THE UNIVERSITY of the District of Columbia, beset with internal wrangling, facing budget shortages and operating without a permanent president, has the demanding task of providing remedial and higher education to young people of this city. Yet board chairman Nira Long has found time and energy to promote a questionable project that she is convinced will make the university a "national repository of creative expression that deals with human rights and human freedom."

The trustees have authorized acceptance of a gift, a work by feminist artist Judy Chicago. We don't presume to comment on the art itself -- a construction covering 1,000 square feet titled "The Dinner Party." We do address the question of the cost of accepting and maintaining the gift when there are so many other pressing needs at UDC. Just moving the work to this city and installing it temporarily will cost $80,000, which has been reprogrammed from another part of the university's operating budget -- this at a moment when faculty have been getting late salary checks and students have felt the impact of other cuts. And that is only the beginning.

The Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, which the university owns, will have to be extensively renovated to accommodate the piece. The D.C. Council has just authorized a bond issue to raise $650,000 for general repairs of the building, and it has agreed to borrow another $1.2 million for capital improvements so that the gift can be displayed. The operating costs of maintaining the exhibit and providing for security, insurance and staff are not yet clear. Board chairman Long maintains that in the long run this project will make money for the university from admission charges and rental of videotapes. If money is raised, under the terms of the contract the artist will get a percentage, as will a nonprofit foundation she runs.

The recent establishment of a jazz archive and a model city high school on the campus fits the university's purposes. But this effort to become a widely acclaimed art repository is grandiose. It is not as though Washington is short on museums. The energies and resources of the institution are better directed to the pressing needs of its students.