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Along with hospitals, affordable housing, and libraries, add one more District priority that didn’t get what its advocates wanted in the mayor’s budget for 2013: The University of the District of Columbia. Local funding has bounced around $63 million since 1997, and President Allen Sessoms had asked for it to be bumped up to $85.1 million this year. No dice: The allocation remained essentially the same.
That’s problematic for a couple reasons. One: For the last three years, UDC has supported a brand new community college with no corresponding increase in funds, even though it costs about $12 million per year to run. That college hopes to become an independent branch campus by the end of this year, according to CEO Jonathan Guevarra. And two: Since coming into office in 2009, Sessoms has been attempting to turn UDC into a state university on par with comparable institutions around the country—-the kind of quality school that would make it unnecessary for the feds to pay to send D.C.’s kids to college somewhere else.
That second piece is the hardest one. Even as it undertakes an ambitious building program to change its brutalist face and bring students to live on campus, it faces questions from the surrounding community about why it even wants to rise above its commuter school reputation. Breathless stories about Sessoms’ travel bills and home renovations don’t help the perception issue. Even Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, a staunch UDC supporter, said at the university’s budget oversight hearing this month that last year’s poor recordkeeping—-the institution is trying to computerize statistics that have long been kept in stacks of paper—-tried his patience.
“I was embarrassed when he told them about the university’s mixed-up numbers,” Barry told Sessoms from the dais. “We’re trying to defend the university budget, trying to negotiate some more money, but you really made it hard.”
It’s unclear that money will even solve the problem, though. In 2009, an analysis commissioned by the Brookings Institution and D.C. Appleseed found that UDC had a phenomenally high cost structure: $30,600 per student just in educational expenses, compared to $17,100 for peer institutions. A lot of that is tied up in labor costs mandated by statute for faculty who’ve been around for decades; the university is currently trying to renegotiate its contract with the teacher’s union, and their latest offer was rejected. Meanwhile, the university has had to raise tuition, which could make college unaffordable for some students even as it raises more money.
At the same time, UDC finally has a full, high-powered board of trustees, which had been left at half-capacity under the last administration. Maybe a shiny new student center will be a catalyst to start turning things around.
And maybe the institutional weight of decades of mismanagement and disrespect will be too heavy to shake off.
There’s a lot more to say here, and I’m researching a cover story to do that over the next few weeks. If you’re a student, alumnus, faculty member, or anybody else who knows something, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.