YEARS AGO, the sons and daughters of poor immigrants to New York City were able to become doctors, lawyers and engineers through a system of free higher education now known as the City University of New York. Its central and forming idea was that the potential for achievement should be limited only by the ambitions and abilities of a young person, not by the income of his family. The result was a large group of judges, physicians and academics who had been born in poverty and educated free. An impulse to emulate that idea resulted in the creation by Congress of a federal land-grant college called the University of the District of Columbia. It is to be made up of three institutions - D.C. Teachers College, Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute.

The process by which those three institutions are merged into one university will determine for thousands of young Washington the kind of education they will receive for years to come. If the institution starts off in the wrong direction, we could have a tax-supported disaster on our hands. There is a heated debate in progress over the question of just what the institution should be. It seems to pit the liberal arts faculty of Federal City College against the president of Washinton Technical Institute, Cleveland Denard, who is considered a likely choice of the Board of Higher Education for the presidency of the new university. Dr. Dennard, in company with FCC's president, Wendell Russell, has done much of the preparatory design of the new school.

The FCC faculty and deans fear that the liberal arts education that can lead to further higher education and professional training is on the verge of being consumed in the process of the merger. If that happens, they say they fear that the new university will be nothing more than a trade school never become the first-rate university that the students of the city are entitled to.

The debate has been made more heated by two factors. First, the Board of Higher Education has been slow in naming a president and, second, it has appeared to many to be too hasty in pushing through the merger. Because there is no president, there is no clear sense of direction for the formation of the university. It has been a project of a very busy board and two presidents of co-equal rank. Thus there is the fear that the university will emerge with all the hazards of products created by committees.

At one point earlier this year, the Board of Higher Education set itself the goal of completing the entire merger in 97 days. This was preposterous. Indeed, the entire process deserves a great deal more thought and discussion than it has received. There is much to be aired in public about the structure of the university. As outlined, the office of president is extremely powerful and the role of the faculty seems on first reading to be quite passive.

Those are but a few of the many topics surrounding the formation of DCU to which we hope to return in the weeks and months ahead. We argue for now that there is no rush about something that we hope will be here for a long time. If the school is to become a university in the best sense of the word, then the community deserves to see the evidence that it's structure will meet academic and technical needs in a manner that leaves room for the growth of both.