do less harm than good. Nevertheless, after the unfortunate events of the past summer, I want to reply publicly to some questions that I have been asked.
With all the other universities in town, why do we need a UDC? Wouldn't a community college meet the need?
No, a community college isn't enough. This unique city-state needs a public institution to play the role that land grant and urban public institutions have played in states and cities in this country going back to the 1860s. The major difference between then and now is that today the Washington area probably has the most highly educated population of any U.S. metropolitan area and a labor market that demands highly trained workers. This makes the plight of the poorly educated minority more severe, and the opportunity and economic development role of an urban public institution more essential. A community college and nationally oriented private universities, even with voucher scholarships, could not perform this opportunity function.
But accepting your position, isn't the payoff pretty small -- perhaps 1,200 graduating each year out of enrollment of 13,000?
As is typical of many public institutions, UDC is and should be a higher risk institution. But to compare the number of graduates with the number of enrolled students in any year is to compare apples and oranges. Seventy percent or more students in any year are enrolled part-time. Large numbers of students take seven years or more to attain a bachelor's degree and four years to attain an associate degree. Many have to stop for a period because of family support or child-care needs. The number of full-time equivalent students is probably between 7,000 and 8,000.
A more reasonable way to look at payoff from this kind of institution should be in terms of what happens to its graduates. In recent years high proportions of its graduates from business, science, engineering and technical programs have found prompt employment, and graduates from programs across the university have gone on to good quality professional and graduate schools.
The institution appears unmanageable; of course, there were reasons, but two presidents in three years?
Every urban public institution is tough to manage because of the inevitable conflicts of its ever present internal and external constituencies. At UDC it has been tougher because of the problems of welding three institutions into one under legislation designed in part to preserve the status quo rather than to encourage a fresh start. That fact is particularly significant in a city where two years is a long time and where there is a tendency to pull trees up by the roots to see how well they're growing. Nevertheless, UDC was managed in earlier years of consolidation; it is not likely to be less manageable now.
Governance of a university has to be more participatory than hierarchical with every affected constituency having its say before administration and board have their final word. It is highly destabilizing to ignore this proc The board must have a sensitive respect for this collegial approach. External constituents, such as the mayor, the D.C. Council, Congress and the public-at-large, are entitled to a full accounting of plans and outcomes, but, normally, their intrusion in governance is also destabilizing. The board must not only be independent; it must also be perceived to be independent.
But even so, isn't a good manager what UDC needs?
No, what UDC needs is a vigorous academic leader. Of course, UDC needs good management, but that talent is easier to come by than leadership. An able public administrator or business manager accustomed to hierarchical relationships could encounter early trouble trying to run a university. More important, UDC needs an individual as president who provides a vision of its future capabilities, generates the morale and enthusiasm among its constituencies to move toward that vision, and rallies the support of the business, political and voluntary communities toward those same ends. This individual must have a long- term and complete commitment to building the institution, must have the patience of that commitment, must have the imagination required for vision, must be prudent, but not timid, and decisive when circumstances require decision.
All the same, you are glad you're not president now.
Wrong. The years I spent at UDC were some of the best of my life. I got a lot out of that experience and believe I contributed something to the university. There are terrific people there in fields as diverse as music, art, biology and the social sciences; there are a number of significant service programs to District residents; above all, there are so many highly motivated students. The most rewarding part of my experience was meeting the graduates of all ages at each commencement. If I were 15 or 20 years younger, I would see it as a great job for me. I envy the man or woman who has the opportunity to lead UDC in the next decade of its development.