District's university struggles to survive conflicts over budget Problems reflect Washington's continuing political crises

March 02, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The University of the District of Columbia opened its doors 20 years ago as the only land-grant institution of higher education serving the nation's capital, and one of just a few in the country supported by a city.

Since then, thousands of students - most of them black, low-income residents - have taken advantage of its minimal entrance requirements and low tuition to prepare for careers as scientists, doctors, teachers and public officials.

But like the district itself, the university has fallen on hard times - struggles that reflect the larger problems of the district's continuing fiscal and political crises, combined with ever-present tensions over race.

The skid at the university has become so pronounced, driving tuition up, that access to higher education could move well beyond the reach of many minority students, a battle many people thought was won long ago.

'It makes me angry'

"It makes me angry, angry that after fighting for civil rights 35 years ago in South Carolina, we're doing the same thing here," said Cherrie D. Williams, a program manager for a campus research group. "It's like the clock has stopped, and the issue hasn't changed: denying access to education to minorities."

For the current academic year, the university's appropriation from the city is $38 million, less than half of what it was six years ago. To help offset the loss, tuition is scheduled to rise for a third consecutive year in the fall, to $2,360 a semester from $1,850 for full-time students and to $75 a credit-hour from $58 for part-time students. All intercollegiate athletic programs are being eliminated after this year.

And university trustees have approved a plan to dismiss more than a third of the university's work force - 125 faculty members and 193 support staff - to close an $18 million budget gap for the current fiscal year.

The overall effects are hitting the university hard. Enrollment has fallen steadily since 1990, with a 25 percent decline from last year alone, to a current student population of 7,464. And campus officials say classes that now have 20 students could increase to 45 in the fall.

'Morale is pretty low'

"Morale is pretty low," said Maria Washington, a senior art major who is the fourth generation of her family to attend the university or one of its predecessors. "Most people I know are confused and concerned."

Since a federally appointed control board took over management of all city finances two years ago, spending cuts have become a way of life throughout the district government as it struggles to achieve a balanced budget for the first time in years.

But supporters of the university, which is on upper Connecticut Avenue in the middle of a comfortable white neighborhood, say the control board's cuts at the university are hurting the city's most vulnerable students, those who, because of low grades, poor test scores or financial circumstances, are blocked from attending private universities or other colleges in the area. The city university requires only a high school degree or the equivalent to enroll.

Administrators, faculty members and students, compelled to lobby for their university by the decline in city support, contend that low-income residents of the city have the same right to higher education as anyone else and have the same potential to become productive residents of a city badly in need of expanding its tax base.

And because work and family responsibilities mean that two-thirds of the students attend part time, stretching the time they need to graduate to six years or more, university supporters have also found themselves defending the institution against complaints that it is a luxury in a time of economic crisis.

"The school is identified as a school for African-Americans, and in a sense, it has been 'Willie Hortonized,' like it's OK to whip UDC around," said Meredith Rode, an art professor at the university who is white. "That only perpetuates negative ideas that aren't true."

But Andrew F. Brimmer, an economist who was appointed chairman of the control board, said he was not persuaded by any of the social arguments. "The university has a mission, and it ought to pursue the mission to the extent it has the funds that can achieve that mission," he said. "It has to do the best it can with what it has."

In formulating budget priorities for the city's 1998 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, the control board focused on improvements in three areas - public safety, public schools and public works.

"The university," said Brimmer, who is black, "was not on the list."

The district university was born as a union of three public colleges with widely different programs - Federal City College, a four-year liberal arts institution; D.C. Teachers College, a four-year college; and the Washington Technical Institute, a two-year vocational and trade school.

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