WHEN THE UNIVERSITY of the District of Columbia's board of trustees turned to Benjamin H. Alexander for leadership last year, it knew full well what he proposed to do--and how openly relentless he would be in doing it: "I will not be an apologist for UDC," he told the faculty and staff last August, "simply because I don't have any intention of tolerating anything for which I will feel compelled to apologize. I will not tolerate inferior work or no work at all. I am here not to make UDC equal, but to make it superior." And to this end, Mr. Alexander set forth with a vengeance.

But the rug under him was loose from Day One, with a shaky majority of trustees, grumpy factions among the faculty members and a bureaucracy with all the flexibility of a steel I-beam. And there were those students--a minority of the entire student body--who had certifiably mediocre grade averages and found themselves suspended for a semester.

Did Mr. Alexander try to do too much too soon? Again, back to his words of last summer, reaffirmed in an article on the opposite page today: "I want the word to go to all who plan to make UDC a part of their lives: enrolling at UDC is a right, all things being equal; but graduating from UDC is going to be a privilege that must be earned by each individual." And at first, most reactions were positive; there was a strong sense that UDC was on the move, in a hurry.

But as Mr. Alexander now reports, the trustees' support began to erode, and he was unable to install top administrative people committed to the same sense of urgency and academic excellence. And herein lies a dilemma that contributed as much as any factor to Mr. Alexander's short time in office: without the necessary support of a top team of his own to grease the skids, his zeal sometimes created unnecessary opposition. As we noted in January, for example, Mr. Alexander neglected to consult adequately with faculty and trustees before proposing to dismantle the special tutoring, counseling and remedial services being offered as a program under the University College.

Even so, what has now been lost is a strong voice willing to speak out courageously about high standards; about the best possible schooling a public institution can offer; about getting rid of grade inflation, social promotions, permissiveness, overlapping teaching and staff jobs--and anything else that might compromise academic standards.

The danger now is that UDC could lose momentum under someone more popular than persistent, more flexible than demanding or more political than principled. UDC has been marching toward becoming a strong "state" university, more serious about quality education--and able to deliver it. It would be criminal if the progress to date were squandered.