"WE ARE READY to begin creating our own direction." This statement by UDC's new president, Rafael L. Cortada, is important. UDC was created in 1977 by the unwieldy merger of three colleges. Each wanted to protect its own programs, faculty and staff. Ten years later, UDC still suffers a failure of assimilation.

Today, the D.C Council and the mayor are involved in a strange ritual. UDC will be given a) the old Antioch Law School, or b) the New Law School with Antioch's faculty and staff, or c) the New Law School without Antioch's faculty and staff or d) the New Law School Without a Building. Mr. Cortada says we should assess the city's needs before "adding a new element to the stew." He's right. There are more urgent concerns.

One is a 25 percent enrollment decline. UDC tried to attract more D.C. high school graduates last year with a big ad campaign, but the number of students going directly from high school to UDC dropped from 2,263 to 1,618. Mr. Cortada was president of the only community college in California that had stable enrollment. This was partly a result of teaching partnerships and programs for high school students who were later recruited by Mr. Cortada's school. The same technique might work here.

To regain and keep accreditation in important programs, UDC wanted $3.4 million more from the city to buy books, periodicals and equipment. But the council and the mayor expect UDC to do more with less. As president of El Camino College, Mr. Cortada did just that, running a school with nearly three times the enrollment of UDC on a budget that was $25.2 million less.

What about student performance? Only two out of every 10 UDC students graduate, and 85 percent of UDC freshmen are below the ninth-grade level in English and math. Mr. Cortada suggests a two-year open admissions community college within UDC. Students successfully completing that would transfer into UDC's four-year program. This would allow the establishment of academic standards for the four-year program while giving slower students a better chance to succeed.

UDC has yet to assume its own direction. Mr. Cortada's two most recent predecessors at UDC failed to inspire confidence. By contrast, Mr. Cortada's ideas seem sound and likely to merit and generate support. He should be allowed to do the job he was hired fo