THE FIRST REPORTS of mass suspensions at the University of the District of Columbia may have been exaggerated and the timing awkward, but the word is out and the message nevertheless clear: UDC is raising its standards--and students had better believe it. Those who do not make the grades will be suspended or placed on probation. Period. As UDC president Benjamin Alexander has warned repeatedly since taking office last year, "We have open admission at UDC, but not open graduation."

He also has open criticism, from many of the same faculty members who seem to resent every aspect of their new president's presence. But check their grumblings: they're charging that Mr. Alexander is trying to bolster his image as a no-nonsense educator bent on stiffening standards. One officer of the faculty senate accused Mr. Alexander of wanting the suspension announcement to be "a media event, knowing that the community is extraordinarily sensitive to the question of academic standards." And a history professor was quoted as saying Mr. Alexander was "doing this because he wants to look good."

Exactly--and why not? What should any "community" expect or welcome from a university? If academic standards are being raised, should it be a secret? Would the president look better if he just quietly ordered every student kept on the rolls no matter what? And speaking of students, how are they affected by this policy?

The majority--the more than 11,000 students who are going to classes and doing well--are not threatened. On the contrary, more than a few say they're relieved; their classes are on the move, and the degrees they anticipate should mean more now.

There's nothing that new about the policy, either; it was adopted in 1979, but just was not fully enforced until last semester: those students who fail to achieve a cumulative average of at least 2.0 (the equivalent of a C) after completing three semesters or 30 credit hours are to be suspended. Those whose averages are that low and who have been at the university for less than three semesters are to be placed on probation. Suspended students may return after one semester.

That's not unduly cruel. It is part of a steady march at UDC, first under president Lisle Carter and now under Mr. Alexander, toward a stronger "state" university that is serious about quality education--and can deliver.