Faculty and staff at the University of the District of Columbia nowadays tend to wince when you mention Robert Green, the president who was forced to resign last August amid a controversy over allegations that he had used university money for personal ends. But despite the resentment, they invariably point out that green did at least one great thing for UDC: founding its unique Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy.
That center is now the focus of hope for those who want to rejuvenate the struggling university by attracting top-flight faculty and students. They talk of expanding the center's funding and incorporating researchers in the liberal arts. And their optimism is not misplaced, for the applied research center offers something that no other university in the area can match.
Drawing on UDC's unique position as an "urban land-grant" institution, it provides money for projects that reflect the university's close ties to city and federal government, to area academics and to this citys poor and minority inhabitants. The grandiose UDC "mission statement" calls for university involvement in everything from continuing education at Lorton Reformatory to urban gardens. What the center does is transform that lofty mission into practical academic projects that -- importantly -- might not be undertaken anywhere else.
The eight universities that crowd the Washington area rarely have much substantive to do with one another on an institutional level; area academics say this is true of universities everywhere. The local Consortium, for instance, tends to emphasize matters of mutual convenience -- cross-registration, joint library collections and the occasional joint program. But on the more casual and uncatalogued level of individual departments, the academic cross-pollination is surprisingly rich. And UDC, because of its unique identity, plays a surprisingly prominent role.
The frequent academic conferences at the applied research center on such city-related issues as black-Jewish relations, home rule and public housing, draw in sibling academics from all over the city. Steven J. Diner, director of the center until January, used a grant to edit a series of studies on "D.C. history and public policy" -- public housing, academic reform in the public schools, cable television. The first of these is now used as a sociology textbook by George Washington University Prof. Howard Gillette. Gillette calls UDC's urban affairs inquiries "somewhat more broad-based than most," crediting the public university's ties to the community.
The biologist who has now replaced Diner as director of the center, Dr. Vijaya Melnick, is an even sharper example of the unusual things that can result when public policy is mixed into academics. Melnick, who teaches in the UDC biology department, is also associate director of Georgetown's Center for Immunology and works on an array of projects that marry biology and bioethics to urban and community affairs.
A typical project is Melnick's ongoing study of the results of low birth weight in babies, which studies the women admitted to a D.C. public maternal health clinic, on an arrangement that only UDC could have gotten -- with Georgetown resources, government grant money and UDC student research assistants. The clinics, she says, were cooperative because "there was a feeling of camaraderie between the district government and UDC -- that we came not to criticize but to help." The study could have important implications for the District, with its high infant mortality rate.
And then there's the flying start that such a project can give a UDC biology major. Melnick, who teaches in the bio department, works on getting students into the "self-selective" premed major -- often, in the process, inspiring with ambition a kid who intended to go into one of the allied professions with an associate degree. She has sent a hefty number on to med school. Many are black, and feel a commitment to come back to the District to practice. And many are the first in their families to get so far.
An equally skillful example of boundary-dissolving is Albert Moseley of the philosophy department, which, more than many of the other academic departments, pursues a constant round of joint conferences, cross-registrations and philosophy club meeting with other universities. What's the draw in this case? Part of it is that UDC philosophy faculty are working on intensely political questions such as "philosophy of affirmative action" and "philosophical underpinnings of apartheid," acting on their proximity to the government.
But Moseley, who studies reasoning skills, has also come up with a project that has implications for the overburdened university college on his own campus. A paper he did, he says, suggests that for truly "nontraditional" students, those with little or no formal background, remedial skills courses may go a lot faster if the students are first given a course in basic logic. That may not magically dissolve the heavy obligations UDC's open admissions policy has placed on its academic operations. But it may come closer than a blue-ribbon panel to instituting the reforms in remedial strategy that most agree are necessary.
One president of a neighboring university, who says he wishes he could think of a way to help UDC out, says finally, "I just wish it weren't so politicized over there. I realize that's like wishing it wasn't cold in winter." Obviously, some of UDC's problems must be grappled with politically; the question of academic rigor is tied up in structure and in broad perceptions of an institution's goal.
But if any part of a university has a chance to be apolitical, it might as well be its classrooms. The good work going forward here and there suggests that UDC's classrooms will be the source of whatever peace it eventually finds with itself and its community.