THE STUDENT seizure of a building at the University of the District of Columbia is only the latest expression of the sorry state into which that neglected institution has been allowed to fall. For too long UDC has been the playpen of indifferent adults -- overblown administrators, petty faculty politicians, inattentive and ineffectual trustees, an uncaring mayor to whom the board and institution represented patronage (yet who now seeks to use the student takeover as a prop in his latest political campaign). One of the trustees revealed more than perhaps she meant or knew the other day in saying with what she believed was magnanimity, "The students are a very important part of our university." They are the whole reason for its being.

The place's problems are all too drearily familiar. Low-cost public higher education is one of the great tickets of admission in this society. In Washington the traditional opportunity to advance is supposed to come from UDC. The school has chronically failed to deliver. Three consecutive presidents have now been fired or forced to resign; the post is vacant. The school's commendable policy is open admissions, which means that many incoming students are unprepared, and too little has ever been done to help them (partly because the faculty has balked at the job). Too few students earn degrees, and for some who do it takes too long. The administrators and trustees meanwhile pursue such goals as seeking major-college athletic status or, lately, spending money the school can't afford to house costly art.

Student takeovers, whatever the frustrations that may give rise to them, are a bad idea. The physical occupation of a building and the underlying ultimatum -- negotiate or else -- are not a condonable way of doing business. Some of the students' demands are reasonable, some are not -- and they keep changing. But even their good ideas should not become the price of getting them to clear the building.

Not just the students but also others have said they want the entire board of trustees replaced, including chairman Nira Long. We, too, think it would be good for the university if some of the current trustees were to go, including chairman Long. But such action has to be taken in a systematic and legally sanctioned way for the sake of the very goals it is meant to achieve. There is a role for the D.C. Council and also for the next mayor here. Both need to play a part in reconstituting the board and giving UDC a new direction. It's time for the students to leave the occupied building and for the adults responsible for the institution to get serious.