For more than 1,000 students who will graduate today from the University of the District of Columbia, commencement marks the end of a long and unorthodox educational journey.

A 70-year-old grandmother, Warrena M. Hannah, will receive her master's degree in adult education. Charlene Walton and Hazel Jackson, part of a special biology progam, will graduate and head to medical school next fall, at the universities of Indiana and Michigan respectively. And graduate Henry Frimpong, who majored in criminal justice, scored in the top four percent nationally on his law school board exams and will attend Texas Southern University Law School.

These and other success stories, told and retold in the smiles of the capped-and-gowned graduates, are the pride of the District's first, and now eight-year-old, public university.

"When you think of those who would have had no chance without UDC," said Ronald H. Brown, the chairman of the university's 15-member board of trustees, "you realize that UDC has changed people's lives more than any other institution."

But like some of its students, UDC has traveled a bumpy road. Behind the smiles, the success stories and the glistening modern campus on Connecticut Avenue NW, is a heated debate among faculty, administrators, students and outside educators over whether this experiment in urban higher education is working.

Critics charge that UDC's successes mask more serious academic and administrative problems and cite as evidence the huge number of students who remain in remedial courses and the small percentage who graduate.

"The principle about a public university, particularly an institution with mostly poor kids, is that it should be judged on what it produces, not what it takes in," said the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, president of Georgetown University and former vice chancellor of publicly financed City University of New York.

UDC, with a $68 million budget financed almost entirely by District taxpayers, has earned a reputation for having some top-notch faculty and for its programs in biology, business, music, art, communications arts and sciences, and respiratory therapy, to name a few.

Yet while these programs flourish, critics in the administration and the faculty worry about an erosion of academic standards and were angered by a board of trustees' proposal earlier this year to loosen graduation requirements. In the face of the outcry, the administration is reconsidering the proposal, which would eliminate a university-wide foreign language requirement and change some basic skills requirements.

On the average, UDC graduates only about 10 percent of its students each year. Although it is labeled "a comprehensive university," most of its teaching resources are devoted to remedial instruction in reading, writing and math.

The English department, for example, offered five upper-level literature courses this semester, along with more than 150 sections of developmental reading and writing. Some 60 percent of UDC's 12,832 students are classified as freshmen, and less than one-third of the student body advances to junior and senior level courses.

And in its brief history, there has been serious instability in the university's administration. UDC has had three presidents, seven vice presidents for academic affairs, and four vice presidents for finance, according to an internal "self-study" completed this year.

"It has taken us longer to get to a place where things are functioning fairly well," said John Butler, a French literature scholar and dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts. "It has occasioned a lot of on the job training. We've been hurt by the rapid turnover of administrations."

The university's mission, as outlined by President Robert L. Green and other top administrators and trustees, is to uphold the public higher education tradition of quality instruction, research, and community service. But unlike state-run universities, Green says frequently, UDC is "unique" because of its urban setting and its policy of admitting any District resident with a high school diploma or General Education Development certificate.

"We are not a traditional university but we are a university with a special mission," said Green, who assumed the presidency 20 months ago. "I would feel I had failed if we had not accomplished two goals: to get students into graduate programs and to get jobs. The degree should mean they can write well and read well. That is an accomplishment given who we admit."

Critics of the university, however, including some faculty, administrators, and students who fiercely opposed the plan to abandon the foreign language requirement, say the school's mission is blurry and its educational program inconsistent.

"The main problem is that it's never really figured out what it's going to be," said D.C. Councilwoman Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). "I know there are some good people teaching there. But their mission is too broad, too vague, and too scattered."

"We are trying to do too many things and consequently we are not doing anything very well," said Wilmer L. Johnson, president of the Faculty Senate. "We haven't really figured out what we want our students to be able to do after four years here."

Much of the current debate at UDC centers on how to handle the vast numbers of students who come to the university without college-level skills. Some 90 percent of first-year students need remedial work in math and writing. The average age of incoming students is 25, and many students hold jobs while attending classes.

"We're serving an academic clientele that does not have an academic culture," said one English professor. "What we get coming to UDC is economic man, not social man."

"The bulk of students come with career advancement in mind," said 24-year-old electrical engineering major Ricardo Brooks, who is editor of the student newspaper Trilogy. "Most of them come at night and hold full-time jobs during the day."

Although the university is divided into five academic colleges, students spend their first two years in a sixth called University College, where they are required to take a battery of core courses. Students ust pass these courses before advancing to upper-level work but, some faculty complain, there is no comprehensive exam given to students to make sure they have mastered basic skills.

Some students admit they have circumvented the system by taking courses out of sequence and enrolling in upper level courses without completing the core requirements.

To reduce the overload of remedial courses, faculty leaders have suggested that the university require entering freshmen to have a ninth-grade reading ability, the same requirement placed on U.S. Army recruits. For those with lesser abilities, faculty leaders say, the university should provide remedial instruction but not formally admit them to college-level courses.

The academic administration has argued against this and similar proposals by saying it would place students in academic tracks and create an "elitist" atmosphere that contradicts the philosophy of open admissions.

Green, Brown, and other administrators say UDC has made strides since 1976, when legislation was passed to form the university. The following year three disparate institutions -- Washington Technical Institute, D.C. Teachers' College and Federal City College -- were combined and the university offered its first courses.

UDC's current troubles, according to top administrators, are rooted in this history and a negative stereotype that accompanies all open admissions colleges.

A report released last year by a House subcommittee said that UDC still faces "a massive problem" created by different personnel systems from its three ancestors. The faculty, the report said, has "widely divergent training, backgrounds, and interests and taken together, these differences did not reflect the composite of a university faculty."

"We need to finalize consolidation," said Dwight Cropp, UDC vice president for management and resource development. "Many of us are still operating with the concept of three institutions. I would pick that as the major weakness of the university."

Another problem, according to Green, is that the public is impatient with a university whose student body is primarily black and poor.

"The image problem we're faced with is tied to the matter of open admissions," said the president. "When you see our students you see a history of racial and economic discrimination. You look in the faces of the poor's children."

Despite the criticisms, UDC's boosters have high hopes. "We're going to start seeing the university doing what a major institution does -- research," said board chairman Brown. "We should be to the District what Ohio State is to Ohio."

Green, in turn, often points to the university's Center for Applied Research, created to study and provide solutions to urban problems, as an example of UDC's progress as a research institution.

But these examples leave some other UDC supporters unimpressed.

"We can't say it in cliches," said Faculty Senate President Johnson. "It's easier to do the cosmetic things. That is not going to do it. That's not enough."

"There is a widespread sense of despair and demoralization," said Meredith Rode, a professor of art who has been at the university since its beginning. "There is an enormous sense among faculty and staff that UDC could be a model institution. But everyone knows it has not achieved what it could achieve."