The current dispute between a Senate Appropriations subcommittee and the University of the District of Columbia about the university's second campus is a good example of what happens when government loses sight of people. The Senate subcommittee sees only one kind of substance, and that the lesser kind; it is losing its vision of the people to be served in its dispute about the buildings meant to serve them.

The University of the District of Columbia has never had the kind of support that other urban universities (City University of New York, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Massachusetts at Boston) can take for granted from their state governments. During the 1960s and 1970s, massive sums of money went into the building of those universities. New York State, for example, spent over $3 billion in developing its state and city universities. The District of Columbia missed out on this largesse, even when it was federally fueled. It should not be forced to do so again.

The university now has one campus at Van Ness Street in northwest Washington, housing its schools of engineering, technology and education. At Mount Vernon Square, in the heart of downtown Washington, it plans to put its liberal arts college, its business school, and its University College. This second campus has been approved by every level of District government and by the House of Representatives. Now it is being held up by a GAO report and the Senate subcommittee.

The report argues first that UDC doesn't need a second campus. Then General Accounting Office says, if there has to be a second campus, it should be added onto the Van Ness campus. Finally, the report suggests that, if economic reasons force the move, the university can make do with the 14 scattered downtown buildings it now uses. In making that recommendation, the report ignores most of what we know about the human realities of urban higher education as it has developed in the United States.

There are three principal reasons why UDC should proceed as quickly as possible to construct its new campus at Mount Vernon Square. The first of these is access for its students. The students served by the University of the District of Columbia are, on an average, 27 years old, and over 70 percent of them hold full-time jobs. Working students need a campus that can be reached quickly and by public transportation. They need to husband after-the-job energy in order to learn. Being able to move out from the campus is also important. Both a liberal arts college and a business school that serve adults need to be near the city's business and commercial enterprises, its museums, theaters and government offices. Washington is not famous for its public transportation, and we ought to remember that for busy and tired people, two or three miles can be a major obstacle to continuing their education.

There are some common facts about urban universities serving this kind of student, whether they be in New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. For example, the rhythms that an urban and adult student follows are different from those in a classic four-year college. New York's most selective public college, Queens College, found that the average time students took for a degree was 5 1/2 years. Urban students like to combine study with a job - and want to feel free to change either or both, frequently. Because of that they resist the lockstep of a classic four-year march to a bachelor's degree. The Queens College experience is valuable because there was then no tuition and the college did not pressure students to finish the degree in a fixed time. Thus the students were psychologically and financially able to pace their education as they chose, and they chose to combine it with work.

A second reason for the new campus is the gathering that undergraduate work needs. Campuses talk to themselves and cross their disciplinary lines because faculty and students have to meet, think aloud, talk and simply deal with one another. What UDC is striving to build for the city is what its faculty and its students can accomplish together. Colleges are governed along disciplinary lines, but their conversations, their research and their teaching flow more freely. We might be able to run the GAO in 14 scattered public buildings across downtown Washington. No one in his right mind would suggest running a college that way.

A final reason is, in the long run, most important: the feel and look of the college itself. Any college is a common work, much of whose strength lies in the community its builds. We need to gather, but we gather in a specific way. We need some spaciousness and dignity to match the scope and beauty of the ideas and art we deal with. Washington is not a shabby capital and ought not to be made to settle for a shabby university.

All the above reasons are doubly important for UDC's University College. This is the college that reaches out to the city's deprived, to the undereducated, to those who need help to get themselves started in college. Their brainpower can be proven, but their skills are weak. For this kind of adult student, the look of the college is important. It is so easy to quit, so easy to say "to hell with," as indeed that same student, a decade before, said in high school.Not all the supports such students need are academic. Some are physical. They need to be reminded that the labor of learning is worthwhile and that society sees it as worthwhile. I'm not making an argument for marble halls or even for ivy-covered ones. I am arguing for decency, for space, for the kind of dignity in which a great nation's capital sets its works and hopes.

This dispute concerns the whole university world in Washington, so it is appropriate for the president of a private institution to speak out for the public one. The issue touches home rule; two mayors, two city councils, and no one knows how many committees have approved the Mt. Vernon campus for more than a decade. This new campus is meant to serve not those who take from society but those who are preparing themselves to give. In an increasingly technical market like the city of Washington, we cannot afford to scout or skimp brains. Like every other part of America, this city needs all the talent it can get. Its public university deserves a downtown campus adequate for the work it does, seeding the future of the city.