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Celebrating a pretty plaza.

I’ve got a cover story this week on the travails of the University of the District of Columbia, which is looking at some massive downsizing in the near future. As usual, not everything fit in the print version, so here are some excessed thoughts:

  • The question that occurred to me when the Council’s committee presented its report on the school’s dire fiscal straits was: Why hadn’t the Mayor and the Council realized earlier on that UDC’s cost structure was totally unsustainable? The Brookings Institution and D.C. Appleseed told them in a report in 2009. “I don’t think there’s really an answer outside of, for years and years and years the same cycle has been going on related to the university,” says Councilmember Michael Brown, who took control of the committee that oversees UDC ten months ago.* “Now you have a team that wants to change the cycle.” To that end, Brown is inserting language in the FY 2013 budget that would require the university to create a right-sizing plan that would bring spending in line with industry standards.
  • The problem is, nobody seems quite sure how to do that kind of right-sizing, given protections afforded by collective bargaining agreements with both faculty and staff unions. D.C. Appleseed’s Walter Smith thinks the union, the city, and the school should sit down and just figure things out. The leader of the faculty union, Mohamed El-Khawas, scoffed when I relayed that opinion. “That will never happen,” he said. If worse comes to worse, they can use a “reduction in force,” which would trump tenure, to flush out excess people. Going back the last bullet point, President Allen Sessoms hasn’t done a RIF yet because he thinks the university should be able to grow back into its staffing levels. Smith thinks that won’t happen for a long, long time.
  • Even though UDC is grossly oversubsidized compared to peer institutions, since it’s all sucked up by excess faculty and administrative staff and the high cost of maintaining an aging campus, people working there feel very strapped for cash—-department budgets have been slashed, and travel money has disappeared, which isn’t good for morale.
  • Every UDC backer will complain about the federally funded Tuition Access Grant, which provides $10,000 to District kids who want to go to school outside the city, and $2,500 for the private institutions in D.C. But it’s definitely not changing anytime soon. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says she can’t ask Congress to fund D.C.’s state college, because it doesn’t fund any state colleges. “Nobody who understands how we got this bill would ever say, ‘hey why don’t you just throw in UDC,” she says. “There’s no theory I could even approach people with about funding a state college, where, by the way, the tuition is so low that most people could pay for the tuition with Pell grants.” So, yeah.
  • A few years after doubling tuition in two increments, the Board of Trustees voted yesterday to institute a steady, annual increase of four percent-—the consumer price index plus one percent, which is quite a bit less than typical hikes at neighboring institutions. This time, there were no student protests; the student government didn’t even show up to Board hearings to testify against it (the student body president, Tolu Onansaya, inexplicably didn’t even agree to an interview for this story).

The only qualms came from the Board itself: Chairman Joe Askew worries that increasing tuition while enrollment is still declining could mean the university ends up losing money. Sessoms argues that the decline is simply due to the institution of admissions standard, that applications have been trending up, and new staff will actually be able to handle them (before, many applications simply weren’t processed).

Meanwhile, the David A. Clarke School of Law wants to boost its very low tuition by an eye-popping 20 percent. The Board hasn’t agreed to that one yet.

  • Speaking of the law school: It’s got a totally different reputation from the undergraduate institution. Literally, people can’t say enough good things. There are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which is the steady, consistent leadership of Dean Shelley Broderick. Another may also be the fact that the faculty aren’t unionized—-not that unions are necessarily bad, but by avoiding the bitter struggle of labor relations at UDC proper, the school has been able to build a talented, energetic staff and distribute salaries more equitably.
  • Finally: A couple weeks ago, the Board of Trustees elected a new chair. This is important, because Mayor Vince Gray will be leaning on the Board to make some big changes in the next year. The vote was interesting. George Vradenburg, who along with super-philanthropist Katherine Bradley is the guy people usually mention as an example of Gray’s fresh new additions to the body, nominated former Board chair and high-powered lawyer Jim Dyke for the position. Askew nominated Elaine Crider, a government consultant who’s been involved with student affairs at UDC.

During the brief campaign, Vradenburg argued that Dyke would be able to bust UDC out of its small-time image, and leverage relationships with the Council to get it the resources it needed, while Dyke emphasized his experience as Virginia’s secretary of education. Crider’s backers cited her “constancy, compassion, and commitment” to the institution. In her own defense, Crider said she wanted to heal some of the “fractured” relationships on the Board, and bring stability. “Others may be more experienced in their political relationships and things like that,” she said. “I think you need more than politics and political relationships to build the great university that we all want.”

The vote was 7 yes, 5 no on Crider; and 6 yes, 8 no on Dyke. The six voting for Dyke were all five of the Board’s white members, plus Dyke himself. I don’t know if that means anything. But splits along racial lines are always worth noting.

CORRECTION, May 3 – The post originally stated that Brown got oversight over UDC a couple of years ago, but in fact UDC was added to his committee in July 2011.